At this time last year, election fever was gripping St. Olaf and the entire country. Die-hard supporters of both sides canvassed door-to-door, while tech-savvy voters Tweeted and Facebooked their political musings. Equally ubiquitous were communications from both campaigns, where people like Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for President Obama and this year’s Political Awareness Committee PAC fall speaker, worked to get out their message.
In her speech on Wednesday, Oct. 23, Cutter took students back in time to 2012 and shared what she learned about leadership and communication while working for the Obama campaign.
“Americans don’t want leaders who sugarcoat things,” she said, elaborating on the first of three key leadership traits: resilient optimism, authenticity and focus. “We want leaders who refuse to let defeat define them, who believe that the future will be better and who have and can share their vision of the path forward.”
Cutter went on to point out Obama’s consistent optimism, particularly in his use of forward-thinking language. She continued to illustrate her discussion of leadership with anecdotes from the Obama campaign, painting Obama as a figure with both authenticity and focus.
“People liked him, and they felt they knew him,” she said. “We wanted to talk to people where they are and in ways they understood, which is how…one afternoon the president ended up on Reddit inviting users to ask [him] anything.”
Cutter elaborated on the Reddit incident to show how social media has changed the face of campaigning. “There wasn’t much about this we could control,” she said. “A Redditer asked the president the immortal question: ‘Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?’ But the fact that he was willing to do it was more important than what he actually said.”
As a result of the Reddit appearance, 30,000 new voters registered, an achievement that, Cutter noted, can take a traditional campaign eight months. Cutter also pointed out that, while Twitter was a new technology in the 2008 campaign, by 2012 it was essential. To illustrate this point, she pointed again to an Obama campaign success: “Obama’s Twitter handle was only about 7 million [followers] behind Justin Beiber,” she said. “That’s a big deal.”
Cutter opened it up to questions after her talk but sidesteppedthe inevitable first inquiry: What is it like to be a woman in politics?
“I never considered myself a woman in politics; I just considered myself a person in politics, so that’s hard to answer,” she said. “There are differences … I just never let anybody know the difference.”
She went on to offer a prediction for 2016: “When Hillary Clinton runs … [voters are] not going to see the election as a man versus a woman. I think that’s an important change for the country.”
Another timely topic, the recent government shutdown, gave Cutter a chance to offer some clarification.
“The shutdown was not about the budget, it was about repealing the health care law,” she said. “The budget was actually below spending levels that both Democrats and Republicans wanted. It was the lowest federal budget per capita that we’ve ever had.”
Cutter also did not hesitate to admonish lawmakers. “I don’t think we should ever shut down,” she said. “I don’t think that’s why people get sent to Washington. I think they should make these decisions in a more responsible way. We didn’t save money [with the shutdown], we wasted it.”
With a reminder that students “hold in [their] hands literally the ability to make a profound difference,” Cutter encouraged listeners to stay involved in the political conversation. She advised the audience that resilient optimism, authenticity and focus can maximize anyone’s impact in the political sphere.
Photo Credit: BEKAH ENGSTRAND/MANITOU MESSENGER