What I learned from the First US Presidential Debate 2016

by River Ho Rathore

In less than two months, American voters will go to the polls and choose their next Chief Executive. As can be imagined, Twitter feeds and news channels are all abuzz with arguments for and against the primary bets of the country: Hillary Clinton, a tenured politician and former FLOTUS who would be the first woman president if elected, and Donald Trump, a political newbie of dynamite character known for his businesses worth tens of billions.

I was 14,000 kilometers away from where the US Presidential Debate transpired on Tuesday morning (Asia Pacific time). I am not an American, nor am I in politics, but I was glued to CNN, waiting to see how the first of three debates would pan out. This is, after all, one of the most intense presidential campaigns ever run.

For obvious reasons, I listened to the debate intently as the United States is one of – if not THE – most powerful countries in the world and which almost has an iron-clad influence on international organizations. This influence is very important for emerging economies that depend heavily on foreign trade and lending. But more than this, I was intrigued at an individual level.

What I learned

To be honest, I did not learn anything new about Hillary or Donald’s policy stances. Hillary said it herself — you can read all about her plans if go to her website and Twitter feeds. The same goes for Donald. I doubt, however, that all of the American voters actually read pages after pages on how each of them would fuel the economy, create more jobs, address healthcare and taxes, and defeat ISIS if elected. In real life, voters’ judgments are formed with input from television feeds, mainstream news articles and endorsements from personalities.

Learning # 1: Stakeholder engagement matters a lot

While Hillary’s three decades in public office has subjected her to criticisms and speculations, it has also exposed her to a lot more people who were privy to how her thought process works. In politics, exposure provided her a platform to argue her case over and over, while everyday interactions allowed her to show her soft side – one that appealed to the masses.

Donald lacked this kind of exposure. Sure, he was always in the business news and had fourteen seasons of his widely-popular television show, but these were niche exposures that appealed only to business-oriented people. And as we know, we are prone to judge people we do not know.

Learning # 2: You are how you speak

After the debate, undecided voters who were pooled into a room were asked who they thought won that round. Many of them thought Hillary owned the debate because she sounded well prepared and showed composure, while Donald exhibited his usual temperament.

I am sure that it was all deliberate. I noted that from the session’s start, Hillary consciously kept herself calm while making remarks that she knew would ire Donald and provoke him to interject constantly.

Unfortunately, in spite of this calmness, I felt that Hillary’s scripted answers did not state specifics about how she planned for economic growth and job creation to happen. Her message, nonetheless, appealed to everyone because she showed that she cared about common woes of the middle class such as healthcare, minimum wages and loans. On the other hand, Donald’s business-like approach to taxation and withholding corporations’ offshoring activities held water but sounded cold. Here was a guy on whose company depends hundreds of thousands of livelihoods, but who is largely perceived as a self-centered capitalist.

We are how we speak. This principle is rooted in our inclination to listen to the emotional before the logical. I have learned this costly mistake myself when, in a previous job, all possible bottlenecks appeared before my programs because I failed to address the emotional needs of my stakeholders.

If I were Donald, I will ensure that round two shows genuine care and concern for the middle class by specifying programs that would enrich their lives, now and in the next generations.

Learning # 3: Accountability marks the start of real progress

There was a lot of mudslinging during the debate, mostly criticisms of the previous governments’ policies, criticisms about empty campaign promises, and accusations of tax fraud and racism. It was quite irritating to listen to; it sounded childish.

If we were to sift through the mud, however, is it possible that these accusations are true? I would not know, because they were not answered during the debate, and so they were repeated over and over by whoever was accusing.

It was a pity because the ninety-minute session was more a “He said, She said” show rather than a platform to articulate their solid plans to develop the country. When questioned, undecided voters themselves said that they were not satisfied with the outcome of the debate because they still did not know how their lives would change.

So what did I glean from this?

There will always be doubts about our capabilities, characters and what-have-you. If we only step back, learn to sift through the noise, really listen to the message (or accusation) and be brave enough to address it head on, then we can move on. We can move on to the more important activities of genuinely creating value for our families, at work, in our communities.

Accountability requires the ability to listen, ability to compartmentalize issues, and ability to accept blame if merited.

There are two more rounds of debate happening, and I cannot wait to learn from these two history-making candidates. As one of them aspires to apply business principles into governing the United States, I know that I can also apply political lessons into everyday life.

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