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Margot Wallström

Vice-President of the European Commission

"Conversations that shape policy" – lessons for Europe by Obama, the first Tech President

Prime Seminar: "Obama - the first Tech President"
Brussels, 29 January 2009

Welcome, all of you to this seminar.

I welcome the report. I believe it will help European politicians learn useful lessons from the Obama experience. This is especially important as we prepare for the European Parliament elections in June this year.

Can Europe simply imitate America? Should we? There are certainly differences between our two democratic systems, which we need to bear in mind. But there are also similarities – and the US President has a novel approach to communication which I believe European politicians would do well to learn from.

Let me start by noting three key aspects of political life in the US – and compare them with the situation in Europe.

First: money. This is the key to success in any US election campaign, whether Presidential or Congressional. Congress men and women wanting to be re-elected have to spend a great deal of time travelling the length and breadth of the country to attend fund-raising events.

Presidential candidates tend to get large slices of their campaign funds from major donors, especially from big business and wealthy individuals. President Bush, for example, was famously supported by the oil industry. And of course they want something in return.

What's interesting about Barack Obama in this respect is that he raised most of his finance not from a few big donations but from millions of small ones, via the Internet. This makes him much more independent, which I think is an excellent thing for America – and the world!

Fortunately for European democracy, success in our elections has a lot less to do with the wealth of the candidates. But on both sides of the Atlantic, success greatly depends on how you come across on TV and in the press. So...

Second aspect: the media.

In the US, the mass media play a major role in presidential election campaigns and public relations exercises. This has been the case ever since Franklin D. Roosevelt's radio broadcasts – the "fireside chats" as they were called.

Then came television. It is often said that John F. Kennedy was elected thanks to TV. In the congressional elections of November 2006, some candidates spent more than two-thirds of their campaign budgets on thirty-second television advertisements.

These are hardly "chats": and they are certainly not dialogues with the electorate. Al Gore, in his book The Assault on Reason, calls these broadcasts "a television monologue consisting of highly sophisticated propagandistic messages".

Such messages may be effective in "purchasing the consent of the governed", to quote Gore: but they are no substitute for a genuine political debate.

In a radical departure from this approach, Barack Obama has turned to the internet, including the new social media. His own website is particularly powerful but he also used free public sites such as YouTube, Facebook and MySpace as well as making extensive use of mobile phone technology

In fact you could say that Obama did not just use the internet as a communication tool but also as an organisational tool. It would seem that his campaign was centred around the use of the internet to gather, store and disseminate data, to raise money and to mobilise activists as well as, of course, passing on his messages.

Obama also seems to have devoted considerable human resources to the web. He employed programmers to create databases and networks, people to make videos, people to create content and people to distribute the content and people to manage the funds raised. This is a lesson which I think we in Europe need to learn – we must devote the necessary resources to the internet in our communication strategies.

His use of the web did not of course exclude other media. TV, radio and press remain of crucial importance, as are local events, meetings and rallies. What was unique about Obama's campaign was that the internet was the hub around which all this other activity revolved. The web provided the money for the TV ads, the phone numbers and addresses for the activists on the ground and it enabled his messages to get out there unfiltered.

But let me add a word of caution here. Tools like the internet are effective only if used well. Obama uses them masterfully. And his victory was not just down to his use of technology: it was also the victory of intelligence, charisma, good arguments and outstanding oratory.

Third aspect: political culture.

In the US, people tend to be very active in local community affairs – whether via churches, the Scouts, the parent-teacher association at the local school, or whatever. This local activism is a normal part of the American way of life: quite a contrast with the situation in most European countries.

Another contrast is between the American and European political landscapes. In the United States, people have a simple choice between two parties with diametrically opposed policy agendas. In Europe, on the other hand, there is a wide range of parties and they often lack a clearly-defined policy message for the electorate.

Moreover, elections to the European Parliament do not produce a "winner" who then imposes an agenda on the rest. Instead, MEPS from different parties sit down together and work out compromises in Europe's collective interests.

We must also bear in mind that presidential elections in the US are about choosing a single person for the most powerful position in the country, which is not the case in European Parliament elections.

Moreover, US presidential candidates are well known to the whole electorate, whereas candidate MEPs and their political views are not widely known, and none of them (as far as I'm aware) has the charismatic personality of Barack Obama.

These differences mean we cannot directly transpose lessons from the Obama experience into European political life. But there are certainly lessons to be learned. I would focus on three of them.

Three lessons Europe can learn

First lesson: be clear and simple. Obama consistently used one key word: "Change". And he hammered home a simple, well-crafted message: "Yes, we can" – capturing the mood of the nation. Clarity and simplicity: European politics needs more of those!

Second lesson: "use the new media". Use the internet to reach people, to decentralise communication, to empower activists and to create channels of dialogue and forums for debate. The EU institutions have already begun to do this in a modest way– but we have a way to go before we do it as effectively as President Obama. And besides, it is really for the European political parties and individual candidates to learn these lessons, not just the Institutions of the EU. The June elections give us a strong incentive to get to grips with how the world has changed.

Third lesson: "engage with the citizens". This is exactly what Obama has done. Not only before but also after the election. And that engagement is set to continue, thanks to the new administration's "Change" website and the Obama supporters' database.

And I think we are all asking the question: What happens next? How will the new administration build on what has been achieved? It is one thing to mobilise people for an election. The next step is to keep them on board and to create a truly participatory democracy.

In the European Commission we are striving to engage better with the citizens. We are improving our use of the internet and beginning to embrace the new media through the use of video sharing sites, discussion forums, blogs and social networking sites.

We have also pioneered "citizens' consultation" exercises. These bring together thousands of people, from all EU countries and all walks of life, to address the issues they feel most important. Everything from jobs and the economy to climate change and immigration. They set the agenda; they debate the issues and report to us their conclusions.


Whether online or face to face, whether in the old media or the new, both in the EU and the US, what democracy needs is a real conversation, in plain language, between the people and the politicians. A conversation that shapes policy. Politics from the bottom up rather than top down.

That's the kind of democracy I believe in. And so does Barack Obama.

Thank you.

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