In his new book, Dispatches From the War Room: In the Trenches With Five Extraordinary Leaders, Stanley Greenberg delivers an insider's account of the leadership, style, and vision of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, Ehud Barak, and Bolivia's Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. Greenberg, the chairman and CEO of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, has also served as a polling adviser to Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and Gerhard Schroeder. The high-level pollster and political consultant spoke with U.S. News about his book, the importance of public opinion for modern leaders, and the success of Barack Obama's presidential campaign. Excerpts:
What was the motivation behind writing this book?
Well, this is the first book I've written that's a memoir. Usually, I'm throwing out ideas and challenging people, being provocative. But in this one, I was trying to get at some pretty basic questions. Questions about these leaders: Are they—I'm doing polling and surveys, and I'm a consultant—are these leaders weaker because they use that kind of work? The pollsters themselves: Are they in a process of diminishing our democracy, diminishing the quality of public debate in these leaders? I try to be as frank as possible. This is not a defense of my profession. In fact, I raise a lot of questions about in general what we do. You chose five leaders around whom your book revolves. Can you explain why you picked these five in particular?
I chose them because they were bold. They were elected with a mission and purpose. They were elected at a time of tumult. And one of the things I was looking [for] was: In governing under pressure, how do they bring people with them? And so they all had a mission of things they wanted to do, and they shared that. If you were to write a sequel to this book, which other leaders would you include?
I'd love to do Barack Obama, but I don't have the same inside relationship with him. I've thought of looking outside the political world to people like Gianna Angelopoulos, who was the head of the [2004 Athens] Olympic Games, or Lord John Brown, who was the head of BP. So, there are other leaders outside of the election context who also have brought change or who tell us something about leadership. In what way does public opinion shape decisions for people who aren't running for political office?
When Lord Brown was head of BP, he broke with the oil industry when he acknowledged that climate change was real. He then, as a leader of a company, had to bring the rest of the company with him. It's not just elected leaders who use research as part of the process of bringing change. You write in the book that picking the right fight is the key to political success. What fight do you think Obama should choose with the GOP?
Saying there should be less partisanship, or there shouldn't be partisanship, is also picking a fight. That's also determining the terms of debate. It's saying to the country, "As you look at this budget that I'm taking forward, look at it on its merits; look beyond partisanship for the country's interests." That is a way of defining the context in which the judgments will be made. What I said in the book was, the first question for a successful candidate [or] leader is knowing what the fight's about. For Bill Clinton, it was the economy. It was change for Barack Obama. Do you think Obama should read your book? If so, why, and what do you think he would learn from it?
I've given him the book. The first thing is that all these leaders came in with great popularity and high hopes, and almost all of them crashed when popular sentiment crashed. It's much harder to deliver and maintain popular support over a long period. Think about Nelson Mandela in particular. He came in with immense popularity and goodwill and capital. Even though there were changes that were extraordinary—the end of segregation, all race groups serving in the Parliament, electricity and water brought out to all areas of the country—within two years there was growing disillusionment, deep disillusionment about the lack of housing, lack of employment, the crime. And it was wrenching convincing the African National Congress leaders who thought they had brought big changes that they were losing touch with people. When people are struggling, you constantly have to find a framework for showing how you're working on their behalf, how you're making progress if you are, if it's real. You can't spin it. People are very discerning. But I think the Mandela example would concentrate the mind on how hard it is to sustain when you have a period of economic difficulty.