Opinion: “Si, se puede”

In 2006 two filmmakers decided to document the first term of a little known US senator called Barack Obama. Within nine months their rookie was running for president.

The resulting two hour HBO documentary was shown on BBC Two last Saturday (9th Jan). If you didn’t see it, do all you can to track it down somewhere, somehow. It is clear that the film-makers formed a trusted relationship with Barack, Michelle and his team so the access to the deeds, the techniques, the emotions and the inspiration of the whole cast from candidate to ten year old telephone canvasser is extraordinary.

Obama may have had a tough and perhaps disappointing 2009, but that should not distract from the lessons he and his campaign can give us. A campaign to get elected is not just, or should not be just, the means to office. It must be the long struggle to win the chance to do things, to do things differently and to do things with people who are affected by that action.

Obama’s winning quality was his empathy. He was connecting. He didn’t just ‘get it’ as the expression goes, he ‘was it’. His life and personal experiences meant that he quite obviously and genuinely knew and still remembered what it meant for a family to worry financially, to work hard simply to make it, and to do without. Every frame shot in the making of this documentary attests to that.

At one stage he says that he’s lucky to be fighting the campaign at that precise time. Why? “Because it’s only two years ago we paid off our student debts. It’s only a few months ago we really got established in our home and got a grip of the mortgage.” They had very young children. He and Michelle hadn’t yet lost touch.

His background is well known but worth a quick recall. Born in Honolulu, Hawaii to an American mother of predominantly English decent and a father from Kenya, his parents separated when he was two. He says that multicultural Hawaii instilled a world view based on mutual respect, but it was a hard young life and he has written openly about using alcohol, marijuana and cocaine to ‘push questions of who I was out of my mind.’

Moving to the US mainland at 18 to enter college he eventually found his way to Chicago where he became the director of a church-based community organization and worked as a community organizer. Later he became a civil rights lawyer but never abandoned his involvement with community projects. Inevitably as a social campaigner he ended up getting elected to the state Senate. Election to the Senate followed in 2004. He sounds like an ALDC member to me.

Obama’s campaign for president of the United States was based on ending the Iraq War, increasing energy independence and providing universal health care. He chose to launch his campaign in Springfield, Illinois, in February 2007 on exactly the spot from which Lincoln gave his ‘House Divided’ speech.

We can fast forward a year to February 2008 by using his and speech writer Jon Favreau’s unforgettable distillation of the campaign journey,

What began as a whisper in Springfield soon carried across the cornfields of Iowa, where farmers and factory workers, students and seniors stood up in numbers we have never seen before. They stood up to say that maybe this year we don’t have to settle for politics where scoring points is more important than solving problems. (Cheers, applause.) Maybe this year we can finally start doing something about health care we can’t afford. (Cheers.) Maybe this year we can start doing something about mortgages we can’t pay. Maybe this year, this time can be different. (Cheers, applause.)

“Their voices echoed from the hills of New Hampshire to the deserts of Nevada, where teachers and cooks and kitchen workers stood up to say that maybe Washington doesn’t have to be run by lobbyists anymore. (Cheers, applause.) Maybe the voices of the American people can finally be heard again. (Cheers, applause.)”

Early on Obama and his Chicago based campaign strategist, David Axelrod, had seized upon ‘change’ as their theme. It caught the mood of disenchantment with Bush, Iraq and Washington politics, and drove a wedge between his campaign and that of Washington insider, Hilary Clinton. Of course other candidates would adopt the same theme, so it is revealing that they expressed it as ‘Change We Can Believe In’. Advertisers will tell you that ‘you’ is the most powerful of all words in marketing, but the Obama campaign rejected ‘you’ in favour of ‘we’. Change We Can Believe In.

This then spawned the slogan, ‘Yes, we can.’ First used by Obama following the New Hampshire Democratic primary itself was an evolution of a slogan earlier used by campaigning United Farm Workers in Arizona in 1972 “Si, se puede” (“Yes, it can be done”). Again it is a ‘we’ not a ‘you’. It symbolized Obama’s connection with the public and the public’s connection with him.

Gradually, Obama’s election journey was related to his own personal journey against the odds, by effort, hard work and doing without, which was further related to the individual journeys of all those people drawn to him and ultimately by the journey of the country itself.

The speech continues:

They reached the coast of South Carolina, when people said that maybe we don’t have to be divided by race and region and gender — (cheers, applause) — that the crumbling schools are stealing the future of black children and white children — (cheers, applause) — that we can come together and build an America that gives every child everywhere the opportunity to live out their dreams. This time can be different. (Cheers, applause.)

“And today, on this Tuesday in February, in states north and south, east and west, what began as a whisper in Springfield has swelled to a chorus of millions calling for change. (Cheers, applause.) It’s a chorus that cannot be ignored, a chorus that cannot be deterred. This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. (Cheers, applause.)
(Chants of “Yes, We Can! Yes, We Can!”)

I hope you agree that no apologies are necessary for quoting so fully from this masterpiece of human communication.

Recently on LDV we were invited to have another look at an article written by David Miliband in the Guardian in 2008. It was called ‘We can win from here’ or something like that. Ah! I thought. Bet it will be full of Obamaisms.

But no.

Miliband writes, “Every member of the Labour party carries with them a simple guiding mission on the membership card: to put power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many, not the few.” My italics. I repeat, ‘to put power … in the hands of the many.’ It is the old politics of paternalism, of alpha males, of colonialism, of doing things for people, which runs back in the history of this country to feudalism and old warlords before the Conquest. It is what American settlers sought to gain independence from.

We may not have it on our membership card but the equivalent among Liberal Democrats stretches back to the 1970s when the old Liberal Party adopted a political aim of ‘helping people take and use power’. It is the difference between doing things ‘for you’ and ‘achieving things together’.

Obama echoes our approach with the wording of this advertising banner: “I am asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring real change to Washington … I am asking you to believe in yours.”

But where Obama chose as his backdrop for a speech a location redolent of Lincoln’s opposition to a divided country, Clegg, this week, spoke in front of the logo of a multi-national company, Thompson Reuters.

Where Obama encouraged a belief in the people to change their discredited politics, Clegg chose the discouragement contained in the title, ‘The Politics of Plenty is Over’.

Where Obama campaigned for better health care, action on repossessions and better welfare services, Clegg sided with cuts and progressive austerity.

Where Obama campaigned to end a war, we leave it to the Conservative candidate for Penrith and the Borders to be a lone voice for an alternative and less militaristic approach to Afghanistan.

Where Obama spoke of Liberty, Justice and Equality, Clegg spoke of fairness. Where Obama was optimistic and wanted to do more, Clegg is pessimistic and says we can only do less.

Clegg says, “The party that will win the argument this year is the party which finds a way of marrying credibility and hope, restraint and generosity, discipline and compassion.” At the moment it is all stick and no carrot. Just the word party is from the vocabulary of the Divided House.

There is something patronizing and paternalistic about defining what is credible, handing down discipline and imposing restraint. It’s an authoritarian, hierarchical Old World approach. Acceptance, self-restraint and self-discipline come with freedom.

My guess is that Clegg and those who surround him started at the top of the pile and have a distant, disconnected perspective. But if he is still in touch, then, he and that team need to convince us he possesses the genuine empathy that is the basis of all great campaigns.

He has plenty in the Party to help him. There is a legion of Liberal Democrat activists who campaign side by side with residents in their communities all across this country.

Who each day connect with the British people, sharing their pain and anxieties over jobs, mortgages and threats to essential services. Who instinctively side with them against the centralized power of private and public bureaucracies. Who are radical for reform. Who campaign ceaselessly for Liberty, Justice and Equality. Who are disdainful of temerity. Energized by hope. Who believe in the potential of British people to rebuild and connect their communities. Who mummer every breath, “Yes we can!”

* Bill le Breton is a former chair and president of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors.

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This entry was posted in LDVUSA and Op-eds.


  • Bill, you rarely (if ever) post anything without having a dig or three at Nick Clegg. It’s all fair comment, but do you ever wonder if your constant (and sometimes bitter sounding) negativity is the best way to improve things?

    This is among your more constructive efforts, so thanks for that.

    The idea that we can somehow copy the ‘yes we can’ approach of Obama is a bit light on detail, although you are absolutely right about the language needing to be along the lines of ‘take back power’ not ‘put back power’. (I don’t know if he authored it, but didn’t Nick Clegg front a campaign with precisely that slogan, at a time when the depressing and disempowering messages of the expenses scandal were everywhere?)

    Obama’s campaign was at a slightly different time to ours, and built on a different kind of indictment of his predecessor’s administration. One of the cleverest things about the ‘yes we can’ rhetoric was that it resisted (on the whole) the shopping list which Clegg is also resisting. Of course, it also had a lot to do with who Obama was, and responded to the ‘chorus of cynics’ who said at every stage that victory for his campaign was impossible.

    Contrast this, say, with the SNP’s campaign in Scotland in 2007 (I live in Scotland). The SNP are not in my opinion by instinct a very positive and aspirational party, but they fought a positive and aspirational campaign promising a huge number of things – immediate and huge transport investment practically everywhere; the replacement of student loans with grants, and the writing off of all graduate debt; the abolition of Council Tax in favour of a centralised and under-funded alternative and a range of other populist but expensive policies for the public services.

    It worked (a bit) for them as a campaign strategy, and other parties in Scotland need to think a little about why that was. But in Government they are nothing but a fleet-footed communications operation and a wish for a referendum on independence. They may have campaigned saying ‘yes we can’ but they govern saying ‘it’s someone else’s fault that we didn’t’. This is not very empowering, but it’s the only way they can try to defend their dishonesty and retain support.

    One way we can help people to take back power is by making sure we resist empty gimmicks which won’t work or can’t be funded, and instead focus on core ideas which are clear, worthwhile aims we can work to achieve (with people who support us, not on their behalf) whatever financial, parliamentary or political barriers are put in our way.

  • Bill le Breton 18th Jan '10 - 10:30am

    Thanks Patrick for adding further insights from the documentary and I do so agree with your reading of the importance of the human appeal of that inner campaign team.

    Interestingly, the HBO website suggested holding house parties to watch it and offers to supply material for such ‘front room’ events. As you suggest, it would be good if all campaign teams took the time to view it together – maybe as they stuffed an envelope or two when the electorate are in bed. I do so hope the General Election team watches it – and that they read those Obama speeches and autobiographies.

    Gavin, thanks for the warning which I take very seriously. I *am* very critical and I *am* concerned every time I publish criticisms. It is not done lightly. My first campaign activity was in 1974’s February election down in Cornwall where by force of personality Paul Tyler won … just. And I have subsequently been a member of two Council groups and helped a good number of people realise their campaigning ambitions. So I have a deep affection for the party and know the value of loyalty and team work.

    But (and I never thought I’d hear myself saying this) I’m a patriot. As a country we face the most important election ever.

    It was important to have a Government in WW1 that had Lloyd George in it. But the elections of 1906 and after weren’t fought on how to prepare or cope with that challenge. Ditto Churchill and WW2. The 2010 election is all about how Britain copes with a continuing, chronic economic malaise.

    As we enter this election all three Parties have the same and, to my mind, wrong policy to deal with that. They also have very similar and equally questionable foreign policies, especially as regards the Middle East. And the same managerial view of politics so that each leader believes he is the best potential manager of the country.

    Just how close they are to each other can be seen over their view of fiscal and monetary policy. The Conservatives would start austere cuts in expenditure now. As Vince has said here http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/jan/10/lib-dems-attack-tories-deficit his policy is closer to Labour’s but those cuts are just scheduled for later. Where’s the voice for truly radical tax reform? Where’s the inspiration to work and rebuild and rehouse and retrain and restore and renew?

    There is therefore now a virtual National Government.

    On the most import issues facing the country, the debate is about detail. Far more unites Clegg, Cameron and Brown than divides them on the economy, on Afghanistan and on managerialism. (Perhaps there’ll be a real National Government in a couple of year’s time if that consensus on economic policy initiates, as I expect, a lost decade of economic decline.)

    There needs to be an Opposition to that bleak, defeatist, unimaginative, hopeless consensus and, as that is not coming from the Liberal Democrat Leadership, there needs to be an Opposition to that Leadership within our Party.

    We live in a dangerous time, but it is also one where visionary, hopeful, inspiring leadership could help the people change their country and its institutions and, with it, change our fortunes, our life chances and the quality of relationships of us all.

    I just want to hear more of ‘Yes we can’ and less of ‘Why we can’t’. I hope I’m not alone.

  • David Allen 18th Jan '10 - 6:03pm


    It seems to me that you have two themes, which should be pulled a little further apart for the sake of clarity. One is optimism versus pessimism. On that subject, I think you’ve got a point, but you should not push it too far. Obama was able to suggest that his economic stimulus could turn the tide. A year later, well, things might have been even worse if it hadn’t been done, but that’s about all that can be said. There is just rather less scope for optimism. The inspired leadership we are seeking now should perhaps be more like Churchill than Obama – that is, an inspiring leader who offers us blood, toil, sweat and tears, because that’s what is needed to save the planet.

    Your second theme is top-down remote managerialism versus bottom-up empathy and inclusiveness. And here, as you point out, Nick looks bad, just as Gordon looks bad. We don’t forgive the lack of humanity in Gordon’s case, we take it as evidence of control-freakery, insincerity, and self-centredness. Should we be more forgiving with Nick? I think that would be a mistake. We need to get better, which means we need to sort out what we are doing badly, and get it changed.

    Take the expenses scandal and its aftermath – which Nick has rightly identified as an issue we should pursue. How would an Obama have tackled it? He would start by promising to work with ordinary people and help THEM get THEIR concerns deal with. He would have read that survey which identified that what ordinary people most want tackled is the sham of parliament and the complete powerlessness of MPs, which makes the money wasted in paying them bogus expenses all the more obnoxious. How has Clegg tackled it? Basically, by offering a lot of prepackaged ideas from the Lib Dem policy vaults, many of which benefit the self-interests of our party. These are all accompanied by statements of anger and outrage – uttered by a prosperous well-fed gentleman in a sharp suit!

  • Bill le Breton 19th Jan '10 - 9:43am

    Thank you David. Some wise and helpful comments. Hope you won’t mind me illustrating where two themes sit side by side. I recently came across this wonderful quote of Studs Terkel;

    “Hope has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”

    Real change comes when a movement forms. The conditions outside of Westminster are ripe for such a movement.

    But the crush on College Green, when politicians and media fall over each other, is a real symbol of the way the Westminster Village is crammed on a very small area of turf.


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