Monday, October 13, 2008

LEARNING FROM THE OBAMA CAMPAIGN “The politics of the personal…”


By Maina Kiai in Indianapolis and Ohio
For Nairobi Star

I have been regularly receiving email from my old friend Barack Obama ever since I went onto the website and signed on to see what it was all about. The emails always start, “Dear Maina,” and are signed off, “Barack.”. They provide information, or make requests of me to donate funds (which I can’t do as I am not an American citizen) or otherwise volunteer or organize events for the campaign (which I can). Of course the emails are not directly from Barack to me. But they appear to be. There are also other emails and contacts made by high level officials from the campaign including Joe Biden, Michelle Obama, David Plouffe, and David Axelrod.

In Florida, I heard a lot from voters who receive these emails, as I do, and who get a great deal of their information on the campaign and issues from them. And it makes them feel they are part of the movement of change. It is new campaign methodology where Barack Obama has taken the politics of personal outreach to never-before-seen levels. But it has some reality in it as well…I know because I met and talked to Barack Obama last Thursday when I attended one of his rallies in Ohio.

I had decided to look for Obama, intrigued by this personal touch strategy, and to see if there was a chance to test it. A quick search through his website informed me that he would be in Indianapolis, Indiana on Wednesday for a rally and then onto neighboring Ohio—in the cities of Dayton, Cincinnati, and Portsmouth--on Thursday for more rallies.

So I flew out to Indianapolis on Wednesday morning hoping to make it on time. By the time I got to Indianapolis and had checked into my hotel to drop my bag since there is a strict no bag policy at rallies, there was barely an hour before the event started. And there was a massive crowd at the venue, waiting to get in. Now the last time Indiana voted for the Democratic Party nominee was in 1964 and the fact that the venue was filled to capacity to listen to Obama is significant and indicative of the impact that he is making in this campaign.

I thought that flashing my press card would get me easier access and I would not have to line up behind the long but orderly lines…and it worked! But once in the stadium, I quickly discovered that the area reserved for foreign press was at the back of the stadium (and understandably so since non-Americans don’t really influence many votes).

So I tried out some Kenyan crowd movement tactics and slowly made my way through the throngs. And these Americans are gentle. First they don’t stand that close to each other so there are almost always gaps that one can squeeze through, but second there is an air of gentleness and happiness that allows people to let you through. Of course I emphasized that I had come all the way from Kenya and that drew some sympathy and got me closer as people let me through.

But I got only as close as the 4th row from the front, where I found the hardliners who could not care a hoot about my being from Kenya, or that I went to Law School with Obama. I found out that many of these people in the front rows had been waiting since 6am for the 12.15pm rally! The crowd was an excited one, and as diverse as the American people—white, black, Asian, native and Hispanic.

Political rallies in America are different from ours in Kenya. The main speaker does not show up until everyone has spoken and there were only 3 speakers before Barack: the Democratic Party candidate for Governor; Congressman Andre Carson and Senator Evans Bayh who was a serious contender for running mate, who introduced Barack. And when Barack appeared he went straight into his speech. The other speeches, by the way were short and less than 5 minutes each (take note our Kenyan politicians!).
And what a speech! The crowd was chanting in 3 syllables, “O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!”

And “yes we can!” and cheering at all the appropriate places. One of the interesting things in his speech was his remark that all Americans were entitled to the same level of health care that he and other congressmen get and he would work for this if he became president. I immediately wondered which of our Kenyan politicians would state that they want, and will work to see that all Kenyans have similar emoluments benefits that they enjoy…!

At the end of the 40 minute speech, he came down from the podium and went on a meet-and-greet session, holding babies and having brief chats with people. I noticed the look of sheer awe and ecstasy on faces of those who shook his hand and you could hear screams from men and women announcing to all and sundry, “he shook my hand!”

I must mention the security at the rallies. There were about 30-40 dark suited Secret Service men and women, recognizable from their ear pieces running from their ears to their back pockets, as well as snipers on the rooftops scanning the crowds with binoculars and telescopes. I am sure there were plainclothes security people in the crowd, (at least I really hope so), but it’s all done with lots of respect and with recognition of the fact that Obama must meet and greet people at these events. There are also hundreds of uniformed police at the events, and I left with a sense of satisfaction that this new and different phenomenon would be well protected.

So after the Indianapolis rally and now having a better sense of how they do things here, I decided to drive to Cincinnati to scope the rally ground and also see whether I could get a special pass for the rally. So after a two hour drive, I went to the local Obama campaign office and found everyone so busy preparing for the rally that it was quickly clear that it would be difficult to get special dispensation to access Obama in Cincinnati.

He had a busy schedule – three rallies in a day. On purely technical and logistical purposes, I decided to target the 1st and 3rd rallies to see how close I could get to him in the rally. Would he remember me after more than 20 years and after he has met probably millions of people in the campaign?

So the next day, well before dawn, I got into my rental car and drove the 3 hours to Dayton, Ohio. I arrived early here and got a spot in the crowd having decided not to use my press pass after the Indianapolis experience. And I got to the 2nd row from the front and struck up a conversation with a Pastor and his wife who were so enthusiastic about Obama they broke into song. I recorded the pastor and you should he hearing extracts of that interview on Kiss 100 this week.

I tried to shout “habari” and “jambo” to Barack (interesting how almost all the people in the crowds call him Barack, rather than Obama when they talk about him), but I was drowned out. The speech was very similar to the one in Indianapolis except for a few minor changes but the crowd reaction was just the same…”O-ba-ma!”

And then off to Portsmouth using directions from the hotel in Indianapolis from a receptionist with a wicked sense of humor, who decided to send me out there on the back roads of Ohio that are very difficult to follow and have speed limits that slow one down. So a two hour journey turned into 4 hours as I got lost again and again. Thank God I have no hesitation asking for directions, as the drive could easily have taken 6 hours or more.

Portsmouth is home to Shawnee State University and this is where the rally was held. It was a smaller event than Indianapolis and Dayton so I quickly found a prime spot on the first row. And as we waited for Barack, who was uncharacteristically more than an hour late (in fact in the previous rallies he appeared within 15-20 minutes of his scheduled time), I heard a voice ask me if I was Maina Kiai. And there were 6 Kenyans students studying at Shawnee who recognized me on the line. So we talked and chatted and I heard all about the issues at their university – they had scholarships but had to work to support themselves - and their excitement at being at the rally. I found that with the travelling I had been doing I had left Caroline Mutoko’s tape recorder so could not record them!

Barack appeared, at last, and made the same speech (I can quote parts of it now, and how it’s structured) except for a new anecdote he inserted about converting Republicans to his cause. Then he made his way down the line, meeting and greeting people and saying thanks for attending the rally and supporting him. His security detail moved in front of him, eyes sweeping the section of crowd he was about to touch. He got to me, he made eye contact, remembered me – the personal touch! He gripped my shoulder and we talked briefly… And like everyone else in the crowd, my day was made. He has perfected the science of the politics of the personal…


oliviaharis said...
October 15, 2008 at 1:45 PM  

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