Children grow up learning that politics is the “art of persuasion.” Ideas, arguments and facts can clash through debate and lead to policy choices. Although Barack Obama’s prodigious oratorical skills recall politicians of centuries past, the purpose of his rhetoric is different. His goal is not to change minds but to identify all the people who already agree with him and painstakingly craft a governing majority out of their atomized preferences.
With his State of the Union address, President Obama combined the two most powerful tactics of modern politics – big speeches and big data – to spur political action.
President Bill Clinton’s aides once talked about a “permanent campaign,” but that seems laconic compared to Obama’s fusion of campaigning and governing. The group Organizing for America held a conference call with Obama’s supporters after the speech, and Obama set off on a three-city tour to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois, all states that have Republican governors. The point of this flanking campaign is not to change minds but to mobilize voters.
This tactic, which seems to be the preferred one for his second term, is to frame the policy choices in a way that allows him to build a governing coalition. Each of his carefully chosen priorities – minimum wage, climate change, immigration, infrastructure, women’s rights, education and gun control – is designed not just to satisfy diverse interest groups but also to create a unified interest group out of the isolated individuals who make up modern America.
Armed with the latest thinking on behavioral psychology, political marketing and analytics, Obama’s campaign has moved toward a new era of micro-targeting. As Sasha Issenberg brilliantly shows in his book The Victory Lab, Obama’s team knows not only where its supporters live, shop and worship but even on which bus routes they travel, which video games their kids play and which TV personalities they respect.