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Is Obama Using Bush's Playbook?

By Reed Galen

In late 2006, before this presidential election cycle picked up speed, conventional wisdom dictated that the winning campaign had to follow the model that then-Governor George W. Bush had used in 2000 and the Bush campaign perfected during his re-election bid in 2004. On the Republican side that assumption was clearly incorrect. On the Democratic side, the campaign of Senator Barack Obama has embraced the Bush-Rove construct and added its own unique features to it.

Ideologically speaking, Barack Obama and George Bush could hardly be more different. Theirs is a dichotomy of Democratic big-government, dovish liberalism and Republican low-tax, free market, hawkish conservatism. But their personalities, when beliefs are removed, are not terribly different to the outside observer. Both shine in tightly-controlled, set-piece environments where the rules of engagement are based on their comfort-level. Although their speaking styles are clearly divergent, their charisma is a defining quality; turning arenas full of people into adoring fans with a turn-of-phrase, wink or thumbs up.

Despite their personal magnetism, though, they are also both clearly uncomfortable in more dynamic situations. Barack Obama in front of a teleprompter and well-screened crowd is a far different candidate than the Barack Obama dealing with Charlie Gibson asking pointed questions during a debate. Obama's reaction to that particular event also points to another trait he shares with the White House's current occupant: Neither reacts well to criticism from quarters they believe unworthy to bestow it. Additionally, Obama's infrequent media availabilities and rare trips to the press cabin of his campaign plane tell us we should expect the same type of minimalist dealings with the fourth estate under a President Obama as we have had under President Bush.

Beyond their personalities, both men's campaigns show striking similarities. Structurally, they share the traits of being large, well-staffed, hyper-efficient organizations with clearly delineated organizational charts and personnel willing and able to stay within their lanes (at least publicly) for the greater good. No doubt there have been major disagreements within the Obama campaign, as there were at times during both of Bush's. The fact that none of those internal squabbles came to light is a testament to another commonality: Message discipline.

During both the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns, leaking (unauthorized leaking anyway) was almost unheard of. After all, it was absolutely a firing offense and every member of the staff knew that. For most of the 2008 cycle, the Obama campaign has been able to drive its message day-in and day-out through thick and thin. The latest dust-up over Revered Wright has severely tested its ability to continue this patter. Both organizations share an ability to drive the press corps to distraction by their unwavering ability to recite the day's message points ad infinitum.

That sort of discipline is made possible because both men engendered near-total, reverent loyalty in their staffs. Obamans and Bushies, while they would probably not drink beer together, would defend their man to the end. Both groups are full of hundreds of people who have given up high-paying jobs or barely any money at all because of an almost mystical belief that their candidate is the best and most effective answer to what ails America. The staffs of George Bush in 2000, and Barack Obama in 2008, are probably strikingly similar in make-up and work every day believing that they cannot lose. This sort of esprit de corps, while intangible, is an essential element to running a national campaign. Everyone, from the war-room intern to the campaign manager gets up every morning knowing that they must do as good a job as possible because to do any less would be to let their man down.

The ground game of the Obama campaign resembles the President's. The 2000 Bush campaign's limited success at turning out core voters taught the organization valuable lessons. That effort was subsequently improved and redeployed in 2002 and 2004 to devastating effect; producing increased majorities in both houses of Congress and the most popular votes for a presidential candidate in American history. Obama's victories in caucus states, which typically require more intensive preparation on the ground, is an example of the senator's campaign taking what they've learned and being smart enough to put aside political bias and use the best components of successful campaigns.

And last, but certainly not least, there is the money. In 2000, George Bush shattered previous fundraising records and took people's breath away. Subsequently, Barack Obama raised a staggering $50 million in March of this year alone. Flush bank accounts make small problems seem insignificant and big problems manageable. An abundance of ready cash also allows a campaign to test programs and theories early in an effort thereby avoiding the waste of resources on marginally successful efforts. However, Obama's use of small-donors is a stark contrast to the Bush Ranger/Pioneer program that revolutionized 'bundling' and made huge chunks of cash suddenly available.

As presidential candidates, Barack Obama and George Bush hold radically divergent world-views. But their campaigns reflect their personalities and vice-versa. They share large, well-funded, well-organized organizations that a relentlessly on-message and make few major mistakes. While Barack Obama publicly disavows almost all of what George Bush stands for, it's clear that when it comes to politics, he's willing to learn something from the other side of the aisle.

Reed Galen is a Senior Consultant with Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy in Sacramento, California. He was John McCain's Deputy Campaign Manager until July of 2007.

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