Thursday, July 17, 2008

Organizing for the Presidency (and a ding on the US press)

As the presidential campaign heads into the dog days of summer, two issues remain front and center for many who are not supporting Senator Obama: 1) Does he have the experience for the job and 2) What will he be like as president?

We live in turbulent times and, in many ways, the problems and risks we face are like nothing we have seen before. Instead of working from a well-tested play-book from the past, our next president will be forced to develop creative new ways of tackling challenges as diverse as national security and international relations, energy and health care policy, the post credit-bust economy, and more. All the while the next president will have to win back the confidence of the American public by ensuring them (especially the 45-50% who voted for the loser) that he can be a President that ALL Americans can be proud off. This is no easy task and it is easy for someone to question how Obama will deal with these issues.

One clue into Obama's skill as President really comes from the campaign organization he has developed. Throughout the primary and into the early parts of the general election the campaign has been a case study in discipline and professionalism. Little has come from the campaign in the way of leaks or major controversy (the same can't be said for the Clinton campaign or the McCain campaign). Despite building a far-reaching organization that has hit every state in the land, little has come in the way of publicly displayed infighting Despite being the "inexperienced" candidate, Obama has shown a managerial skill we have sorely lacked the last eight years. A great example of Obama's organization also provides some insight into his potential ability as the occupant of the West Wing. A recent article on Obama's foreign policy team was published in the International herald Tribune. It details an organization of 300 (mostly volunteer) foreign policy advisers that help funnel critical information to the candidate on a daily basis. The article describes the organization as "a tight-knit group of aides supported by a huge 300-person foreign policy campaign bureaucracy, organized like a mini State Department, to assist a candidate." Further, the article quote an Obama campaign official as saying:

"It is unwieldy, no question," said Denis McDonough, 38, Obama's top foreign policy aide, speaking of an infrastructure that has been divided into 20 teams based on regions and issues, and that has recently absorbed, with some tensions, the top foreign policy advisers from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential campaign. "But an administration is unwieldy, too. We also know that it's messier when you don't get as much information as you can."

The group includes a small paid staff and a cadre of volunteers including the likes of Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher, both former Secretaries of State. Of course this group will be tested in the coming weeks as Obama begins his overseas trip and this will give us some insight into Obama's capability as president. But, equally important, is the comparison of this group to that advising McCain:

Obama's Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona, has a far smaller and looser foreign policy advisory operation, about 75 people in all, and none are organized into teams.

The early end to the Republican primary season gave McCain several months of a head start to build an organization that will support the campaign and form the base for a potential presidency. But, when we look at the many missteps and recent reorganization of the McCain campaign one has to wonder about the overall management capability of John McCain and how his skills will map onto the challenges faced by the next President.

My own interactions with the Obama campaign also provides some interesting insights. Last month the campaign launched the Organizing Fellows program and which trained and dispatched more than 3000 organizers out into the field. Just a few days into the start of the program I was contacted by one of the Fellows assigned to Central PA. The organizing fellows quickly tapped into local volunteer networks to organize dozens of events and register hundreds of voters. The skill they have shown in just a few short weeks is a testimony to the overall campaign.

One just has to visit the Obama website to see all the ways in which one can interact and be a part of the campaign. In contrast, just last week I visited the John McCain website in an effort to see what kind activities were running in my area. Despite my best efforts, all I could find was a phone number for the Ohio-PA regional office.

In talking to members of the paid staff, I have also been impressed with the way the campaign can coordinate actions between HQ and the local offices. I'm told that even the most distant staffers have the ability to get information to the top which is a far cry from the isolated bubble of our current President.

In short, I believe the Obama campaign, as a whole, and his foreign policy group, as a specific example, provide an nice preview into the way Obama will tackle the challenge of the Presidency. It seems clear to me he has the management skills necessary for the job as well (not to mention communication skills). McCain, on the other hand has shown some weaknesses in this area despite having had several months of a head start.

Finally, a little ding on the US press. The article mentioned earlier on Obama's foreign policy advisory team is a great example of how reporting ought to be done. It provides some detailed insight into how a candidate will organize and access information, two critical aspects of the job. The US press could learn from this type of reporting and perhaps focus on these types of details rather than Obama's workout schedule.

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