Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The Biggest 'Missed Opportunity' of Obama's Presidency

Allow me to turn my penchant for marketing innovation onto the American political scene, or stalemate, for a moment, by suggesting something that the Democrats could learn from the Republicans, and involves leveraging the cohort that the Republicans are cocksure is going to be their future, but I believe are going to become predominantly 'centrist', 'swing voters'.
Exec Summary: In the summer of 2008, Barack Obama's election team managed, under his direction and through his background in community organizing, to invent something revolutionary through the WWW. They created a "community education tool" that functioned independently of the election team. It involved clever, motivated people who organized open house style coffee klatch get-togethers that brought open-minded, interested 'swing voters' from a broad spectrum of age and demographic cohorts, into discussions about political issues that were important to them, their families and the future of their country.

As opposed to the current phenomenon being called 'tea parties' (leveraging, in part, the same kind of community organization tools), the get-togethers that Obama's team initiated managed to educate average folks about fairly complex issues. The 'tea parties' foment the old propaganda tool of 'fear mongering' and attract a cohort that is older, very fearful of change and rigidly conservative (and largely white).

Interesting that, since his election, Obama has done absolutely nothing with the unique new tool his people leveraged to such powerful effect in '08, all he's done is dive deeply into 'politics as usual' in Washington. My question is, if he DID try to put that educational tool to work now to spread understanding and the truth about health care (for example) through communities across America, would it work? It might not 'gain traction', but on the other hand it could become a powerful new political tool to balance out the 'tea partiers' and the campaign of mis-information that the Republicans have used so effectively to counter issues like opinions on climate change.
Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, came out with 5 points about how Obama's new health care compromise bill is 'bad for Louisiana, bad for America' yesterday.  Interesting that all of his points are about costs.  Interesting because of one simple fact, one out of every two people on the planet are not so smart, and in America, given the gradual decline of education quality in that country, increasingly more than half are not as well educated as they could be.

When I claim half of our human population is not so smart, I'm merely talking about the bell curve of intelligence, where 100 is in the middle and the population spreads out on either side of it:

When you take into account the people who may have an IQ above 100, but just can't be bothered to take the time or exert the energy to try to understand issues, you quite a large majority of the population who don't really 'get' the finer points of any given political debate.  It's not that they're incapable of functioning in society!  It's merely that grasping intricate concepts, like a healthcare bill, takes more work for this majority than for the 16.1% at the far right side of the curve.  This speaks to the single largest 'missed opportunity' of Obama's presidency so far, and perhaps the biggest revolution in democracy that he could have left as his global legacy.   More on that in a moment.

What the Republicans, quite consciously and consistently, have always done strategically in manipulating their 'base' is take advantage of average Americans' tendency to look for easy, simple explanations of complex issues.  These folks, the GOP leaders, largely male and of a certain personality type (you don't get elected without being driven to achieve power and influence), work very hard to maintain their party's objectives which revolve not around using society to benefit the underprivileged, but rather to preserve the status quo -- and by default, if America is all about the 'free market', that means the Republican party is the protector of the 'market' (big business) being 'free' to make as much money as possible from the American consumers across the board.

Fortunately, democracy's greatest benefit to human kind is the fact that, while not a perfect political system, it is the only one to build-in inherent checks and balances to keep human nature from screwing over the little guy/gal (also known as the 'have nots').  When, in the ongoing battle between the 'givers' and the 'greedies' (Democrats vs. Republicans), one side starts to either give or take too much, voters put the other party back in control.

Oh,  sure, staunch Republican supporters are going to be up in arms that I'm suggesting their party does not have their best interests at heart at all times, but the reality is that the Republican party represents both big business (and therefore both short-term profit-taking and the establishment) and frightened, change-averse, generally white, older Americans.  What is so ironic about the American system is that big business consistently gets their way by manipulating the hearts and minds of the very people their 'investors' (big business campaign contributors) profit most from.

The most audacious thing to come out of Republican politicians mouths in the run up to the healthcare debate was "We support the right of American families to CHOOSE what healthcare insurance they want" -- the net result of that concept being that millions of American families cannot afford to make any choice about what insurance to buy -- they cannot afford it.  Hence it's the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are willfully literally condemning hundreds of thousands of Americans to an untimely demise through their policies.

On the other hand, the Democrats represent unions and doing the right thing for the average American (of every age and color) over the long run (yes, I'm being simplistic).  They only get the opportunity to do so, however, when the Republicans screw things up sufficiently to allow the Democrats to get another shot at implementing what's best for the average American.

Bobby Jindal, as one of the prominent voices of his party, is working hard to pull the wool over the eyes of average Americans (see bell curve above) right now by speaking to something simple and easy to understand: "costs".  Why this is so effective on one hand (and sadly pathetic because it does work) and ironic on the other, is the simple fact that the 90% of Americans who are not wealthy enough to re-mortgage their house to pay to treat a major illness NEED universal health care, just as every human being on the planet does.  Health care costs.  Someone has to pay for it.  In every successful instance of universal heath care on the planet it is the taxpayer (i.e. the government) who pays for it.

What the Republicans and their investors are so upset about is the fact that any shift toward universal health care merely shifts CONTROL over profits out of the hands of big business and effectively regulates how much profit they can extract from consumers.  The knee-jerk reaction of their hugely change-averse base (and the few loud reactionaries within it who howl loudest against anything they brand "bigger government") works effectively in firing up resistance to regulation, but it makes no sense for the people who desperately need government support to cover healthcare costs.

Bobby Jindal is 100% right about "costs".  Healthcare costs in America are ridiculous -- criminal, in fact.  Someone is making a lot of money bilking all those average Americans and does not want to give up any of that profit.  When you make the changes that average Americans need, shifting the burden of paying for a portion of healthcare away from individuals and making that portion the responsibility of taxpayers (the government), it does cost.  It costs A LOT!  That's the whole idea, spreading the high cost of care for any desperately ill individual out amongst ALL taxpayers.  Bobby has figured it out!

His last point is the most pathetic, as he complains how Louisiana is going to have to pay for more medical support of its populace at a time when the government needs to demonstrate 'fiscal restraint'.  Yeah, the poorest people in Louisiana need some healthcare support during this period, Bobby.  The federal government is legislating that the State has to help them.  Those are the people who helped put you in the Governor's seat, Bobby.  (His ability to talk out both sides of his mouth is quite mind boggling!)

Ignoring what the People need in order to bamboozle them into helping the Republicans' biggest investors maintain their profits is the full-time job of elected Republicans.  They cannot do this with clever, well-educated and open-minded Americans, but as the latter are not in the majority, Republicans prey on the American's who nod along with Bobby as he rails against "higher costs" (even if they may not particularly like the color of his skin...  change is painful, and Bobby is the color of the new America!).  Of COURSE there are higher costs for the government!  How else do you implement a program to provide 'free', unconditional care to every American?

But what does any of this have to do with President Obama's biggest 'missed opportunity'?  Glad you asked.  Barack Obama got elected, in large part, because of two key things:
  1. A consistent, never wavering strategic message: "Hope for Change".
  2. Energizing, in part through this message, in part through superb use of new technology and media channels, in part through who he is, in part because of the timing of his entry onto the stage, a significant portion of the eligible voting base who normally do not vote.
Since the election, however, the President has virtually ignored both the substance behind his message and that brand new, highly energized and motivated, generally youthful group he brought together.

Think about that.  Outside of a Facebook fan page and linked website that basically work merely as new news media channels to update us on what he's doing in Washington, nothing.

What he has done is 'drill down' into the establishment, the way that Washington functions, the backroom dealing, the congress and senate numbers game, the lobbyists, handling the media, etc.  He walked away from engaging, in any real way other than broadcasts of his speeches, with his constituents.  Oh, he has been very busy, but he's only one man and has turned all his attention to becoming the best player in America at Washington's political game.

I believe that he is passing up an opportunity to have embraced 'hope for change' instead of embracing the status quo and try to change it from within -- the status quo in Washington has been built up over more than two centuries and will exist long after President Obama is gone.  What he built prior to being elected, however, that is something new, very 'democratic' and filled with the potential for real change.

What could he do differently? you might be wondering.  Something relatively small, but absolutely simple, easy and revolutionary in the history of democracy.  He could be leveraging his base, like the Republicans have done and continue to do so effectively.  Why do I say that President Obama's use of his base might be revolutionary while the Republicans' use of theirs is merely business as usual?  Because of point #2 above.

As just one example, the Republicans have succeeded in shifting the public opinion of the entire country with a continuous stream of false information on a single topic: climate change.  All the good work Al Gore did over almost a decade has been eradicated in a little over a year by the Republicans and their supporters (they've done so with the support of a couple of paid-off neo-scientists against THE ENTIRE GLOBAL POPULATION OF SCIENTISTS!).  Public opinion on the role of humans' interference upon global warming has gone from a majority believing it has had an effect, to the opposite.  Wow!  THAT's an effective use of both the media and the Republicans' grassroots base, but then the Republicans have been leveraging this tool for decades, while the Democrats don't even try.

Historically, support for the Democrats at a grassroots level has been largely restricted to university campuses which have occasionally spilled over to marches on Washington.  Sure, you could claim that there's also some chatter in support of the Democrats agenda going on at dinner parties, union meetings and amongst journalists in major news media, but that's all at a level above 'grassroots'.  What Obama's campaign team did (NOT the Democrats across the board -- look at their recent campaign failures) was actually stir up and organize grassroots support and intense activity that benefited the Democrats agenda.

Ironically we live in an age when the Republicans' entire reason for being -- absolute control by big business of what their financial supporters sell us and how -- is being undermined. We live in a new age in which the consumers are in control.  The internet has transformed the way human beings interact, not just across town, but around the planet (and it is about to change even more fundamentally, see my post about instantaneous, free, universal translation).  Companies are slowly (but virtually instantaneously, compared to the scale of change today versus the past 200 years!) changing the fundamentals of how they are organized and do business.  Very big change is coming down the pipe for the companies that support the Republicans -- those companies will adapt and survive, but the Republicans' ancient agenda, in its traditional form, cannot.

But one of the biggest transformations that the Republicans are faced with is within their base.  You need new members to enter at the bottom of your voter base to replace the oldest who are dying off, and in their case, many fledgling Republicans, the older Republicans' own kids, defected to Obama's camp in the last presidential election.  These kids are growing up in a world that is truly global.  The same iPhones that connect them to friends next door connect them to the internet and to potential friends in Zimbabwe, in China, in Pakistan, etc., who ALSO own iPhones.

The music this generation listens to, and the style of the pants (and underpants!) they wear, come from artists who's family roots trace back to slaves owned by their own Republican great-grandparents.  These kids grew up with African-Americans as their Secretary of State (male AND female), their pop heros, their mayors and governors, their greatest sports heros (even in golf...) and now their President.  They've evolved from infants to young adults with females and openly gay people all around them in power positions and gay/androgynous stars at the top of the charts (Lady Gaga being the most current).  They're colour/gender blind for the most part.

These kids grew up believing they were all 'special' and that you don't have to work hard to get trophies.  This generation grew up watching their favorite animal species being put on extinction lists, and in their lives they'll see the very last of those species be wiped out in their wild habitats as humans rapidly encroach upon their habitats and relentlessly hunt them down.  (The rise in net wealth amongst a billion extremely superstitious Chinese consumers of exotic animal organs/glands/ivory, as well as their government's unprecedented investment in Africa, makes the later inevitable.)

These young people are entering adulthood with fully 1/3 of them obese (higher in Louisiana, Bobby), and with at least 50% being heavier than is really healthy.  They are literally going to die sooner than their parent's or grandparents generation from obesity-related health issues.  These young Americans KNOW that human beings need help to resist the things that American corporations concoct, manufacture and advertise to them.  That help, via regulation, is NOT going to come from self-policing amongst the corporations, the way that Republicans claim it will.  It cannot.  Competition means that every corporation has to up its ante constantly -- if one restaurant chain offers larger portions, their competitors have to follow suit.  The availability of steadily more addictively tasty convenience foods at lower prices is inevitable.

We are talking about the 'entitled generation' and they expect to be looked after without putting out much effort.  (They are also going to have to support their retired parents' generation's pensions.)  This new generation is going to look to Sweden and the other countries that have the world's highest standards of living and say: "Give me more of that!"  More 'government', more taxes, more services, cradle to grave care.  And why shouldn't Americans enjoy those benefits, exactly?  Because some of the richest people in America want to remain the richest?  I suspect this new generation is going to demand change, and change for the greater good, the type of change the Democrats want to enact over time.

Human beings cannot 'self-police'.  Want beyond need is built into our uniquely human form of consciousness, into our genes and our brains' wiring.  Greed drives us and without government to govern us, the greediest few amongst us will always take advantage of the rest.

Frankly, while there will always be change-averse individuals in America, this new generation takes change for granted, they embrace it.  Not a rosy picture for the future of the Republicans, the 'Grand Old Party'!  Given that, at its core, the Republican platform is one of clinging to "That's the way we've always done things" and "No change!", by its nature there does not appear to be any way it can survive the next few decades, with Cindy McCain and Liz Cheney, or without.

It is this new cohort entering voting age, along with those amongst the previous generation who share a zeal for change, that President Obama, in his zeal to embrace Washington and try to tame it, is ignoring.  It is in the nature of a guy with his intelligence and personality type to dive into the shark tank and try to both understand all the mechanics and work to turn them to his advantage, but in doing so  he may be passing up the one thing that would have made his legacy a truly global one, and that's simply continuing to engage and empower his biggest fans, a broad slice of the "Gen X" cohort and a lot of the so-called "Millennials" (aka "Gen-Yers") who can be harnessed as rabid activists for change.

Both of these groups are out there, the former busy with their adult lives, the latter tapping furiously on their mobile phone key pads, surfing the web, blogging and Twittering, getting their first jobs and quitting them to go to Latin America and build schools for a year...  The more open-minded Gen-Xers and all the Millennials embrace change and are ready to embrace big issues, they are largely color blind and want to make a difference (perhaps more so than ANY previous generation, even that of their Boomer 'flower child' grandparents), but President Obama's campaign machine workers have gone back to their regular jobs and no one is empowering and engaging this new group of political powerhouses, putting them to work.

What work would I have them do?  Simple, get them to set up open-house get-togethers just like they did during his campaign, but use these gatherings to explain the benefits of universal health care and carbon cap and trade to their neighbors.  Have a discussion, not with the rabid 'tea party' members, but with average folks, the centrists, the 'swing-voters', the same people who say they are 100% in support of government support to pay for their healthcare, but are 100% against the bill to put it in place (hey, I don't understand all the intimidating details either).

I'd turn this entire group into a grassroots education machine: via the internet and led by the sharpest thinkers amongst them, train them how to go out door to door, with level-heads and simple words, to spread the truth about the long term benefits of the Democrats plans, to counter the half-truths (I'm being generous) and subterfuge of the Republicans and bring things back into balance, something that America's future needs so badly, by dousing the flames of willful ignorance.  What I'm talking about is basically taking the discussions that happen so often around the table at university coffee houses across the country into the milieu of barbers' chairs, coffee klatches and playground chats.  Impossible in the past, but very possible today given the power of the WWW, mobile phone apps, social media and a young generation who want to make a difference, but are currently not being called upon.

Just a thought.

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