The Fisk factor in Obama’s campaign

  • Business
  • Saturday, 14 Mar 2009

THE road to the White House is lined with ironies and truths stranger than fiction. As US president Barack Obama settles down to the task of healing the world’s largest economy, his election campaign will probably be remembered as one of the best in modern history.

The basis of that campaign, Change We Can Believe In, is relatively simple. While many continue to think its success was due to the use of new media or technology, Roger Fisk, Obama’s former national director of special events, says these were merely tools.

The essential ingredients were sincerity, honesty and hard work. The theme was people. The channel was the new media.

“Had this campaign been done 10 years ago; had there been no Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and many other different platforms; had the state of the economy been different; and had Al Gore been the vice-president; the political landscape would be different,” says Fisk, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to speak at a seminar.

“The new media helped make a strong campaign but it cannot replace human interaction or hard work. Hillary Clinton (Obama’s main rival for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination) came with all the infrastructure. She had all the people and machinery you would want to hire.

“It came to a point when I told the team, ‘Don’t tell me what they are doing. Are they willing to work hard, listen and present themselves? Are we willing to work and present our candidate?’ Because 90% of communication is listening, and Senator Obama listened.”

Throughout the interview, Fisk referred to the US president as Senator Obama. It is as though he still cannot believe he had helped guide the Chicago senator towards becoming the 44th president of the United States.

During the first half of 2007, Obama’s candidacy was dismissed as “unlikely”, “improbable” and “a long shot”. Fisk joined the campaign because of what he had seen and heard.

Two of his best friends, whom he describes as people who helped him to be better, spoke volumes about the quality and number of the people gravitating to the senator.

Fisk signed up for a role in the Obama campaign. “When I finally met him, I saw what he represented and how he interacted with the security guards and with the people when the TV cameras were not on him.”

The campaign had generated 30 million e-mail addresses, which subsequently paved the way to Organising for America, an Obama programme for change. This also mobilised people from all walks of life, young and old, and enabled the success of Obama’s strategy of wanting to “engage everyone, compete everywhere”.

Fisk, 41, has never worked in a marketing or advertising agency. His first degree is in government and history, and he has a Masters in public policies. In the last two years, he helped mobilise what is arguably the greatest marketing campaign of all times.

He also helped to build up a fund-raising team. Because Obama wanted his supporters to own the campaign, which they affectionately called MyBO (his initials), Fisk mobilised the fund-raising team to seek support from those who came for the rallies, as opposed to political parties paying people to come to rallies.

“We did not take corporate money. We cultivated low-dollar donors and that allowed more people to be shareholders. Each of those who came and donated felt they were part-owners of the campaign,” Fisk explains.

The strategy revolutionised modern political fund-raising and raised US$100mil in 11 months, and built the largest donor base in American history.

Says Fisk: “We won because of a confluence of factors and circumstances, not based solely on a campaign. Senator Obama is a formidable candidate. You can have a movement – and a moment – but if the movement and the candidate are not on the same page, the split will be there.”

When the financial turmoil came in late September, Obama and his team refused to be distracted.

“I don’t understand the large design of things but it goes back to who he was and what he believes in. A lot of campaigns will ask themselves what they are saying with four weeks to go, but we knew from the beginning what we were presenting to the country,” Fisk explains.

“The question was not what but how. We were not defining ourselves against the competitors. We know our fundamental bearings.”

To say that the last two years have changed his perspective on life and history is an understatement. No words can describe how that experience has coloured his life.

“I did not expect to work in inauguration. Presidential politics are wonderful. I don’t think I would have embarked on it had I not known its impact on people’s lives. It was always trying to do more and do better. You want to get on to the higher level. If I were a football player, we just won the Super Bowl,” he adds.

“In many ways, the senator’s candidacy is unique. Which candidate has a grandmother in Africa? Which candidate grew up with technology? And which candidate was willing to engage everyone, everywhere?”

Fisk’s leanings are definitely towards the Democratic Party. Besides Senator John Kerry, he has also worked for Al Gore and Ted Kennedy. “In the larger scheme of things, both Kerry and Gore lost. Those two defeats had to happen to bring about this moment (when Obama won).”

Prior to joining Obama, he had worked for Deval Patrick’s successful campaign for governor of Massachusetts. On being on the Democratic side, Fisk says he is drawn to candidates who want to reach out to people.

“Republicans want people to believe in something, and this is a different marketing exercise. If you want to talk about changes to foreign policy, which is the greatest country in the world? That is easy to believe but how do we do more than just embrace a slogan?” he asks.

As Fisk traces his steps in the political corridors of power, he says he was not political per se. After his studies in 1989, he answered an advertisement to be an intern at Kerry’s office. (The Democrat candidate was defeated in the 2004 presidential election by the Republican incumbent, President George W. Bush.)

His job was to fix people’s problems. He says, “I cannot help all of them, but they left the office feeling better. The work was to care about each of them who walked in.

“As I got larger and larger levels of (job) specifications, I realised that the most effective way to change values and political system was to go higher up that food chain, in order to bring to the people the prescriptive drug they could not afford.”

It was not so much a mission he set himself. It sort of just came naturally, says Fisk. After the last two years – awesome by any measure to anyone anywhere – what is his biggest lesson?

“Walk down the corridor of possibilities. I can say I have never done a perfect event in my life. I have got names wrong, mispronounced names, called up those who got the grants that they did not, and those who did not get the grants that they did. And I’ll probably work my whole career and never do a perfect event.

“I know that I could have done better. I do know that I’ll continue to get better.”

On facing the 500 seminar participants who came to hear him in KL, as opposed to arranging for thousands to hear Obama, he says he is experiencing a different kind of nerves.

“It is humbling that people find my job interesting. And the fact that I can speak openly and honestly about the events of the past two years is liberating,” he says.

“I do not have children but like anyone else, if you value why you are here on Earth, it will result in a healthy relationship. My wife followed during the campaign if the city was cool – Palm Beach, New York. There are some on the team who did not get to go home for eight to nine months. For me, nothing more than two weeks.”

Today, Fisk is “blissfully unaffiliated” except with the London Speakers Bureau. He has been travelling four of the last seven years. And he is happy to be going home after his trip to Malaysia and Indonesia and to look back at the road he took in this game called politics.

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