Obama transition advice

November 5, 2008 by
Filed under: Politics 


‘A new dawn has broken has it not?’ said Tony Blair on May 2nd 1997. Those of us who were part of the New Labour team win will find our excitement at Barack Obama’s victory tinged with poignant memories of eleven years ago and an urgent desire to warn of the perils of sky high expectations.

We already know that Barack Obama is a very special man. He has had to overcome personal and social hurdles higher than those that faced Tony Blair. And America is a very different country to the UK, with power more dispersed at the centre and in the states. But with Capitol Hill in the Democrats’ hands, and the Republicans about to enter several years of soul searching, Obama does have scope to deliver the change he promised. So what are the lessons of New Labour that the advisors to President Elect Obama should heed?

– Being in power is different to campaigning for power. Some of the best people in the fight to win office lack the patience, gravitas or personal skills to be in office. Obama will need to have some tough conversations with some good friends. The message needs to change and the way of telling it too. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo said ‘you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose’. Labour lost goodwill when they looked like they were turning Whitehall into a second Millbank.

– Under promise and over deliver. Expectations for Obama are sky high but while everyone is hanging on his every word he has the opportunity to define success. Making grand pledges now makes for great headlines today when you don’t need them and accusations of failure when times aren’t so good. Much better to promise only what you can deliver and surprise people when the achievements outstrip the promises.

– Take the time to understand the last Government’s policies. It is the job of oppositions to traduce everything the incumbent has done. Things seem so much simpler from outside.  It is vital to take the time to listen to those who have been inside Government, and can tell you why decisions were made, and which policies (however they may look from outside) might actually work. In 1997 Labour made the mistake of reversing the Conservative health reforms assuming these were inspired merely by ideology. In fact those reforms were the result of deep frustration with other change strategies, as Labour found out to its cost in term two. Iraq is the obvious area where Obama will need to make the transition from campaigning to decision making.

– Do the difficult stuff early. Tony Blair became a better domestic Prime Minister as the years passed.  Unfortunately by the time he really got to grips with the job his political capital was in decline and much of the extra Government investment had already been committed. Obama needs to use the enthusiasm he now has, especially on his own side, to make hard choices.

– Don’t be seduced by the new toys. Labour ministers spent several years pulling levers in their Whitehall offices before anyone had the heart to tell them the levers weren’t actually attached to anything outside. Naturally, when you take office you want to believe you can do anything. But power isn’t like that and neither is society. President Obama needs to develop a clear understanding of the locus of his powers. In its early years Labour too often did things to people (local government, public service workers) rather than with them. As a result natural allies became disillusioned and the centre became chronically overloaded. It takes longer to persuade others to work in partnership but it is a much more realistic way of making change stick.

The reason above all why Barack Obama is such an exciting politician is his ability to engage people directly, to make them feel part of the change. This was one of the reasons his campaign was so special. He illustrated this quality – something he shares with JFK – in his brave speech about race after the Jeremiah Wright row. The new President must carry on explaining to people that real change can only come when government and people share ambitions and the responsibility for achieving them. This is transformative leadership. It is the value added great politicians bring. It is what can make Obama the brilliant campaigner into Obama the great President.

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  • Fleece

    Obama – America’s Reflection of Itself

    Yes, I too was extremely proud to see a “Black Family” poised to move into the “White House” however, after two days, it dawned on me that what was happening was America getting ready to embrace its “lesser-self”.
    What does this mean?

    In light of the election, in light of Obama’s great victory, in light of the media excitement comes the reality that America has recoiled. In the coming age of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), in the coming age of developing countries and new markets especially in the Middle East, America is no longer the centre rather, it is accepting that it will have to reorganise and reprioritise itself to survive to remain in the New World Order power circle. Already it has become apparent that China will play a big role in its energy and trade outlook. Gordon Brown’s trip to the Middle East has also highlighted the diversification and interesting dynamic position which Obama will be placing America in.

    The acceptance became clear in Obama’s campaign; “Yes we can”. Ok, America you can, you will come out looking strong initially, however, the true nature of your strength will come in the next three years when you will have to face serious questions and make decisions about internal energy diversification (i.e. will it begin to look at the Brazil Model), Nuclear proliferation as the rise of the BRICS continue, international duty militarily.

    What does this mean for the world? Leverage on key world issues is changing. One only has to look at the situation in Sudan for instance to understand that it is the Chinese and not American intervention that will change the course of that region. In the Eastern Block of Europe, Russia is becoming more bullish in its strength as they begin to build on the leverage and relations they have had for years with countries considered less until now. In the Middle East, the money is clearly speaking shouting more loudly than everything else.

    Yes, Obama can inspire, but ultimately he is going to convey and help America confront with its demons of regression. America has decided to step back and look inward once again to begin a process of internal rebuilding of what it represents in the approaching World which will see China and India rise, United Europe economically as a concept gain more attention, Russia taken dead serious and developing countries as viable places to invest in.

    Yes, change has come, transformative leadership is here for America, it is here for them to realise that the head of the world stage is soon going to become a crowded platform! My only worry is that on issues like the environment, aid and international development, trade; is it too late for the new administration in America to begin to influence the emerging powers on their current conduct and outlooks in these matters?

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