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48 Laws of Obama: An Interview with Strategy Expert Robert Greene

By Adisa Banjokofeatures
Sep 21, 2008 - 10:26 PM

Robert Greene is the author of The 48 Laws of Power
On May 20, 2008, Barack Obama won the state of Oregon. No matter what opinion people made about Obama "not being ready to lead," a bi-racial man with a Muslim father and a Christan mother had taken one more step toward entering the Oval Office. The mauling he gave Senator Clinton in several predominantly white states in massive numbers seemed unthinkable. Or was it?

In 2000, author Robert Greene penned the 48 Laws of Power. His groundbreaking bestseller gives a modern twist to classical war strategy. Greene's in depth discussion on the effects of mastering of one's emotions can easily be seen in the Clinton vs. Obama skirmishes. Greene expanded his unique approach to observing warfare in The Art of Seduction and The 33 Strategies of War. He is arguably the foremost sought after strategist in business, politics and war - our Prince Machiavelli of modern warfare, if you will.

In watching Barack Obama's rise, it is hard to not see a pattern of his victories closely connected with The 48 Laws of Power and the 33 Strategies of War. At times Obama appears to have been playing a magnificent game of political chess from the start of his bid for the Oval Office. I sat down with Robert Greene to discuss Senator Obama's tactical and strategic movements in his campaign.

Adisa Banjoko: Let's start with Law 24: The Perfect Courtier. You say that the individual "thrives in a world where everything revolves around power and political dexterity. He has mastered the art of indirection; he flatters, yields to superiors, and asserts power over others in the most oblique and graceful manner. Learn and apply the laws of courtiership and there will be no limit to how far you can rise in the court."

Robert Greene: I never thought about it before, but it does make perfect sense. If you wanted to psychoanalyze it a little bit, with his background, in being bi-racial and having to navigate in different worlds...If you look at his Kenyan father, then you look at the White side in Kansas and Hawaii--he's been towing a line between the two worlds. And if you read his book, he's asking "Where do I fit?" It's a really interesting story, I like his books. He's always had to learn how to be the courtier. He's always had to be diplomatic; how not to offend this person or that. These two sides had very different sensibilities, while he's trying to figure out who he is. So, I think it's in his nature. Its not a fake thing. Some people learn to be the courtier later in life. It's a nice quality, but some people can feel like its a little bit manipulative. But I think its very deep in his identity, from his multiracial background. I'm not sure, I can only speculate.

Its very nice. He's very graceful. He does not get angry. I thought the one moment where he blew it a little was in a debate with Clinton. It was in January I believe. He kinda lost his cool. He got a little bit angry and testy. I supported him early on. He was my first pick. For while I felt a little bit alienated from him. I did not think he was tough enough. I wanted to see him fighting back. But I understood later on that that's very hard for him to do. It does not play well. For the position that he is in, trying to be the first Black president. For him to show anger at a White woman was strategically not gonna play. So, he lost it a little bit in this one debate. But he never repeated it. I mean, its not really a strategy on his part, but its very effective.

I was just reading before you called about him speaking in Florida. He was meeting with Jewish voters. It was kind of interesting to see him charming them again, winning them over. I can make references to Jewish people and Jewish culture that are very appropriate. So there he is being the courtier. It's a quality that will serve very well in his campaign. Bill Clinton was a master at it. He could talk to Hollywood liberals and then he could go to a factory in Ohio.

Now, some people don't think he has the common touch. I think there is a bit of truth to that. Maybe he is not comfortable with the White steel worker in Pennsylvania. But he has a different kind of power, a different kind of charm. I think he'll actually get over some of these supposed weaknesses that he has with White voters. I think he is very much a courtier.

AB: The first law I think I openly recognized with Barack is Law 32: Play to People's Fantasies. There you say "The truth is often avoided because it is ugly and unpleasant. Never appeal to truth and reality unless you are prepared for the anger that comes for disenchantment. Life is so harsh and distressing that people who can manufacture romance or conjure up fantasy are like oases in the desert: Everyone flocks to them. There is great power in tapping into the fantasies of the masses."

Now, I do not mean to imply that he is fraudulent in spirit, or an actor. But, I don't think I have seen someone in my lifetime who has been able to mentally and emotionally move masses the way he does. I can only compare it to watching old footage of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe Malcolm X.


AB: Perfect example in JFK. It looks like his change theme has drawn millions of people into what they want to see in America. It seems like he creates this dream for you of what America can be, but leaves room for you to impose your dream on top.

RG: I think you're right. We don't like to bring sophisticated psychology when discussing these things. The fantasy always kind of plays a line between a vague hope with a little bit of reality thrown in. If you put too much reality in, it obscures. If you put too much hope there is nothing we can really connect to. So, throughout the ages the people who have been able to master this know how to make the perfect illusionary quality. It's like watching a good writer writing a novel.

Barack makes change inspiring. But he does not fill in too many details. Strategically, that's very smart. The problem with America in the 21st century is that the country is so splintered. It's cracking up into smaller and smaller niche markets and groups--by region, by ethnicity and all these things. So that makes it hard to connect the whole country together. It's hard to get over all that and bring people together with a message. The only way you can do that is to be very inspiring and not being too concrete with what you are offering.

I can refer to John Kennedy in 1960 when he ran for president. He kinda drove the Republicans crazy with his vagueness. He never really said what he was going to do on a whole score of issues. But he talked about the new frontier and bringing back a certain spirit in America. It really connected in that moment. I think the people around him, like David Axelrod who have backgrounds in marketing and advertising, are crafting a story. They are trying to do more of a JFK, or even Reagan type campaign. They know that this is the moment for that because Americans are very disillusioned with probably the worst president we've ever had. Things look very bleak.

AB: The fantasy law connects directly to Law 45: Preach the Need for change, but never reform too much at once. I think he's hitting law 45 right on the nail.

RG: How so?

AB: Because he keeps the discussion of change very nebulous. Mainly though, Obama keeps you believing that A) that change can happen, and B) that he is the agent for the change you want to see in America. One of his best qualities, and something I think Senator Clinton should have embraced, was Law 46: Never Appear Too Perfect. He never lets you forget that he's got a wife and kids and that he has his own struggles with cigarettes or whatever. I think 46 keeps people listening to him.

RG: You and I may feel that way, but I'm wondering if other people don't see that in him. I saw him yesterday in his speech after he won Oregon and he said, "I'm not perfect, I've made mistakes". I think that kind of humility is very endearing. But I think there are a lot of people that he doesn't connect to. They see him as a kind of arrogant and over educated person who is looking down on them. It's funny how it's subjective. So to you and I we think he does embody Law 46. Other people think that he doesn't do it enough.

It's all fake though really in the end. Because Hillary is eating hot dogs and drinking beer acting like she's one of the yokels. They made one hundred million dollars last year. She comes from a wealthy background, certainly more elite than he is. It's all fake in the end. But I think that part is subjective in the end. He's going to have to work a bit on his image. He's gonna have to connect with that NASCAR crowd a little bit.

AB: Moving beyond Hillary and looking toward McCain, are we moving from power to the war? If you could tell him to study only 3 of the 33 Strategies of War, what would they be?

RG: The one he should study, and has actually done pretty well so far, is Strategy 20: Maneuver Them Into Weakness. It's a Chinese concept. I struggled my hardest to bring this to the Western audience, because it's not easy to explain. In the East, it's the position you take that matters. Everything is related to something else--nothing is isolated. What you want in war or strategy is to take positions that put your rival in a corner and have less options than you.

The Western approach is not like that at all. The Western approach is to go straight in at the enemy and kill as many as you can.

In politics you want to get to a position that allows you to go here or there. Obama did that brilliantly from day one and Hillary messed it up. Here he is moving toward the general election. How can he move John McCain into positions that are untenable? That's the game. You can already see the position he's trying to put McCain in is, "He's Bush," but how do you make that case? It's one thing to say it, it's another thing to make people feel it. If he can make people in Kentucky and Pennsylvania feel that McCain will make us live through four more years of the hell we've been living through, it will be very effective.

But it can't be just with words. You have to do and show--it's interesting to watch. Now, very fortunately, the Democrats control Congress. For instance, the vote to the GI bill that just occurred. It will force McCain's hand to show that he supports Bush. If he doesn't, he'll alienate his right wing base. In the Power book we call that putting your enemy on the horns of a dilemma. You go right, you are screwed. You go left, you are screwed. If he votes for the GI bill, he looks like a Democrat. If he votes against it, he looks like he's Bush again.

Obama has to keep his options fluid. You don't wanna commit to anything that's gonna screw you in the end. Any kind of position for instance on the economy. He did that in one debate but I don't think that's going to come back to hurt him. Don't say exactly that you'll never raise taxes on this. Keep it a little bit vague. Give yourself room to put McCain in very uncomfortable positions.

Another law from the war book is Strategy 28: Give Your Rivals Enough Rope to Hang Themselves. You never stop a man who's killing himself. McCain has a temper. Its the old Bob Dole thing. Love him or hate him, he's got a temper and it's legendary. So he's got to frustrate him and bait him into things. Seeing John McCain lose his temper, it does not look so good. He looks like a cranky old man.

I talk about this in my book in regards to Lee Atwater. He's kind of a satanic figure in politics. He did that very same thing in 1988 with Bob Dole. But I'm afraid it's a very powerful tactic and could be very effective on John McCain. I already saw with the GI bill he got very testy.

War Strategy number 12: Grand Strategy. Its the most important in the book. It's that you plan, and that you do it looking far ahead into the future. You don't want to be someone that's attacking into the wind everything new that comes into the election cycle. Politicians muck this up again and again, because it's not an election that takes place every week. It's in November. One day. There are going to be setbacks. There are going to be things that you did not plan for happening. I mean, Democrats are really bad at this. I mean, pathetic bad. If you have a grand strategy, it makes you consistent. It keeps you going in that line, when it seems everything around you is not.

So much of the bad stuff happening, with Clinton losing this state or that state--it could have pushed him off course. But it didn't. He stayed pretty consistent on his message there. If he follows those, it'll be a slam dunk.


Adisa Banjoko is an author and lecturer based in The Bay Area. He blogs at www.hiphopchessfederation.wordpress.com.

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