Obama and the Art of Power

Power and strategy expert Robert Greene analyzes what propelled President Obama to victory in 2008—and how he can avoid losing power now.
  • Transcript


Question: What propelled Obama and not McCain to power in 2008?

Robert Greene: Well you know a lot of things in history are timing, and it’s very peculiar because in retrospect things… people can look more brilliant or necessary than they actually were. So the fact that Bill Clinton faced George Bush, the first George Bush in ’92, was just the perfect moment for him in that sense. People were really bored with the Reagan era. They didn’t like Bush. He was unpopular and it was timing. W happened to have the good fortune of facing Al Gore in the year 2000 for all the virtues of Al Gore, and we love him, ran probably one of the worst campaigns, and he is not a good campaigner. In retrospect it looked like W, you know Karl Rove, that great genius, was able to do this electoral magic, but in fact, he happened to have the good luck to face two very weak candidates in Gore and in Kerry. Obama, I’m not saying Obama had luck, but the moment was totally right. People were just viscerally nauseated by W. They had enough of the wars, the incompetence, Katrina, the secrecy, but what Obama did that was brilliant, and I talk about it in The 50th Law to a little extent, is he understood that the timing was right and a normal person would have waited. I even thought he should have waited and I was wrong at the time, that it was too early for him. Nobody knew him. He had no record. He was a black man in America. You know what are you thinking? Give it some time. He understood that this was the moment. If he waited to 2012 that moment would have gone. He would have… Hillary would have won. She would have been in a position of power. He would have never had a chance. This was his moment. He opposed the Iraq war. He had momentum and he ran a brilliant campaign. It’s a question of obviously facing a very weak candidate in John McCain. I don’t know who they would have put up, who could have possible posed a greater threat, but Obama was brilliant in how he saw that this was the one moment he had and then he ran… For a Democrat, because Democrats generally are pretty incompetent when it comes to running elections. I’m a Democrat myself, so I say that with you know a little bit of I’m upset to hear that, but someone like John Kerry… Typically Democrats don’t understand strategy. They’re always reacting to news events and tacking there here and there depending on what is happening. They have no sense of the larger picture. Obama was the first person in my lifetime… I can swear the first candidate in my lifetime who I could say this man understands strategy. He ran a brilliant campaign, a lot of it based on a consistent message, which is one thing I preach, which was his opposition to the war and change, very well marketing wise. It was brilliant. This was the first man in my lifetime who I could compare to FDR or John F. Kennedy, two other brilliant campaigners in history.

Question: In what areas, if any, has Obama ceded power since 2008?

Robert Greene: You know, it’s a little hard for me because I have a problem, which is I like him a lot and I normally don’t have this problem because I normally don’t like politicians, so I can view them with some distance, so I’m giving that caveat that I have this problem. I’m not completely objective. He has run up against some things that he hadn’t expected, which for somebody at his age, with his level of executive experience, which wasn’t any is going to encounter. So he is at a crossroads. He is a very intelligent man who is very capable of learning from experience. He is finding out what FDR discovered when he became president that suddenly you’re ruling over hundreds of people with their own agendas who come at you with their own little power bases and their own games and it’s chaos and it’s madness. Now FDR evolved a very brilliant way of handling it. He had also been governor of New York. He had some executive experience. It’s not been even a year that Obama has been as president and so I preach the idea of patience. Let us see how a man or a woman evolves over time in this position because that’s what shows how great a leader they’re going to be. He is at a kind of a crossroads. If he becomes consumed by these pressures from outside he could end up being a mediocre president. That is always possible. I have faith that he probably could go in the other direction, but an example would be Afghanistan. He inherited this situation. It wasn’t his creation and he inherited a military complex that’s peopled with generals that he had nothing to do with who bring in all kinds of pressures. It’s an extremely complicated situation and it’s filled with all kinds of landmines. If he disregards what his generals are saying it’s going to start looking like the Democrat who is weak, who doesn’t… who is against war, who doesn’t understand hard political realities, the right will eat him up and so he is between a rock and a hard place and some of these generals that he has inherited are not very cooperative with him. I’ve heard from people that I know. I don’t have a lot of connections, but I have some, that there is some friction from the old guard who were there in the Bush years. He is facing a very complicated problem in how to manage the military brass. I don’t think people understand how difficult and chaotic and complicated it can be to be the president of the United Stated inheriting what he has inherited in the year 2009 and so we’re going to measure him in the next year. I say give him another year. I’m kind of sick of all of these progressives who are just piling on him. Let’s just see things. I don’t think he is necessarily someone who is selling out, but it’s possible. Let’s give it some more time.

Recorded on December 14, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen