President Obama: A Profile in Failure

The greatest people in history have been failures. Certainly, we remember these individuals as successes--success stories--and we treat those stories as legends and those individuals as gods. But each of them failed epically and repeatedly, more so than the combined successes of all of humanity.

Failure should not be overlooked in anyone, especially not those we admire. It is through failure that these individuals were able to learn, grow and ultimately succeed. We know this about ourselves but even as we learn to accept our own failures, sometimes we don’t recognize that the most successful people in the world have had an abundance of failure.

Our heroes need to be held to the same standard as the ancient Greek gods: awesome but not infallible. Failure is a humbling exercise, both for the observer and the observed. But learning is a humbling process. Once we realize that our heroes are just like us, we can examine how failure drives success. So I’ve started collecting stories about the failures of successful people, as a reminder that if you’re making mistakes and learning from them, you’re actually on the path to success.
President Obama: A Profile in Failure
Being twice elected President of the United States is no small accomplishment. But only eight short years before becoming President, Barack Obama suffered an embarrassing defeat in his first bid for national office. It was an epic failure but one that he turned into a grand success.

Obama had successfully run campaigns for the Illinois Senate in 1996 and 1998. With two state wins under his belt, he set his sights on Washington in 2000, challenging incumbent Congressman Bobby Rush in the Democratic primary. Obama quickly announced his candidacy, and then ran a poll to see where he stood. He found out that only 11% of the district recognized his name, while his opponent enjoyed 90% name recognition alongside a 70% approval rating. It didn’t take much insight for Obama to realize it was a mistake to have run in the first place. In 2007, he told a New York Times reporter: “In retrospect, there was very little chance of me winning that race. That was a good lesson – that you should never be too impressed with your own ideas if your name recognition in a Congressional district is only eight or whatever it was.”

But that wasn’t the only lesson learned.

During the campaign, Obama focused on selling specific policies he felt would help the community, tangible ideas to solve particular problems. But shortly after the campaign started, tragedy struck: Congressman Rush’s son was shot and killed on the way home from the grocery store. Candidate Obama did the right thing by suspending his campaign for a month and incorporating this issue into his platform, calling for tighter gun control. Then, partly due to the publicity surrounding the shooting, the Illinois legislature called a special session around the Christmas holidays to vote on new gun control measures. But Obama had flown to Hawaii to visit his grandmother and spend time with his wife and young daughter. Unable to fly back for the vote because his daughter became ill during the trip, he ended up missing that special session on gun control. The legislation failed by a few votes and the following day’s newspaper story suggested that state senator Obama was partially to blame because he had not returned from a “Hawaii vacation” to vote.

The image of Obama relaxing on a beach in Hawaii—however far from the truth—instead of passing a bill to make Illinois safer, was too much to overcome. He was an issues-oriented candidate and he failed to vote on a topic of serious concern. Obama’s Congressional campaign went from bad to worse: he went from an unknown candidate to a disliked candidate, and he lost by a whopping 31 percentage points.

But instead of letting that embarrassment define him, it became an exercise in humility. Many believe that the failed House race was a vital learning experience. One of his friends and former state senator Denny Jacobs explained: “He stumbled on the fact that instead of running on all the issues…that hope is the real key.”

After the failed campaign, Obama shifted his messaging. Instead of simply delivering policy recommendations, he began painting a picture of his grand vision for the future, first for Illinois and later for the United States and the entire world. He spread that message and was briskly reelected to the Illinois State Senate in 2002, and then finally made it to Capitol Hill when he was elected to the United States Senate in 2004. In 2006, he wrote The Audacity of Hope, as much to calibrate his mental compass as it was to announce his candidacy for the President of the United States.

It is often hard for people to step back and gain perspective. Failure forces that. We think of something as small that an ant perceives as large; something as large that looks small from outer space. Perspective reminds us that the world is relative and needs relative solutions. In this case, perspective is exactly what was needed. Obama was doing what everyone else before him had done: run a campaign on issues. But his failure forced him to break with that norm and do something different. In this case, what he did different was to think bigger, broader and with more vision—something Americans have seen out of very few politicians in recent years.

The story of how Obama made it to the White House is well known. But what many don’t realize is that by the time he ran for President of the United States in 2008, he had spent eight years perfecting his message of hope against the backdrop of a humbling failure.

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One of the primary goals of Oudney Patsika is to use media to change the cultural narrative. He aims to impact today’s culture with more accurate, responsible, and positive media stories about Christianity and the Church. Get In Touch Today!
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