Sunday, 13 January 2008

Barack Obama and "Change" - Does He Really Lack Detail?

There's been a lot of newsprint devoted lately to how Barack Obama lacks detail when talking about the "change" that he will bring about. A lot of that criticism comes from the campaign office of Hillary Clinton, of whom I've written before (Hi, Mom!). Mom, of course, has all the details required to make change happen, right at her fingertips.

But she, and all the analysts, are missing a very important part of why Barack Obama does not need to spell out how he's going to bring about change. Barack Obama is the change. People everywhere see it, and people everywhere will treat him differently, setting aside their own prejudices of what an American president is, giving him a fresh hearing, being willing to listen to what he says and even doing what he requests them to do. That's significant.

I'm approaching this very personally and viscerally, just as with my earlier analysis of Hillary Clinton. I can put Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, George Bush (both father and son), and any number of previous US presidents in the same mental box, regardless of party affiliation. But I cannot put Barack Obama in the same box. He doesn't belong! I never realised that ethnicity could play such an important part in perception. Much as I want to be colour-blind, I find I cannot.

Barack Obama is clearly not part of the US political establishment traditionally dominated by middle-aged white men. As any brand consultant will tell you, that positions him differently. The brand equity of the US political establishment is entirely negative (remember Truman's "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog"?) Obama's involuntary positioning benefits him a great deal, not only in the US, but more importantly, in the rest of the world.

I'm aware of my thought processes, and I can't be alone in this:

Barack Obama => not middle-aged white man
Not middle-aged white man => not part of traditional US political establishment
Not part of traditional US political establishment => good guy

Barack Obama is a good guy. Whoever I am, my defenses are down. I am disarmed.

So now if a President Barack Hussein Obama sits down with leaders in the Middle East and puts together a peace treaty, there's likely to be far greater buy-in than if another middle-aged white man in that role does the same thing. His appearance, and his name, promise a far greater chance at peace than the details of the accord.

Another area where I predict he would have immense influence is in India-Pakistan relations. Indian leaders don't trust the US because of its past (and continuing) history as an ally of Pakistan. Paradoxically, Pakistanis don't seem to trust the US either, because it hasn't been a reliable ally (Example: Ignoring India's protests, the US sold F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. Then they took payment but refused to deliver the jets because of nuclear concerns. They didn't refund the money either. Some ally. The Indians chuckled but somehow didn't see this as reason to start trusting the US.)

The current US ability to broker a peace deal between India and Pakistan is virtually zero, and it has everything to do with credibility. But enter a president with none of that historical baggage, and everything changes.

The solution to the India-Pakistan logjam is simple and stares everyone in the face, but has no chance of implementation in the current political climate. It's about accepting the status quo in Kashmir and then moving on with development, trade and all-round progress. India will never give up the part of Kashmir that it controls, and neither will Pakistan give up the other. This situation has remained static for decades. For a solution to the impasse, no real exchange of territory need actually take place. All that is required is for each party to admit publicly that they are not going to get "back" any territory from the other.

I will wager that if a certain President Barack Obama drops by in 2009 and gets the leaders of India and Pakistan to sign an accord that recognises this reality, the people of both countries will accept it. I'm not talking about the lunatic or fanatic fringe on either side. They can never be won over. It's the common people who will accept the bona fides and huge perceived moral authority of this different US President and do what he asks.

Once again, the clincher will not be in the details. It will be the person.

Hillary Clinton cannot pull this off. A white woman will not command any more authority than a white man, and in the subcontinent, may even command less, sad to say. No amount of mastery of detail will help when it comes to influencing people.

It's not what you know, it's who you are.

Barack Obama is The Man.

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