Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The iSlate of the Union: Jobs v. Obama

In celebration of January 27 being a tremendously important day for both Steve Jobs and President Obama, Slate recently published a cute mash-up of Steve Jobs giving the State of the Union address.

This article led to a conversation I had with some friends around the importance of marketing, communications, (and frankly, hype) when it comes to not just consumer marketing, but political marketing.

A prevailing view in this conversation was that if Barack Obama would only frame his initiatives like Steve Jobs does, he’d be enjoying much more success after his first year in office.   Further, there was a strong belief that President Obama needs to demonstrate the kind of leadership that Jobs is famous for displaying at Apple.  In other words, if Obama were to lead like Jobs, then Health Care Reform would be as successful as the iPod.   In other words, Obama’s policies need to “just work.”  

There are a lot of similarities here, and I think there are plenty of politicians that can and should learn from successful marketers like Jobs.  However, I am not convinced that passing “progressive” policy like health care reform is anything like selling an iPod.  Similarly, creating progressive policy is nothing like developing any hi-tech gadget. 

Creating and passing progressive policy requires a different type of leadership, because the dynamics could not be more different:  With policy, you are forcing people to buy something.  With product, you are asking people to buy something.  True, if more policies were developed with the 'ask' mentality, they may have a higher chance of succeeding.  But politicians in Washington know that, unlike an Apple project that is under wraps for years, making policy is pretty transparent, and allow Americans to weigh in on the design mid-way through the process.  That of course has the effect of modifying the product and veering away from the original goals.   In other words, in order to make a legislative iPod, one would have to change the rules of law making. 

Another difference between iPods and progressive policy is that, time and time again, progressive policy sets a course into new territory, and forces everyone to be part of the journey.   Not surprisingly, many who benefit from the status quo have no interest in mucking with success.   And if the majority of Americans benefit from the status quo in health care, good luck getting them to buy an upgrade.   Whereas if Apple gets 10% of a given market, it’s a huge commercial success.  10% approval ratings for health care reform would be seen as a complete flop.

None of this, however, excuses Obama and the Democrats for completely mucking up the health care reform process.  They let themselves lose the public debate on the merits, and, worse, allowed themselves to fall into the 'means to an end' mentality that sent the policy off the rails, and gave their opposition much spark by crafting deals that resemble Mafia payoffs more than legislative horse trading.  

A year ago, Barack Obama was inaugurated with a feel of Apple-like fanboydom surrounding him.  Within that year, he "saved" the economy and the auto industry, and lost that argument with the majority of Americans.  Soon, Jobs will be unleashing his latest achievement that has been years in the making, where he will likely be heralded as saving the publishing industry, just like he did the music industry with iTunes/iPod.  

Seems to me that President Obama could learn a thing or two about publicity and story shaping from Jobs as they do seem to have a few things in common.