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Obama / McCain debate: long on features, short on positioning

Like many of you I watched the US Presidential Debate on Tuesday night. The night before that I watched a re-run on YouTube of the first debate last month. What struck me more than anything was that neither candidate seemed to take the lead. It reminded me in many ways of salesmen arguing about product features rather than telling a compelling story.

What was missing was the underlying narrative about what's going on in the US and around the world. With all the money that the candidates spend on polling, research, and spin, I wish they could get their positioning right.

Here's the outline of what I'd like to hear from both sides. I'm not trying to be comprehensive, mostly just to sketch the format of the argument with a few examples.

Dear Americans:

America is at a cross-road, and the outlook right now appears dark. If I told you that things just needed tweaking, that would be misleading and dishonest, because what we need is an overhaul of the systems that govern this country. At its core, capitalism and democracy are sound, but we have some problems to fix:

  1. The capital and financial markets need to be restored to health. Like it or not, the financial system in this country - and around the world - is like the circulatory system of the body; no one notices when the blood is flowing, but when it stops flowing, the body shuts down. In the past two weeks we came terribly close to a collapse of those systems, and getting out will not be easy, but it has to be JOB 1 of the next president.
  2. The war in Iraq has taken a toll on this country that goes beyond money and into our national psyche. Regardless of what you think about how the war was started, we've now inherited a situation that needs to be solved.
  3. We need to restore the innovative, aggressive, competitive nature of our nation's industry, across the board. This will not be easy. Some kinds of jobs will never come back to our shores, but we can restore the competitiveness of American manufacturing and we can create jobs that can never be off-shored.
  4. The social infrastructure that we rely on is breaking our backs. The costs of health care and education are sucking the life out of individual families, and in aggregate, the economy.

Those are the problems, my friends, and we have not faced a situation like this in our lifetimes. We are at a cross roads. BUT!

  1. We can do it because we've done it before! Talk about the nation's forebearers, the founding fathers, JFK, Abe Lincoln, and current leaders in all areas of society, economic and social. We can climb this hill.
  2. I believe in us. I believe in you. The America I believe in can tackle these problems. We have the technological infrastructure. We still have the strongest economic engine in the world.
  3. What we need is leadership that knows the problems, and can pull the nation together to work on them. We DON'T need a leader who will control everything, but one who can see a bright future and bring Americans together to re-tool this country to be the leader of this next century.

The trouble is:

  1. these problems are not simple, and thus the answers are not simple. Fixing them will require sacrifices. It's not popular for me to talk about sacrifices; my pollsters tell me that you want bonuses, not sacrifices.
  2. The reason the financial system is broken: <explain ... show you've diagnosed and understand the problem, help people understand what's really going on. If you do this well, you can later explain how you'll fix it with their help.>
  3. The reason the healthcare system is broken: <diagnose, explain>
  4. Diagnose, explain each core problem.
  5. For Obama:
    1. Before we can fix a problem, we need to admit it, admit the depth of the problem, and recognize our own parts - as a country, and as members of government - in creating the problem.
    2. The current administration is defending its record.
    3. While Senator McCain calls himself a renegade, he is part of the republican system, and his team would be more of the same.
    4. My opponent really will not admit the problem exists; he'll talk about the problems in vague ways, but he's stuck defending his own voting record and his long-standing alliance with President Bush.
  6. For McCain:
    1. Talking about hope is different than creating hope; Senator Obama has a lot of spark and some good ideas, but this situation requires more.
    2. A complex situation like this requires a steady hand and experience.
    3. Senator Obama has almost no international experiences, and whether you like it or not, we are in a globally connected world. The success of the next 50 years will depend on the ability of your next president to understand world issues and work with world leaders. One or two trips to Europe is not enough preparation for the job, sir.

And I am asking for you to elect me to be your president:

  1. We will start on day one with initiatives to restore confidence in the financial markets in American and around the world:
    1. Surely the candidates have ideas here?
  2. With those initiatives under way, my next priority would be to stimulate the economy: <plan>
  3. Include a LOT about how average citezens can help. This isn't about government welfare; it's about a country getting back in shape, and that requires all of us.
  4. I believe in XYZ for healthcare, and I would do ABC...

    ... continue to lay out the platform.

Do you you get the picture?

What I present above puts the argument into a framework that explains:

  1. The problem(s) we face, and the magnitude of the problem...
    ... candidates talked about individuals with problems (which is ok), but not as much about the deep structural problems with the country itself and its place in the world.
    1. But we can do it... show belief; talk about the kind of country this is.
      ... John McCain did some of this, but not nearly enough... and without an overall strategy to help Americans understand how they can help.
    2. The trouble with the existing situation (Diagnose the problem), and why my opponent can't solve it.
      ... diagnosis was sadly lacking in this debate.
    3. Why my plan addresses the problem and avoids pitfalls
      ... again, this depends on a clear articulation of the problems and the reasons the problems exist. At this point, lay out the policies!

    I think both candidates missed the boat. Their problems all come back to positioning:

    1. They didn't admit the problem, or the scale of the problems. There was not a full reckoning of the magnitude of the problem in the capital markets, but perhaps they don't want to spook the public? I'm not sure how many Americans have internalized the impact of the collapse of the Wall Street giants over the past several weeks, and the tumbling stock market, but it seems to me that the nation must be stunned. What happened? What next? Americans know the problems are big, but if a leader doesn't talk about it, he doesn't connect with us.
    2. I didn't hear a lot of confidence. People are scared, and they need to believe. Show belief in the country to overcome this challenge.

      This isn't just about government doing more. It's about giving citezens their own marching orders; what can they do for the economy? Empower the nation, and you'll reduce the reliance on government by definition.

    3. Diagnosis: I didn't get the sense that either leader really understands why we have the problems we do! If he doesn't undersand the problems folks, I guarantee he can't solve them. And if he doesn't share his diagnosis with Americans, Americans can't get on board!
    4. Lay out the plan. In the product world, these are the features. In this debate, they talked about the features without describing the problems. We were left with a debate about features with no way to evaluate them.

    Maybe what these guys really need is a product manager.

    - Alan

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