My son, Malcolm, is a candidate for President of the student council at his middle school. He announced his candidacy last week. Within moments, there were posters around his school and a Facebook group dedicated to his election. Over the course of the first week of his campaign, its message has migrated from one that suggested that it was somehow right that he should be elected (echoes of Dukasis’s first campaign for governor) to one focused on his desire to represent the other students at the school. Malcolm seemed instantly to understand that a campaign message that suggested his own superior gifts would not be as effective as one that emphasized his desire to serve (remember Deval Patrick’s first campaign — “it’s not about me”). The President needs to learn from Malcolm and, on Tuesday, he needs to bring humility and eagerness to serve with him to his debate against Mitt Romney.
I’ll get back to the upcoming debate, but I want to focus on Malcolm a little longer. His first poster featured a particularly dashing shot of him in a science classroom. It read: “Vote for Malcolm Davis. He’s Probably Smarter than You.” A friend made it. It’s funny (sort of) and certainly attention-grabbing. At the same time, it conveys a sense of superiority and entitlement (something Mal doesn’t have, by the way). The campaign at his school will run for several weeks and he worried, I think correctly, that this approach risked making his opponent, Rachel, seem more appealing. And so he changed it.
That’s what we need on Tuesday. We need Obama to change his approach. In the first debate with Romney, he was the President of his first term. Somehow, his manner suggests that he does not need to take the time to explain to us what it is he is doing or would do. Part of why there is so much controversy about the health care bill is that the President didn’t ever make the time to explain to us how it worked or why it was right. In the first debate, he behaved just as he has governed, as if he thinks that he is probably smarter than you. Whether he is or not is beside the point. Explaining is not an imposition; it’s leadership.
Malcolm’s second poster says — “You Should Probably Vote for Malcolm Davis.” Here, his message is less about him and more about his constituency. It respects their thinking and the idea that they will decide. Still though, it is campaign without substance. In his third poster, he is holding a window fan. It says, “I am a fan of your ideas.” And that is where his poster really captured his message. At dinner the first night of his campaign, he explained to all of us that he wanted to make sure that the student government at his school focused on the students’ ideas for the school. The student council President sets the agenda for these meetings. And so, his Facebook page says that agenda will be determined by what the students want to have discussed. In other words, he wants to represent the people whose votes he seeks.
I have been down on the Town Hall format as a comeback venue for the President. Thinking about Malcolm’s campaign has me hopeful. Obama needs to look the voters in the eye, take the time to answer the question clearly, and show an eagerness to lead us. Sure, he also needs to take Romney on directly. But, the forum should help with that. Romney seems to have trouble with real people. He thinks he is probably smarter than you. He thinks his “success” means he should lead. His friends are NASCAR owners. Come on — Tuesday is the moment when likability should assert itself. Obama has to make the effort to connect and explain. If he does so, things should change in his direction.
Malcolm’s campaign is taking off. There are t shirts, posters and bracelets. The debate is a week or so away. I am confident that he will not view the debate as an imposition. Instead, he will see it and treat it as an opportunity to connect with the people he hopes to lead. The President has that opportunity on Tuesday. He’d better make the best of it.
1/12/13 — Malcolm was elected and now serves as Student Council President. His campaign slogan evolved and his last poster read: “Your Ideas, Implemented.” Now, he finds that the same folks (voters) who so much wanted a say seem apathetic about government. The upcoming dance gets some attention, but longer term efforts (like replacing pencil sharpeners) simply fall on deaf ears. It’s a good reminder that the governed need to remain involved.