What Obama Can Learn from Mandela

Stan Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who masterminded campaigns for Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and other world leaders, shares lessons and secrets from the war room.

03.09.09 8:08 AM ET

Stanley Greenberg is an academician, researcher, political junkie, Democratic pollster and strategist who has masterminded several high profile, high level campaigns around the globe. In a new book, Dispatches From The War Room: In the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders, he details his experiences and offers insights into the role of consultants in modern day politics. He has crafted strategies and delved into numbers for Bill Clinton, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Israel’s Ehud Barak, Britain’s Tony Blair and Bolivia’s Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. A self-styled promoter of progressive politics, the 62-year-old former Yale professor is also the CEO of his own research firm, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner which, besides political advice, specializes in emerging trends and international business issues.

Obama’s going to have to spend his political capital trying to interpret the lack of progress, trying to build up enough trust that people will stay with him to the point when they can actually see change.

His toughest campaign? The one he ran for his wife, Rosa DeLauro, in Connecticut in 1990, when she decided to try for a seat in the U.S. Congress . “It was impossible,” he said in an interview with the Daily Beast. “I remember when the election was getting close and it wasn't clear that she was going to win, taking a walk around the block to say the poll numbers suggest that this isn't a foregone conclusion, she could lose this race. [She won and is currently serving her 10th term.] It was impossible to be both husband and advisor. I promised not to do it again and we hired another firm to do it after that.”

Stan, describe a typical war room.

The war room in the Clinton campaign was a big room where the main people leading the fight were together and would create both an intensity and the ability to engage actively with our opponents for the campaign.

Was it a 24-hour deal?

It was a 24-hour deal as far as news monitoring, but 24 hours in an earlier era when faxes were the rule rather than email.

What are the similarities in the campaigns that you ran?

Dispatches from the War Room: In the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders. By Stanley B. Greenberg. 512 pages. Thomas Dunne Books. $29.95

What the war room represented was centralized control, broad sharing of information. It was an innovation, it had American roots, and people were very self-conscious about President Clinton and his triumph in the [1992] election, and many wanted to try to replicate what he had been able to achieve. But it was also controlling what the election was about--obviously the goal was to win.

Take me through each one.

With Bill Clinton it was: “the economy, stupid,” and change versus more of the same.

For Nelson Mandela, he was running on change and a better life for all--that was the theme. With Tony Blair they ran on the trusting Labour on the economy, investing in health and education, and criticizing the Conservatives for boom-and-bust economics.

In Israel you had Ehud Barak who was running on change and was running on Rabin's way, or trying to go back to Rabin's way rather than Netanyahu's. And Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia was running on fixing the economic crunch. It was very important how that election got defined. So how you define the election is critical to who wins, but it is also critical to setting the stage for how you govern.

You say that Obama should read your chapter on Mandela quite closely. Why?

Because within two years there was great frustration with the lack of change in housing, in jobs and that overwhelmed everything else very quickly--there was great demoralization.

So what should Obama learn from that?

Don't assume the current euphoria, even with your high approval rating, will carry you through. There will be frustrations in performance and voters will become frustrated. Ultimately, Mandela went through an educative process trying to find a way to get in touch with how people were experiencing and were not experiencing change.

What would you tell Obama?

The first thing, learn from Mandela because no matter how popular you are, people will become disillusioned. Second, assume that you are going to have to go to the country and educate [voters] on the progress, which is sure to be much slower than what people will hope for. I don't know when these policies he's pursuing will begin to produce evidence of progress, the evidence will come way before voters recognize it. He's going to have to spend his political capital trying to interpret the lack of progress, and giving people a sense of the direction of where the change is going to come, and trying to build up enough trust that they will stay with him, get to the point when they can actually see the change.

What were the highlights of your career?

I was pollster to President Clinton for the first two-and-a-half years of his Presidency, but 15 minutes each week was devoted basically to trying to keep him in touch with the country, to break out of the bubble of Washington. I would do focus groups, people would write postcards and I would hand those to him so he could read what people were feeling about him. Another highlight was with Mandela, having the privilege of working for him, but also being able to see him going around the table pouring coffee and tea for everyone else.

It must have been his lack of bitterness, too.

The lack of bitterness was extraordinary. He spoke of his captors, his jailors, as though they were teachers. He just didn't have any [bitterness]. He would talk about it as of going to school where he learned stuff. He was very extraordinary.

With Tony Blair, did you realize how deeply religious he was?

I felt that I did not know these leaders as well as I should have, and Blair is to me the most important. There was evidence for how religious he was, but Britain's a very secular country and [in] political campaigns, you don't talk about religion. Blair didn't talk about religion either but his political views were very much shaped by it. And I actually believe I misread some of his meanings because I assumed that language was similar to Bill Clinton's. You're right, he was very religious, I was not particularly conscious of it, and also the campaign around him was intent on not bringing in.

Only with 9/11 was there a convergence of his political and religious views and I think that explains a lot of why he ended up aligning himself with George Bush and also supporting the Iraq war. Because he transferred his notion of individual and community to the global community and thought that the world had to align with the U.S. to fight this evil, Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism.

And that led to his downfall, obviously.

It did, it led to his political downfall for sure.

Is there somebody you really liked, more than any other?

I would say Tony Blair—he's the most accessible, he's the most kind of engaged and interested, he's the least predictable, that is, he's willing to step back, he's reflective, he can relax, he's able to relax in his inner circle, he never gets angry, there's things he cares a lot about, he's personally very polite.

You have been called a Rasputin—are you?

Not me, though frequently presented that way. There is a best sense of some kind of black art taking place in back rooms, its influence away from the general citizenry in public, even the media. And if you look at the Dick Morrises of the world, they cultivate this kind of a dark image, whispering into the ear of power holders. There's some reality to it, my experience with most political pollsters, those who are running in the major parties, is they got involved as pollsters because they are interested in politics. But the data does show a generation thing. The pollsters who were shaped by the 1960s in their early years are largely motivated by politics, policy, and ideology. But the data also shows that the newer people coming in are much more interested in the thrill of the game as the motivator rather than ideology, or a party.

Are the politics of purpose going away and turning into the game?

I think we are moving that way. Obama’s election was a new moment. I think it is an engaging, tumultuous, formative election, not for the voters at all but for the people who became activists in the Obama campaign and all the activities organizing around him. I think that we are headed into a new kind of politics, a new generation and we don't know what it is going to look like, but it’s a new phase.

Is it the politics of caring—the politics of You rather than Me First?

I think that's partially true. I think this period sees much more specific involvement, much more focus on community, much more sense of responsibility, a notion of transcending old divisions, racial and political. Now, whether we get there will depend a lot I think on whether President Obama is successful, but there is no doubt he changed the rules. I say in the book that these leaders, what's unique about their campaigns is that they pick the fights, they define the election and define a clear choice, that shapes what happens in the era, in the period of change. This was an election where that happened, in a profound way, which I think has the ability to impact not just their success in governing but impact the views of generations and impact what questions, what issues are now relevant.

What’s your biggest doubt about your work?

In the book I talk about when doing the polling for Ehud Barak during the Camp David negotiations, at the outset, two thirds said that never ever would they divide Jerusalem. But through a pretty deliberative educative process Barak brought the country, within a matter of a month, to a different place. By the time Camp David was finished a majority would have supported an agreement including dividing Jerusalem.

Yes, but it never happened.

That's true. But what I said was, if I can't believe my numbers on Jerusalem, what can I believe.

Do you think politicians today depend too much on polling rather than gut instinct?

No. I think the problem is not the amount of polling or focus groups. The problem is whether [politicians] have a purpose, ambition, and direction. People who lack direction and poll, they poll too much. People who know where they're going and poll, Ehud Barack knew where he was going and polled a lot in order to try to convince people to support bold new policies, and so I'm completely comfortable with doing extensive amounts of polling.

What’s the best part of your job?

Learning to respect people. I'm continually impressed by how discerning voters are, how clear they can be about their interests and understanding leaders. And I think that leaders who respect voters, respect people, end up being stronger.

Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Washington Post, Time and Forbes.