President-elect Barack Obama’s job interview with the American public is over. And now the pundits are analyzing how and why he won. As they do so, let’s take their conclusions about some of his negotiation-related qualities and consider how he might use them in his upcoming negotiations with Congress and the rest of the world.
1. Long-term strategic focus on his goals.
I often say in my seminars that “you can’t negotiate strategically if you don’t know where you want to end up at the end of the day. You first need to figure out where you want to end up – your goals – and then design and implement a strategic way to get there.”
Obama has diligently and consistently articulated one main message since at least his keynote at the 2004 Democratic Convention – fundamental change involving a new bipartisan approach to politics. While there have been diversions, his message discipline and focus on implementing that message have been extraordinary.
If Obama and his Administration can maintain this same proactive strategic focus in dealing with Congress and the rest of the world, it will put him in very good stead. However, this will not be easy.
First, while a new President in the first 100 day honeymoon period has traditionally had a disproportionate ability to control the national agenda, another great campaign message maestro – President Bill Clinton (“It’s the economy, stupid!”) – lost much of his message focus shortly after taking the oath in 1993.
And second, unanticipated events and the media’s intense focus on reporting anything but the President’s intended “message” make this especially challenging. Of course, running a campaign and running the federal government are also vastly different undertakings.
2. An extraordinary ability to inspire.
Even Obama’s fiercest critics agree that he has an extraordinary ability to personally inspire millions to support him, write him checks, make phone calls, knock on doors and, of course, vote for him. This will be an extremely helpful quality in his upcoming negotiations.
How? Obama’s demonstrated ability to rally millions all over this country will give him leverage as he negotiates with Congress to pass his priority programs. Members of Congress are extremely sensitive to what their constituents want. And Obama’s ability to rally their constituents to his causes will go a long way to getting their votes on his issues.
President Ronald Reagan also had this quality, albeit with a different style, and he enjoyed a very effective first 100 days in 1981.
3. A steadiness and seriousness of purpose.
Finally, Obama has exhibited over the long campaign a calmness and seriousness of purpose that has made many comfortable with him as a potential commander-in-chief. Little seems to rile him. This quality combined with his intelligent understanding of the issues will help him as he personally negotiates with key Members of Congress whose votes he needs to move his agenda forward.
Years ago I was a teaching fellow for a course on political campaigns at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The class was relatively small and I got to know a very bright student in class who exhibited a particularly fine grasp of the subtleties involved in political campaigns.
Even then, we could see his strategic focus, inspirational potential, and steadiness and seriousness of purpose. Of course, his name was Barack Obama. And now he will have the chance to put those qualities to work in his negotiations with Congress and the rest of the world.