How to Become a President
Yes, we’re talking about becoming the president of a country, and not just a company! What groundwork and support systems are needed for a U.S. presidential campaign? What should be prioritised when you’re trying to gain the confidence of a large crowd? Roger Fisk, Head of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, shows you what it takes to ace the job interview of a lifetime.
Gain Actionable Insights To:
- Why the most unlikely people are the ones you need to convince
- How you can flop your campaign through some small yet impactful actions
- Choosing the right team and building the right culture that helps you to reach your goals
Prepare for a Marathon
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 phase?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.
Build Your Vision
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 five 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.
No drama Obama
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 shapeshift 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 shapeshift 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.
Getting the Right Support
If culture is an extension of your vision and values, then your staff, particularly your core staff should be an extension of that culture. If you hire people and don’t trust them, you’ve wasted both your time and their time.
Build a team that you can trust.
A Team You Can Trust
In the last campaign, the Bernie Sanders team would sit down and lay out what they were doing the next week. Bernie would change all the dates which would screw up everything they were trying to do. They’d have to go and re-apply for their permits to do their events. They’d have to remarket their events all over. But the staff didn’t have his trust and confidence to say, “No, we’re going on Thursday. We have a team there that’s been working, and lining up law enforcement and everything needed for you to arrive on Thursday.”
Campaigns need to have an exterior focus on the people, their vision, and the future – not on internal granular processes that staff should be empowered and trusted to take care of.
The most precious resource a campaign has is the candidate’s time. The director of scheduling oversees all scheduling and operations. That’s the person who runs the teams that populates the schedule. Those teams then communicate with people on the ground. Someone needs to be in charge of the decision-making process and prioritising the constituencies that most need the candidate’s time.
You need a strong legal and compliance department because just the act of getting on the ballot in all 50 states is a Herculean legal task. The requirements in each state are very different.
Then you have your field operations which are embedded in and focused on specific neighbourhoods, the 20-year-old kid who’s going door-to-door with the literature, keeping track of who opened their door and voter data, so you know what keeps people engaged.
When I joined the first Obama campaign, there was probably 30 or 40 full-time people. In the last four months’ push, there were 3,500 to 4,000 scattered throughout the states. By the time it was done, it could very well be up towards 6,000 or 7,000 employees, with 2 million volunteers. In addition to Barrack’s schedules and events, we had to run scheduling and the events for Michelle Obama’s activities too. We also had celebrities and former presidents like Jay Z, Bruce Springsteen, and Bill Clinton who would make trips for us, all of which required scheduling and coordination to maximise their time.
You have to maximise what that growth provides while still having an unrelenting focus on the earliest organisation priorities and values that you started with.
Attracting the Powerhouses
When you think of the electoral college system, there are 330 million people in the U.S, and probably about half of them can vote. When you get to the general election, each presidential candidate walks in the door with about 55 million votes, and the real contest is over who can get another 10 to 12 million, for 65 million to 67 million votes. In a sense, it’s not the entire American public – you’re actually competing over about a 10th of the population or so.
The differences between the general election and when you run for the party nomination make it, oddly enough, a broader exercise. For the party nomination, you have to compete in rural areas, urban areas, the north, and the south. You have to compete for different voter groups: Black, White, Asian American, LGBT, everything. On our side of the aisle, we want to bring in everyone on the progressive side of things.
You need to go out and compete everywhere, and then as you work your way through the calendar, things become more narrowed. Once you become the nominee of the Democratic Party, you’ll be up against the Republican Party candidate. It then comes down to a contest that really takes place in about six or seven states-Ohio, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Colorado, and Michigan. The other states are more predictable. Massachusetts, for example, is always going to go for the progressive or the Democrat. Alabama is almost always going to go for the Republican.
We were never going to change who we were based on where we were going, but there were opportunities for what we call micro-campaigns, which are tailored to either specific geographies or involving certain events.
The most interesting thing about American presidential politics is that everyone has these visions of rich guys with cigars in the back room are deciding things. That’s not the case.
“American presidential elections are decided by a 40-year-old homeowning mother of two who lives in the suburbs. She’s the most powerful force in American presidential politics.”
With this demographic, there is a significant rejection of conservative attempts to control their health choices, especially as it relates to reproductive and other related rights. We knew that there was room to have a micro-campaign based around these constituencies.
Don’t change your vision or values. It’s not about going out and saying something different to a specific constituency. It’s more about taking advantage of a particular geography or a specific constituency where you can emphasise a particular component of your message. Make sure you don’t change your message. Like Shakespeare said, sooner or later, the truth will come out.
Learn from the Opposition
If you’re not prepared, it shows. One of the main takeaways from Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was the joylessness of it. If you don’t love campaigning, don’t enjoy getting out there to interact with people, and don’t have that real appetite to get up and do it every day, then you’ve probably chosen the wrong business.
What came through for me when she was running against Trump was that she was doing one event every other day. Trump, even though I don’t like him, was doing six to seven events a day. Part of running for office is the actual running. You can’t walk for office. It’s a marathon.
Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign was reactionary. I could put together a campaign right now that could probably be quite successful, based on anger, resentment and grievances. It can sell, especially in a time of very volatile, turbulent globalisation, where it’s very easy for people to look around and feel left behind, but it can only get you so far.
Trump doesn’t know how to enunciate what he’s for or what he wants to do, at all. All of his communication is in response to criticism from individuals, someone else’s proposal, and other external triggers.
If you have that 40-year-old homeowning mother of two who’s just a little less excited about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, even just 1 percent, it can make all the difference. If you look at some of those states that Trump won, he won by 10,000 to 15,000 votes. If you take the neighbourhood that you live in and say, 5,000 people live in that neighbourhood, and one person didn’t show up in 2016 that did show up in 2012, that’s the election right there.
You want to carve out around 20 percent of your time in a week to focus solely on your proactive message. What do you want to communicate as an individual on behalf of your brand, your product, and your cause? Protect that message and make sure you’re maximising it by reaching out to your target, demographics, and voters.
When people lose sight of their key message, and they don’t have the mechanisms in place to enforce discipline around that, they can fall victim to what I call scattered good intentions. You end up reacting to different things every day: a vote, a juicy scandal or another campaign.
Then two or three months have gone by, and you haven’t uttered a single word that advances those core values which are why you started this whole thing, to begin with. If you’re not strategic and disciplined about how you’re using your time, and you’re just reacting, you’re essentially losing.
People are Our Priority
Remember that maximum efficiency doesn’t mean that people are robots or vending machines.
Obama delivered a speech on race in the first campaign which was a sober, Socratic look at the U.S. and his own life experience, through the prism of race. As a Black candidate, he would have to address the race question sooner or later, and he did in March of 2008. I was in charge of that speech. We were in Philadelphia, and I knew that he was up for a couple of nights working on this speech. We knew it was going to go live around the world, and I knew he was quite burdened by this.
I was out by the motorcade when I was waiting for him to come out so we could head over to where he was going to deliver the speech, and I looked over and saw a teacher corralling her school of preschool kids down the sidewalk.
I had an idea. I ran over, and the teacher was looking at the black SUVs and wondering what was going on. I said, “I think there’s something that you can maybe help with.”
I had my earpiece in, and I knew he was going to pop out the side door in 60 seconds, but our plan was in place.
When he came out, he had a lot on his mind. His shoulders were hunched over. His whole candidacy was going to make or break in the next 90 minutes.
I turned to the teacher, and, as we’d planned, she signals the kids to yell at the top of their lungs: “Good luck, Senator Obama!”
You could see 20 pounds go off his shoulders, and he just lit up. He went over and got down on his knees, and just immersed with these kids. They were hugging him and smiling, and the teachers were beaming. He talked to them for a couple of minutes and said, “You gotta listen to your teacher today. Are you gonna learn everything you can today?”. They replied, “Yeah!”
And I knew that I had probably added the most value I was going to add to that entire day by just remembering that these are people that we do all of this for.
Steps to Take in 24 Hours
- Lock in Your Focus
Start with that blank piece of paper, and lay out exactly why you want to do what you plan to and why this is the time you need to do it. You don’t need granular mechanics of policy steps, just two or three things you want to focus on.
- Build Your Kitchen Cabinet
In American politics, your “kitchen cabinet” is your three or four first sounding boards for you in those early stages. That could be your lawyer, your spouse, or someone you went to college with. They are going to be there on the very first day, and in some form or another, they are going to be there on the very last day, even if that’s the end of the campaign or two terms as president.
- Take Stock of Your Resources
A campaign is gruelling. Make sure you have the resources and bandwidth to go out and do this because you can’t run for president while you have a full-time job. Can you and your family get through next year with just your spouse’s paycheck or whatever else is going to be the source of revenue? Look at this realistically.