The lessons for Labour from Obama's lacklustre campaign

The US president owes his victory to his political machine, not his campaign strategy.

President Obama has a second term but it was much closer than it should have been. He is the victor today because of an impressive tactical and organisational campaign but not on account of his campaign strategy. This morning we saw hope and change in his victory speech - the Obama of ‘08. It is a pity he and his senior strategists didn’t have the courage to do that earlier. Against a better opponent, he could have been defeated. There are big lessons for Labour in this.  

It started to go wrong the minute he won the 2008 election. Instead of his movement for change being transitioned into a new civic corps – 13 million community activists working to change their communities and campaigning on behalf of the President’s agenda – it was folded straight away. It became nothing more than an email list. Never had the gulf between the poetry of campaign and prose of governance been so wide; it was a shock. His personality – cerebral rather than emotional - seemed to morph with this shift. The normalisation of Barack Obama had begun.

One of the biggest myths that he, the Democrats and of course, their opponents managed to create is that he had no record to defend. His record in relative terms is better than any first term President since Franklin Roosevelt. In the battle to attack the Republicans for what they could get through Congress, the Democrats left the impression that they couldn’t get anything through Congress. It was only at the Democratic National Convention where this was addressed: President Bill Clinton came to the rescue.

There, President Obama himself gave a compelling, if slightly clunky, articulation of America with a long-term future under his plans or reverse to the failures of recent Republican presidents. It was the highlight of the campaign for the President. His post-Convention bounce almost put him out of sight of Romney. It was the last time that both a forceful articulation of his record in office and some substance about his forward-looking agenda was placed before the American electorate.

The campaign slogan was "forward". The American people were left asking "forward to what?" Instead, the campaign focused on its opponent far too readily. This was not the Obama they had voted for in 2008, who carefully sought to "take the High Road". This was down and dirty politics. It left the candidate’s voice muffled.

So what? He won, after all, what’s the problem? The problem is that the enthusiasm was gone. That meant that the election was far closer than it should have been. Not only that, but he lacks an enthusiastic propulsion of his second-term agenda against a divided, consequently obstructionist, Congress. The road ahead is now harder than it should have been.

The movement which was electrified in 2008 survives, but only here and there. The keeper of its "respect-empower-include" soul Steve Hildebrand didn’t have a central role this time – personnel matters. In the critical battleground state of Ohio, the living, breathing organism that was Obama ’08 became a professionalised machine in 2012. In every campaign, there is a moment when things tilt towards a military-style of organisation. This time round is was early. The movement is no more.

Luckily, the professional campaign deployed the latest techniques. It cross-tabulated electoral rolls, consumer databases, social media databases, and voting records. It ruthlessly combined these with information from the doorstep and from focus groups about what was playing well and all this information was combined. It built sophisticated models of voter behaviour which enabled very specific targeting of demographics with issues, fundraising asks and volunteering requests. Instead of direct mail, the preferred vehicle for all this was the doorstep campaigner. TV/web ads supplemented the whole operation in just as targeted a fashion. Yes, this was a machine but it was a very hi-tech and sleek one.

Data, modeling, targeting should, however, be the extra one per cent on the doorstep. What was lost was the four per cent that would have not only been motivated for this campaign but beyond it also. That is what hope and change gets you. Instead, we had attack, deflect, and micro-target.

The lessons Labour should take are mainly from Obama ’08 rather than ’12. Good data, organisation and targeting are necessary as the campaign draws to a close. Before that, it is necessary to build a movement. This means opening out the party as the Obama campaign did for the Democrats in 2008. Members will not be enough if the Conservative financial advantage is to be minimised. It needs neighbours to speak to neighbours, friends to friends, colleagues to colleagues.

A vague offer of change is insufficient as is relying on the negatives of your opponent. The story will be one of national renewal. People will need to know what this means in practical terms – including on their own standard of living. It’s not just about the pounds, shillings and pence though. People want to know that you have a practical vision for the nation. A lack of clarity and your leadership will be undermined.

Obama has given Labour both a guide to how it should be done and a warning of how it can go 'wrong' (a win is a win!). The best political machine in the world can make up for a lot, but it’s a hell of a risk to leave it to a clever political operation: it is more likely to be a necessary but insufficient contributor to victory.

Obama had residual support, his high likeability rating, and demographic changes in his favour. The voting electorate was 85 per cent white in 1988 but only 76 per cent or so by the last election according to Pew Research. Ruy Teixeira of the Center for American Progress forecast that it could be as low as 72 per cent this time round. The Detroit bailout gave him some necessary electoral protection in the mid-west- with its cluster of battleground states. And even though Romney got back in the race, the Republicans as a whole still feel on the edge of mainstream America- when a majority of it votes.

Hope and change seems a long way off though – despite today’s speech, which hopefully is not a one-off replay of greatest hits. Labour should be careful not to learn the wrong lesson from Obama’s two victories. By all means learn some practical lessons from Obama ’12 but no more than that. It is Obama ’08 that still provides the way forward. Hope, change and practical vision provide the path to victory – even if Obama lost his way this time round.

Anthony Painter is author of Barack Obama: the movement for change

Marcus Roberts is deputy general secretary of the Fabian Society and worked on both Obama '08 and '12

"Against a better opponent, Obama could have been defeated." Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why don’t we talk about the pain of friendship break ups?

Breaking up with a friend is hard to do – society should give more weight to the process.

Countless songs have been written about heartbreak; we recall the disintegration of our romantic entanglements as pivotal moments in our lives; being "dumped" by a boyfriend or girlfriend is understood as a kind of trauma that requires "healing" and a "mourning period". But what of the friendship break up?

It's only recently that we've begun to have public conversations about the difficulties of losing a friend, and those conversations aren't even very good ones. A new web series, Ex-Best, explores the issue in a jokey way, exaggerating awkward situations among ex-friends who still work together or are – gasp – invited to the same dinner party, and a couple self-helpy articles will come out every year, offering advice on "How to Break Up with a Toxic Friend," but the actual impact of ending a friendship remains mostly unacknowledged.

This strange cultural silence around the sadness and, yes, grief one can experience after being rejected by a friend makes what can be a confusing situation feel even more disquieting.

I'd known my friend Will since I was a teenager and, while our friendship had waxed and waned over the years, as most do, I considered him one of my dearest friends. We'd spent countless evenings drinking wine at the beach or watching Drunk History, drunk (to fully appreciate the experience, of course), ranting about feminism and gossiping about friends. We'd shared a mutual friendship group for almost two decades. So after months of being brushed off and noticeably not invited to gatherings that had always been social staples, I couldn't ignore the fact that something was up. But what?

This is the thing with friend break ups – there is no social expectation of "processing" or that the "dumper" must offer an explanation for their sudden departure. Ghosting, something seen as a terrible faux-pas in the context of a long-term romantic partnership, is a perfectly acceptable way to end a friendship.

Friends don't go to couples counselling, they aren't expected to offer a legitimate and logical explanation for wanting to "break up", there is no effort to "work things out", and no "we have to talk". The dumpee is left only with an awkward series of unreturned texts, a few half-hearted excuses for being unable to meet up for drinks on any single evening for six months, and a mysterious missing invitation to the annual Christmas party your friend has thrown every year for a decade.

Was Will angry with me? Was it something personal? Now he had a wife and child, maybe his childless, single friends like me no longer fit into his dad lifestyle? It was strange not to know. Had Will been a boyfriend, we would have had a number of explosive arguments, teary counselling sessions, promises to do better, to communicate more honestly, to stop eating all of my yoghurt in the middle of the night, don't use my expensive moisturiser, and why can't you ever ask me about my life? I'm interesting.

When our romantic partnerships end, we usually know why. If not, it's at least expected that words will be exchanged: "We've grown apart." "I want to see other people." "You have no interests." "For the last time, it's 'mannerism,' not 'aneurysm'." "Are you literally 12?!" Etc. But with friends, for some reason, it's different.

What's strangest about the subject matter is how long it's gone unexplored. Surely we've all experienced the ending of a friendship. In fact, most of us will have more friends in our lifetimes than boyfriends or girlfriends and more friend break ups than divorces – yet we don't treat this particular kind of heartbreak with anywhere near the same kind of compassion we do our intimate partnerships.

There is no widespread social understanding of the pain we're experiencing, no "Nothing Compares 2 U, BFF" or "You've Lost That Buddy Feeling" songs to wallow in, and no "Ten Ways To Get Over A Friend Break Up" articles in Cosmo. Our other friends don't spend hours processing the break up with us, saying, "she probably just loved you too much and it scared her" or "you'll forget all about him as soon as you make a new friend".

It's as though we're expected to feel nothing at all. Which is a pity because losing a friend can be far more painful – and certainly more bewildering – than losing a lover.

The feelings of rejection are all there, but tenfold. When romantic relationships end, it often makes sense. We place expectations on our intimate partnerships that are incredibly high, often unrealistic, and that foster codependence. You end up having the same fights over and over again, often related to the fact that you've decided to live in the same house with this person for the rest of your life, and to share money as well as tiny, stinky, screaming humans. It's not exactly a recipe for success.

But when a person you've known and chosen to spend time with for 20 years, by choice – no contracts, no shared property or beds, no children to raise, no money issues to fight over, no sexual or domestic expectations, no attempts to control who the other befriends or spends time with – suddenly wants nothing to do with you and offers no explanation? That's hard.

I mean, you were friends for a reason, and the reason was simple: you liked each other. So what does it mean when a friend leaves you? There are few explanations aside from, "I guess he just doesn't like me, as a person." Talk about a blow to your heart.

In many ways we set ourselves up for this kind of pain and don't leave room to address our friendship break ups in any way that feels like the "closure" we seek at the end of a romantic relationship. As a society, we place far more value on intimate partnerships (particularly heterosexual ones) than we do on friendship. We do this despite our friends being more likely to be the ones that stick with us until the bitter end, less likely to hurt us as badly as our exes have, and more likely to actually be there through thick and thin, rather than abandoning us and trading us in for a newer, younger friend-model.

We don't tend to choose our friends for superficial reasons, because of hormones, or because of too much whiskey – we choose them because we enjoy their company, because we find them interesting or funny, or because we have shared interests and histories. Naturally, as we get older and our lives change, friends may grow apart as lovers do, but the concerted, sudden, one-sided ending of a friendship doesn't get the respect or attention it deserves. It's socially acceptable.

After Will had avoided making plans with me for months and failed to invite me to his birthday party, I realised this was not just in my head. I finally confronted him – resentful that I'd had to ask, and in effect point out the obvious. I learned little beyond that he had made a decision to no longer be my friend.

I sobbed to my boyfriend the way I would had someone died – but other than that, I was mostly alone in my grief. I felt like I had to simply push that particular heartache out of my mind and move forward as though nothing had happened. Yet I still miss my friend more than I do any ex-boyfriend.

Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.