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Clinton versus Obama, the ‘vision’ thing

June 5th, 2008 · No Comments

You what? The contest has just been decided (although it takes some time to sink in at one end of the contest), so it seems we’re a bit behind the news, to say the least. However, this is not about the current situation, it’s a reflection of different styles, on the qualifications we need in our political leaders.

Lets first provide some stylized facts about these different styles and personalities. Obama is an extremely gifted orator. We had the fortune to watch his coming of age speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 (on life tv, we were not present), and indeed felt that we were watching a future presidential candidate almost instantly.

We’re not easily moved, to be honest. But that speech was quite something. It produced the same feeling as when we watched a speech by Bill Clinton, when he was no longer president, life in the UK on the BBC. Although for slightly different reasons.

Where Bill Clinton impressed us with his vision and knowledge of the facts, Obama impressed with a somewhat vaguer, and difficult to grasp concept, his ‘vision’. It all sounded good, terribly good, in fact. Although we have seen no complete speech from him this time, reports suggest that he has hardly lost this gift, quite the contrary.

A ‘vision’ inspires. It shows what is possible, it taps in non-articulated aspirations and frustrations, it appeals to national, perhaps even universal (post-modernist will turn in their grave) concepts of a just society, but it is also not terribly concrete, and it hardly shows how to get there, how to realize the vision.

Yet, even in business, ‘vision’s’ are used quite frequently. It shows what a company aspires to achieve, in lofty words (realities are often quite different, but nevertheless). It is supposed to inspire and motivate the rank-and-file, make them feel proud of the organization they work for, appeal to their higher senses, make them feel they’re part of something bigger, something with lofty ideals, create a common destiny.

After such a description, the questions might bubble up; Is a ‘vision’ just fluff with a feel-good factor, is it, in fact, just manipulation of aspirations? Well, yes and no, but mostly yes in our view. It is fluff insofar as it doesn’t connect to the here and now. If it doesn’t show how to get from here to there, if it doesn’t connect the present with the future.

A significant part of Obama’s vision taps into the deep seated unease that lives in large parts of the population that politics is too divisive. And indeed it is, but that is perhaps more down to developments in the media than to politics as such.

Paul Krugman, the highly respected economist and NYT columnist has argued that this often forces Obama to ‘fake’ compromises, or even adopting the language of his adversaries. Healthcare has been one example he has often mentioned.

Obama’s plan falls considerably short of universal coverage because he has adopted the language of ‘choice’, of his adversaries, and Krugman argues that as a result, insurance premia will be higher.

Now, Hillary Clinton. Not nearly such a gifted provider of ‘visions’, and much less of an orator. On the plus side, she is impressive in her competence, command of the facts, and knowing how politics works, that is, how to get from here to there, which necessarily involves a lot of wheeling and dealing, and compromise.

What kind of leaders do we need, actually?

History is full of visions that have led nations (and even large parts of the world) astray. We have considerable reservations of grand visions, especially if they are not accompanied by a map of how to get there (in business, strategy provides clues of how to realize the vision). Do people who are very good at the ‘vision thing’ also make good leaders?

Not necessarily. Visions are good at two things: winning elections, and unifying people, especially if it is a vision about, well, unifying people. This is unlikely to last though. When visions hit reality, something has to give, usually it’s the vision, notwithstanding the fact that we live in times where media increasingly seem to be subsumed under ‘visions’ (even if it’s no more substantial one than enabling it a larger audience and bigger income), and are prepared to sacrifice reality to it.

Having said this, one can have a shortage of vision as well. Hillary came up short by supporting an idea for a tax holiday for gasoline while a future proof energy policy requires exactly the opposite. This was short-term pandering to the electorate and had all the air of desperation about it.

Tags: Opinion