Obama's next campaign

After two years on the campaign trail, the last thing Barack Obama probably wants to consider is his next one.

Jack Leslie
Jack Leslie

But now that he’s the President-elect, that's exactly what he has to do.  And it's much bigger than the contest that just ended and every bit as important: the campaign to win back America's reputation around the world.
It wasn’t long ago when things were different, and the world stood with the U.S. after September 11.  We were all Americans then.  But the Bush Administration chose to go it alone.  Now, after years of a you’re with us or you’re against us approach to U.S. foreign policy and a deeply unpopular war in Iraq, America is more isolated, with a badly tarnished image, and the world less secure. Add the fact that many around the world blame the U.S. as our financial crisis snowballs into a worldwide economic meltdown.
Changing some of our policies – such as closing Guantanamo Bay and addressing climate change – will remove some of the highly-charged issues that have affected our reputation. But policy changes alone won’t do the job. As President, Mr. Obama, should launch – sooner rather than later -- a public diplomacy campaign that redefines America’s engagement with the world community and its citizens.  He should take the campaign around the world, and especially to the hotbeds of anti-Americanism. And he already has a roadmap: the same unprecedented approach he used to win the election.

Five imperatives highlight why it can, and must, succeed.

First, today’s interdependent, interconnected world is ready for Obama’s more adaptive style of U.S. presidential leadership, one that values collaboration and consensus-building to arrive at a collective sense of the public good.  But it’s not just a matter of style alone.  It is the substance of Obama’s personal story – a father born in Kenya, a childhood spent partly in Indonesia, and a middle name Hussein – that can help reframe and renew what America stands for.  It can, importantly, undercut some of the most powerful arguments al-Qaeda and others have used to recruit terrorists.

Second, a key audience is the one he was so successful with at home: the young.   Some 100 million people, more than 30 percent of the Arab world’s population, are between 15 and 29 years old today; and more than 25 percent of those between 15 and 24 are unemployed.  Globally, the trend is just as alarming.  Close to 1 billion young adults under 30 will enter the labor market in the next decade – for too many, there will be little hope for work or a better life, says 2008 Nobel Peace Prize winner Martti Ahtisaari.  If ever there was a global need for the particular genius of the Obama campaign to inspire and engage the world’s youth -- the second imperative for a new global public diplomacy campaign -- that time is certainly now.

The third imperative is that public diplomacy must embrace the tools of modern communications: the Internet, the grassroots power of social networking, and other emerging technologies that are part of the daily fabric of young people’s lives.  It’s a trend that has gone global.  Nearly half the world’s population uses mobile phones and 22% of the world’s people have Internet access today, and usage is growing most rapidly in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. We can’t rely on the Voice of America and other conventional modes of communication alone.

Fourth: no medium, no matter how innovative, can substitute for a strong message communicated in an inspirational and disciplined way.  Obama’s powerful message of change recognized that while the delivery mechanisms in the online and offline worlds may be different, the paramount objective is keeping your supporters in line with your vision.

Finally, as his presidential campaign proved, money counts. America needs to invest far more in so-called soft power.  The U.S. now spends $350 million annually on global public diplomacy, the equivalent of what the Pentagon spends about every six hours.  This must change.

Hopes and expectations are high, perhaps too high, that President Obama will be a transformational global leader. He now faces a difficult reality – directing a foreign policy that, first and foremost, protects and promotes America’s interests. And he will be constrained by a world in which global security requires complex choices and difficult decisions in places like Pakistan and Iran.  But Obama has proven that he can defy long odds.  He has the chance to restore America’s reputation if he mounts an unprecedented public diplomacy campaign that adopts some of the same strategies he just used in his presidential race.

Jack Leslie is Chairman of Weber Shandwick, and a former adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy

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