Visibly, the United States presidential elections involve a lot of media coverage and interactions on stage. But this is probably just one to two percent of what goes on. The first year of a presidential campaign (which can be very long – for the 2018 presidential election, presidential candidate Ted Cruz announced his candidacy 596 days before election day) is a tremendous grind.
Once the candidate is up for election, if they're genuinely a top tier candidate and they have the resources to compete, they're travelling to three to four cities a day. The Obama campaigns were never about him being in one place. Candidates rarely sleep in the same place twice. They're away from their family for at least a week or two at a time, which makes it very difficult, especially for those with young kids.
The amount of downtime is non-existent. For example, if you have five events during the day, you're going to meet with some local elected officials in Iowa for the first event. You'll then have a second event at a roundtable with small business people. For the third event, you're going to get on a flight and fly for an hour to meet some veterans. The fourth event – and by now, it's only mid to late afternoon – is a fundraiser. By 5 or 6 pm there’ll be a cocktail reception or something similar. So, you can imagine how hectic a day can be.
Your energy doesn't just go to these events. While you're physically in state A (like Iowa), you will likely use a lot of your downtime and state aid to have a presence in state B or C (like New Hampshire and Florida). You can jump into a satellite TV studio and cut a commercial that's going on air in another state that night. At one time, it was really about how we could use Obama's time with 15, 30, or 60-minute allotments to touch even a dozen states in a day.
If you want to run for president, you need to go into it expecting that the intensity is going to be relentless. Short of probably combat or childbirth, it's going to be the most challenging thing that you have ever and possibly ever will do unless you win.
In which case, the fun's just starting. You'll have your work cut out for you.
Whether you're thinking of running for president or are looking to make an impact in the areas that you're passionate about, you need to know what your vision is.
First, always focus on yourself as an individual. This doesn't just go for presidential hopefuls but also for products, corporations, causes and anything you want to achieve. You need to start with a blank piece of paper and write out exactly why you’re doing what you’re doing now. Forget about the people around you for a moment. Just focus on what drives you. What is it about your life experience and the way you were brought up that makes you want to do this?
Expand from there and ask yourself where you see yourself, your country, and your surroundings, in 5 or 10 years? How do you intend to get there? You don't need to get into granular specifics, but you need to be able to poke your head above the trees and look 5 or 10 years down the road. Then, fill in the steps between now and that vision of 10 years later.
Solidify your vision and your values, and stick to them consistently throughout your candidacy. What I look for is not just what people say on stage or what they say in interviews, but how they treat the kitchen staff in the hotel kitchen as we make our way through to the back entrance of the building? How do they treat the security guards that are out on the loading dock or the desk manager at a motel when we arrive at 1 am? Do they stick to the values they claim to believe in?
Throughout the process, if you are who you say you are, everything else can make sense. If you're not, then you're just a castle on sand. Your vision and values will extend into your culture, so it's vital that you know what your vision and values are.
One of the organisation slogans we had was "no drama Obama," which is what you get when stress comes your way, in any business. Do you take the stress, multiply it, turn to the next person and vomit it all over them, or do you absorb it and say "It ends with me, and whatever this problem is, I'm going to fix it"?
Fortunately, we were able to do that in a way that you never saw massive infighting. You never saw vast amounts of leaks, huge staff departures, or numerous tell-all books. It's different from Trump's occupation right now, where the infighting, leaking, and tell-all books signal an absolute absence of a cohesive culture.
Message-wise, what Barack said at the beginning of our first campaign was, “I'm going to go out, and I'm going to say exactly what I think about the Iraq War, about healthcare, and other vital issues. If people embrace it and like it, then we'll move forward, but I'm not going to shape-shift to accommodate a particular news cycle, trend, or current opinion.” Many candidates lose when they lose track of those early organisational values. They start to react and shape-shift to accommodate trends and news cycles. Soon enough, you pivot so many times that you don't even know what you're selling anymore.
In the first campaign we ran against Hillary Clinton, she started with a campaign message around experience. Then, when we were gaining traction, she began to change. After a while, she went back to her message on experience. After she pivoted for the third or fourth time, people didn't know what she was selling anymore. She fell into that trap of pivoting too much and its part of what cost her the elections.
So, knowing your vision and values helps to build the right culture which can make a huge difference in the impact you need to make.
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Former Senior Aide
President Obama Campaign