Over my vacation, I read “Game Change,” which tells the story of the 2008 US presidential election. Not only was it a compelling page-turner (it really was an incredible narrative), the book is also instructive in how important private strength is to public success.
Of the main characters in the drama–Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain, it is no coincidence that the eventual winner makes the best impression. What is less obvious are the reasons why. While Obama is rightly credited for his remarkable oratory, what stands out is the strength of both his self-awareness and his relationships.
Both Clinton and McCain deal with major issues that stem from their troubled marriages. Both Clinton and McCain end up firing old friends from their posts as campaign manager. In contrast, “no drama” Obama draws strength from wife Michelle and maintains a calming influence over his campaign. When he does intervene, it is gently but purposefully.
The contrast in terms of self-awareness is even greater. Both Clinton and McCain have a difficult time understanding how others perceive them, and an even harder time accepting unpleasant truths. Clinton agonizes over her stance on the Iraq war. In contrast, Obama deals briskly and decisively with his own issues, whether with originally pledging not to run in 2008 to repudiating his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. I think one of the main reasons he is able to do this is that he seems to have a clear sense of who he is (a trait that in the book sometimes comes off as arrogance) which means he isn’t driven by a constant battle to define himself or be something he isn’t.
Ultimately, both Clinton and McCain were far more experienced than Obama. But while he was able to deal with his experience gap, neither of his opponents found an effective way to combat the character gap.
Even today, after all his missteps as president, I wouldn’t want to bet against Obama. He seems to have the capacity to learn and change his tactics, using his self-awareness and relationships to keep himself grounded even as he shifts to more favorable ground.