lessons from America

We the People – James Smith

After the meal at the We the People inaugural gala, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to do a sit-down interview with one of the nicest guys I met all week – James Smith. Lucky in another way as well, as it was by chance that the whole thing happened. He had originally approached me to take some photos of him and I’d half-jokingly said yes as long as I could do an interview. Not only did he agree, but he even came looking for me after dinner so I didn’t miss my moment. And he was also okay with having Meghan filming away too. The downside to that was that my note-taking wasn’t as meticulous as it should have been, and I will have to go back to the video footage to add in a few more details I didn’t scribble down. But here’s the main part of the profile:

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James Smith is from Bay City, Texas. He was a precinct captain, including during the primaries. Having been involved in it, he was a fan of the “Texas two-step” – the unique process of holding both a primary and a caucus to decide the state’s allocation of delegates to the Democrat Convention.

He was keen to get himself to Denver, for the Convention, and managed to get a pass to the Big Tent, just like me. We had some fun recounting our experiences there.

He erected an Obama banner outside his front porch. When Hurricane Ike struck [in Sept 2008], despite the devastation around, the banner was still standing. That was a powerful moment for him, a sign that he was doing the right thing.

He was involved in a Labor Action Committee and also in setting up a group for African-Americans too. He didn’t just campaign in Texas either. He hit the road and travelled to various other key states to lend a hand too.

One of the main political drivers in his life is his wife, Joyce Black. She is christian-minded, a community activist and seeking to get more involved in local politics. He was looking forward to devoting more energy to supporting her campaigns, as well as some of the local committees that he was involved in.

James was accompanied by Celeste Flye, his wife’s cousin. Celeste works in the real estate business in Las Vegas. She had been slightly less involved in campaigning for Obama, but even so it was interesting to hear the passion in her voice talking about it and in her determination to throw herself into making change at a local level. She had already found an issue that affected her community and that she wanted to make a difference to: proposed cuts in prison services and in rehabilitation programmes because of a state budget shortfall.

Again, Celeste had been brought into the political process and motivated by her cousin Joyce. I would have loved to have met this woman, as she sounds an amazing person and was often and affectionally referred to by both James and Celeste.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We the People – Latifah Ring

Rather belatedly, here are some of the stories of the inspiring activists I met at the We the People gala in DC on the evening of the Inauguration.


First up, is Latifah Ring. She was one the fifty-odd award winners at the gala, chosen one-per-state and given a free ticket based on their stand-out volunteering effort for Obama during the many months of the election campaign.

She’s a Texan, was selected as an Obama delegate to the Democrat Convention (here’s her bio and pitch she made to be a delegate), and like so many got involved in many different ways and roles. At some point during it all, as a way of increasing the visibility of the Obama campaign, she had the great idea of collecting election-related t-shirts and sewing them into a quilt. She proudly displayed her efforts at the ball.

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So many people were clamouring to see the quilt and ask her about it, that I didn’t have a chance to ask her more questions at the time, and didn’t manage to find her again amongst the dancing crowds later.

February 8, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Lessons from the Obama campaign – a branding specialist’s perspective

I’ve been to or taken part in a number of ‘lessons from America’ / ‘lessons for the UK from the Obama campaign’ type sessions over the past few months. Not all have yet produced any output. Here’s one I didn’t get to, but has reached some published conclusions, which a friend [thanks Danny] kindly circulated.

There are a few good points here, in amongst the obvious or more basic stuff. It is all solid advice for solid party political campaigners. There’s nothing really radical though; nothing that is going to shake up politics in the way the Obama campaign did in the US. Let me know what you think. I did my own version before Christmas and will post that up here shortly as a compare and contrast exercise.

Brand Democracy seminar, 20 January 2009

Six key things to learn from Obama’s campaign:

1. Understand who you can reach and what motivates them
2. Think politically. Consider your opposition in everything you do
3. Understand your vulnerabilities then deal with them
4. Use polling to find a message then stick with it
5. Make sure your communications make people feel included
6. Question the perceived wisdom

More detailed analysis:

1. Understand who you can reach and what motivates them
· Obama campaign: Obama played into the anti-business, anti-Washington feeling of the public
· Lessons learnt: Who is winnable and what are their attitudes/ priorities? Who is losable? Via polling
· Need to understand social change in society
· Campaign simulation polling

2. Think politically

· Obama campaign: Key to success was about creating a ‘change structure’. Obama beat Clinton but eliminating her as the ‘change agent’ eg making her seem as part of the Washington elite, no change from the past. It wasn’t a positive vision of the future but instead a contrast to the present.
· Lessons learnt: think competitively

3. Understand vulnerabilities and deal with them

· Obama campaign: Obama attacked on race (Rev Wright) and being unpatriotic/ disloyal to the US. He took these vulnerabilities head on (eg he didn’t pretend it didn’t happen) via his speech on race and ensuring all speeches/ photo ops behind a backdrop of a US flag.
· Lessons learnt: be alive to your vulnerabilities, understand how to counter these attacks and do so robustly, ensure you stick to your core message

4. Regularly poll

Obama campaign:

· Obama campaign regularly tested their messages before going public, eg polling found that more people felt that close ties to special interest groups was more concerning that incompetence. Therefore Obama ran with McCain being too close to oil rather than him/Bush being incompetent. Obama also polled people following McCain’s decision to put his campaign on hold over the economy – polling came back to say they thought Obama should carry on with the debate which is what he did.

· Lessons learnt: Use messages that run with the grain of society; learn fast and respond quickly

5. Inclusive communications

Obama campaign:

· Emails to volunteers – very personal in tone creating an emotional connection and making clear that
actions were part of a higher purpose. First names only used (eg Dear James; from Barack). Gave a
clear enabling tool on how people could get involved.
· Video – volunteers signed up to the campaign received a weekly email with a link to a video update
from someone in Obama’s campaign team. Resulted in volunteers feeling that were part of the
campaign/ had an inside track.
· Understood the need to involve people, not just ask for money.
· Got local campaign volunteers to talk and recruit other local people

Lessons learnt:
· Understand who you can activate for your campaign and the tools to do so
· Competitive messages can get people to get involved, eg our opponents on this issue will be writing
to their MP so it’s really important that we do to ensure our voice is heard
· Text messaging and video footage (via you tube) will be essential in getting your message out
· Automated phone calls in the UK don’t work

6. Question wisdom

· Lessons learnt: get out of the Westminster village – don’t rely on the perceived wisdom
· Positive message is more important than a negative message

February 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Snow-bama and other highlights of a wintry London

Meghan came round last Sunday to do a bit more filming: me surrounded by and showing off all my inauguration memorabilia and special newspaper editions, that kind of thing. If only she had stayed around a few hours longer, she would have been able to capture my homage to Obama in the snow. Or rather an over-excited big kid building a mini-me of a snowman and recreating in my back garden that moment of history on the Mall.



And to continue the American theme, for the first time ever I made a proper snow angel in my garden too:




And so finally to some sledging fun, in the communal gardens of the flats where my godson and his parents live, just around the corner from me. Admittedly it is more entertaining doing it than watching a grainy video of me. No candid camera / you’ve been framed here, it all thankfully ends happily.

February 5, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Voices from the african ball

At last, some of those much promised snapshots of people I met during inauguration week; starting with the African Inaugural Ball.

1) Jessica:


She is in her mid-20s – a demographic that was by-and-large missing from this particular event – and was of Sierra Leonan descent. She was here with her friend Marie (on the right). Jessica wasn’t involved in the campaign at all, nor was especially interested in politics and campaigning. But she was volunteering as a steward at the Inauguration. She wanted to be part of the event and the celebrations, and also do something that reflected her African heritage (and this ball was cheaper than most, which was an added incentive).

2) Julius Mucunguzi

He works as communications officer, including with responsibility for African affairs, at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was in DC his job, but on a personal level was also very happy to be witnessing the inauguration events. He was interested in the effect Obama had and was going to have on how Africans see themselves. He hoped that they would gain confidence to hold their own leaders to account and bring about political change. He also thought Obama’s campaign might inspire more young people to become involved in politics, as long as the candidates gave them a similar level of attention and feeling of empowerment.

3) Edwin Okong’o


He was MC for the night, and also did a good line in stand-up comedy. His day job is communications director at New America Media – “the country’s first and largest national collaboration and advocate of 2000 ethnic news organizations; dedicated to bringing the voices of the marginalized – ethnic minorities, immigrants, young people, elderly – into the national discourse”. Or, as Edwin described it, “a Press Association for the ethnic press”. Amongst all the good things, he did express one note of caution to me: that the mainstream US media had focused a huge amount on Obama’s Kenyan ‘grandmother’, but had not broadened out their coverage much beyond that. So he was frustrated that there was little other showing Africa in a positive and non-stereotyped light, despite the opportunities.

4) Nelima

[with Edwin in the photo above] A fellow blogger, she writes for the Minnesota-based MinneAfrica, which covers all things African-related in that State. She was staying with her cousin, who lived in DC, and was very excited to be covering the week’s events. She had seen Obama speak at several rallies in the Twin Cities, and – like me – being at the inauguration was a chance to complete a journey.

5) Kristie and Julie


They were former PeaceCorps volunteers, who were now hoping that the America’s AIDS / HIV prevention programme (which they gave some credit to Bush for) would be able to expand at a greater pace. Together with their colleagues and fellow former volunteers around the table, they were at the ball to celebrate at an appropriate event for them. And they were looking forward to continuing their work campaigning on international health and development issues, now in a more sympathetic political climate.

February 1, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Getting Lyrical for Obama

All three inaugural balls I went to showcased different creative talents harnessed in support of Obama and getting him elected. At the Netroots Nation party it was the innovative use of online technology. At the We the People gala, it was the fruits of people’s own handiwork: button design, quilt-making (out of campaign t-shirts) and cake decoration.

At the African Inaugural ball it was the music that was the stand out feature of the night. And especially the Obama-themed performances. Not only did they capture the joy and hope that people at the event were feeling, but some were also great get-down-onto-the-dance-floor numbers too.

The highlight was emma ik agu, with his ‘Obama is the wind of change’ song. You can get a little flavour from the clip I took:

If you want to hear the full version of the song, listen to it below:

Another hit was this woman (a special guest performer whose name I never found out), with her ‘Obama train’ hip-hop.

Nelima of MinneAfrica blog has a round up of some of the other performers and people there.

Incidentally, the song of choice for the TV networks for much of their Inauguration coverage was’s ‘It’s a New Day’. This was his follow up to the iconic ‘Yes We Can’ song, which put Obama’s New Hampshire primary speech to music. ‘It’s a new day’ was released the day after Obama’s election victory, but somehow didn’t seem quite right then and never really took off. To me it wasn’t euphoric and upbeat enough for that moment back in November, but on inauguration day its tone and message seemed a much better fit. I heard it many times last week, so I’m guessing other people thought so too.

January 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Young Turks

What do you do if you are a bunch of high-spirited youths in DC at midnight, on the eve of the inauguration? The answer seems to be lead Obama chants, if the guys I met on the metro were anything to go by. They were working the small(ish) crowd waiting for the metro at Clarendon station.

Then they moved on to the train and continued in a similar vein for a while.

It did get me thinking how lyrical and good for chanting Barack Obama’s name is. A satisfying number of syllables and mouth shapes. Somehow “Gordon … Brown” doesn’t have the same melody to it. If you were being cruel, you might say that the flat solid sound is quite appropriate. Hey it almost reminds me of a clunking fist! I think David Cameron fares a little better, as there is more to intone there. Then perhaps it doesn’t matter for either man, as the chances of any but their most faithful supporters coping US traditions and chanting their name in a positive way is fairly slim.

On a more serious note, one of the guys on the metro was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “The Young Turks”


I asked him what it meant and he said it was promoting (as the blurb on their website goes) “the first nationwide liberal talk show and first live, daily internet TV news show”. Intriguingly, the wikipedia entry about The Young Turks says “The Young Turks is sometimes credited with bringing media attention and support to upstart politicians, especially in Congress. Notable examples include Congressmen Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, Eric Massa of New York, Larry Kissell of North Carolina, and Tom Periello of Virginia.” I have no first-hand knowledge of the site or show, so can’t verify that claim. But that is the kind of role that blogs and online communities play so much more in the States than they do here. I would be keen to see similar initiatives in the UK; with people championing less well known progressive candidates and helping to boost their profile and credibility through personal recommendations, online ‘air time’ and other ways of supporting their efforts.

January 29, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A Mall-rat’s perspective of the Inauguration ceremony

I have already got told off once today for calling what I witnessed a coronation. And my classification is not a judgement on Obama or his supporters, but on the spectacle of the occasion. For was it so much different than the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on 2nd June 1953 (not that I was alive then)? Yes, we lacked the gold, the carriages, the outward trappings of monarchy. But there was still the focus on one person invested with so much popular goodwilll formally attaining power; the adoring crowds; the rows of political and international elites; the taking of an oath; even a rendition (of sorts) of God Save the Queen. And more than that, there was the feeling of a grand historical occasion; of something that makes its way not just into textbooks, but into the hearts and minds of a nation; a day and an event that becomes part of the very fabric and identity of the country and its people.

However, 20 January 2009 was a day for citizens, not subjects; for the celebration of the political as well as the presidential. And that came very strongly through in the crowd reaction to the former presidents and other political figures as their entrance was announced.

First up Jimmy Carter: a hearty round of applause and cheering. On the audio I took of the event, I can clearly hear myself saying (to myself), “if only my tutor could see me now”. I don’t know where David Mervin is now, but he took my final year class on The US Presidency and never warmed to my attempts to resurrect the standing of Jimmy Carter or recognise his post-Presidency achievements as being beneficial to how he and the office of presidency were viewed. Well, this [and Carter’s Nobel Prize] are ample evidence of who won that argument.

Next up, Bush 41. A dignified but not warm welcome for the ageing Bush senior.

Followed by the entrance of Bill Clinton. There seemed little trace of the animosity he aroused during the Primary campaign; instead he was greeted a hero – perhaps as the prodigal son returning to the fold.

Compare that with what happened when Bush and Cheney entered:

I had expected – given the way Americans venerate the office of presidency and the solemnity of the ceremony – for Bush to be shown more respect, even through gritted teeth and reluctant hands. Even I was surprised (but heartened) at the scale of the boos greeting Bush. It may be unprecedented for an outgoing President to be treated in that way.

Now compare again with the way Obama was hailed when he made his entrance:

And also that moment of celebration after the oath had been taken and Obama had formally become the 44th President of the United States.

Incidentally, I believe constitutionally he is counted as taking office from midnight on the 20th, so this ceremony may even be unneccesary. That also explains the lack of panic over the need to re-do the oath: a precautionary measure because of the Chief Justice’s stumbles rather than to repair a constitutional crisis.

And so to those oaths. To me, it was one of the most emotional parts of the day. I had some of that same sense of euphoria and liberation as during those moments in Grant Park, Chicago, as Obama’s victory was officially declared. In both cases, it was partly about relief: this time relief that Dick Cheney was no longer V-P and a few minutes later Bush was no longer President. But also a sense of satisfaction, pride and optimism. Yet there was not the wild celebrations or intense emotional highs of election night. The cold probably numbed more than just feet and hands. But also I hadn’t fully appreciated beforehand the more solemn tone of proceedings. Nevertheless, there was still plenty of flag-waving and cheering to be had at the critical times.

First, Biden’s oath:

And then Obama’s:

In the coming days I’ll be putting more up on this site about the general atmosphere in DC during inauguration week, the inaugural balls and the stories of some of the people I met.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Inauguration morning – a view from the ground

Everyone I speak to back here in the UK say the same thing about the inauguration: “it looked cold”. Oh yes, it didn’t just look cold. It was cold. By my softy southerner standards, very cold. How did I survive? Whisky and chocolate. I enjoyed the excuse not only to start drinking before dawn, but also to eat as many Oreo cookies and chocolate-covered pretzels as I could manage. Hot drinks were out: not just because of the insane queues to get a cuppa, but because drinking tea or coffee increased the chances of having to use the porta-potties (more queues again, as well as the unpleasant experience).

My enthusiasm for getting a good spot on the Mall meant that I dragged out Meghan, Lewis and Tracy shortly after 5am and we were on the Mall by 6am – a full 6 hours before that magic swearing-in moment. Here is a satellite image from that morning, marked up with our location (click on the image for a larger version):


Seeing the sun rise over the Capitol was a definite plus and we hoped the temperature would rise appreciably too. That sadly wasn’t the case. The cold seeped from the ground, through the newspapers I was standing on, through my boots and into my feet – despite 3 pairs of socks, including one really thick woollen pair. No matter how wrapped up we were, the cold still got through.

There were some clever people next to us who had brought buckets to stand on: both to keep away from the cold ground and also to see better once proceedings started.

Equally, there were some people near me – I don’t know how they managed – who just curled up and slept on rugs and blankets. One was the ‘victim’ of a sketch by British comedian John Oliver: side-kick to Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, but previously one half of the successful duo behind Political Animal and other political satire shows on radio and on the UK comedy circuit.

There was a ‘warming station’ somewhere for those in dire need. It turned out to be a heated coach which you had to queue (outside) for an hour for, and then get a strictly controlled 20 minutes of warming inside the coach. There were also a few grates channelling warm air from the subway ventilation system, and these were understandably some of the most crowded spaces around. Another way to stay warm was with some impromptu singing, though sadly no campfire:

But things really took off when, around 10.30am, the jumbotrons started screening highlights of the special concert held by the Lincoln Memorial on the Sunday afternoon. Suddenly the crowd began singing and dancing – as much I suspect to keep spirits up and keep the circulation going, as in appreciation for the music. There were some ol’ patriotic favourites though: American Pie, This Land is Our Land among them.

And then as the main inauguration ceremony got under way, the chants of “Obama, Obama” became more frequent.

January 28, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Don’t put politics on the shelf

“The biggest mistake my generation made was to put politics [back] on the shelf. Do not put politics back on the shelf, ever. Being in politics is like going to church: you got to put a little on the plate every single week. I don’t expect you all to run for office or to give money to every single campaign that comes along. But you’ve got to stay involved. You’ve got to be a community organiser all the time.”

Those were the inspirational words of Howard Dean, at the Netroots Nation ‘yes we can’ party the night before the inauguration in DC. You can see short clips from his speech below:

Once again Dean absolutely nailed it. That warning and call to keep not just the spirit of the Obama campaign alive but its community-based activism was the most eloquent and passionate expression of a refrain I heard repeated throughout my week in DC. From the Peace Corps volunteers I met at the African inaugural ball now working on public health issues; to the New Orleans woman who is now focused on criminal justice reform in her neighbourhood and on supporting her cousin’s run for elected office; to Lonnee who has set up a social networking site for her neighbourhood and become a delegate to California’s Democratic assembly; to the artist (and button designer) Delia who has become politicised and now will “only take on work she believes in”; to the Swing Semester leaders who are taking on new projects in-between elections; to Sean of 538, who was looking for a home in DC as he starts in his new role as Washington correspondent for the site, expanding their coverage and insights from elections to the process of governing.

It was those type of stories I had wanted to hear and to capture whilst in the States this time. To answer – or rather hear other’s answers – to the question: “What’s next?” Over the coming days, as I continue to write up my experiences, it is that aspect that I will return to; as well as the celebrations and witnessing of history.

And Dean’s words resonate on this side of the Atlantic too. Have there been times we sat back and – perhaps justifiably – concentrated on our own interests and wellbeing rather than that of the community or society as a whole? Were there times we could, or should, have pushed harder rather than resting on our successes? The US has more of a history of electing ‘saviours’ and letting them get on the with the process of governing and making (hopefully) positive change. But did we also do the same in 1997 and subsequently, when we expended so much energy getting rid of the Conservatives and electing Blair, but never followed it up with ensuring we continued organising and campaigning locally, and harrassing the government to deliver on its promises?

Incidentally, this was one of Howard Dean’s final appearances as chair of the Democratic party (so I was pleased to get the chance to shake his hand and say thank you when he was on the way to the podium). A few days later Tim Kaine, Governor of Virginia, took over the position. Although he’s also a netroots favourite, and handpicked by Obama, it signals a new direction for the party. And that means an end to the 50 State strategy as we know it. For greater discussion on this, see Nate’s post.

January 27, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment