Meeting Barack Obama in Atherton

04.08.08 | Category: Asymmetry, Breaking News, Power Zen, Valley Future, Video

Barack Obama and Drue Kataoka

For Barack Obama’s campaign, the Zen surprise came out of the negative space. In the art of Sumi-e, the negative space (the white space between the brush strokes) is as important as the brush strokes themselves. This is what holds the painting together and makes it take shape and meaning. For the Obama campaign, the ebony-inked brush strokes are Obama himself. The negative space is the countless campaign contributors, supporters and activists who have found meaning and identity in his campaign. They are the ones that have created the surprise—that a young less well-known senator would be the front-runner against a veteran like Hillary Clinton.

On Sunday ValleyZen attended a private event for Barack Obama hosted by Sara & Sohaib Abbasi (photo) in their Atherton home. (Sohaib is the CEO of Informatica). The Sohaibs graciously greeted eminent Silicon Valley leaders. Even some prominent Silicon Valley Republicans and Independents were in attendance, a testimony to the momentum that Obama’s campaign has gained.

We gathered around an intimate patio space to hear Obama speak and take questions for over an hour. Here’s a brief video excerpt Drue filmed (also embedded below). In it, Obama talks about the role social media has played in his campaign.

Zen & The Obama Campaign

Eileen Donahoe (photo) is the National Finance Chair of Women for Obama. Donahoe told me, “Barack has a natural Zen approach to things – he is calm and curious – does not get flustered easily, and is inclined to come up with creative new ways to find solutions that have not occurred to others before.”

Owen Byrd, a director of Silicon Valley for Obama and a member of the National Finance Council agreed. “There is a serenity to this campaign that I’ve never experienced in any other campaign ethos. There is a (Zen) clarity of focus and transparency…Right before the Iowa Caucus, Newsweek interviewed Barack on a bus.

‘How do you feel?’ the reporter asked.

‘Calm,’ he said.

‘That’s it.’”

Obama’s Use of Technology

Barack Obama has been widely credited for innovative uses of grassroots social networking and viral campaign techniques. Over a year ago, his campaign recruited Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes to help with these initiatives, building The campaign has successfully leveraged the voices of bloggers and influencers in online communities to get the message across.

Roger Hu is a Team Coordinator for Silcon Valley for Obama. He gave ValleyZen a firsthand story about the use of technology in the campaign. The Silicon Valley for Obama Palo Alto office had racked up huge long distance bills. Something needed to be done, and fast. So they ditched the phones and switched the whole team to Skype. All the retired teacher-types made the transition beautifully. Soon the whole office was outfitted with hip headsets. “We turned that office into a massive telemarketing operation with just a DSL modem and any donated computers we could find…At one point we maxed out all 16 computers.”

ValleyZen invites the other campaigns to share their experiences with Zen & technology in the 2008 Election. We look forward to meeting with them and covering them in a future ValleyZen post if they are in the Bay Area.

Bill Fenwick and Drue Kataoka
Bill Fenwick & Drue Kataoka

23 Comments so far

  1. Thomas Han

    Cool that you gotta meet Obama :-)

  2. Len Edgerly

    This is a fantastic view of Obama, showing his grasp of social media and his vision for not only campaigning in a new way, but in governing in a new way, with the power of many more new players. Thank you for posting this, especially the video!

    My one worry is that to play too heavily on the Zen imagery can bring up comparisons with “Governor Moonbeam,” Jerry Brown. I think Obama has a serene center, so the metaphor is apt, but he’s also steeped in the rough-and-tumble of Chicago politics. This Washington Post article makes the point that Obama and his team see the Internet and social media as a tool, not a religion, and that has helped them avoid some of the pitfalls of the Howard Dean crusade. Link:

  3. Bill Fenwick

    Len, about your one worry, no one can be assured that something they say or do will not be misrepresented. It is especially true now that everyone with a computer and an Internet connection can be a publisher. Many influencers (and wannabes) rush to mischaracterize the motives and acts of anyone or thing they perceive to be a threat to the influencers’ interests. Zen, with it constant focus on the positive is not an easy target. It is not a political movement or xenphobia.

    Web 2.0 and blogs are perhaps the first media to enable non-expert users to remotely participate in a many-to-many dialogue using the full range of tools such as video, sound, text and still photography. Any effort to mischaractize a force for the positive is at substantial risk. Governments and politicians have not all learned the risks but the current political campaigns in the United States are putting on a powerful demonstration of the point.

  4. shawn smith

    Wow, awesome Drue! I would love to see you interview all the candidates. Nice picture too!

  5. Howard Weaver

    Re: Valley Zen posting and You Tube report: This is wonderfully meta, Drue — using an emergent social medium to report in new, previously unavailable ways about a candidate who understands and is speaking about emergent social media. Wonderful.


  6. Howard Weaver

    P.S. Nice flute.

  7. Smart Mobs » Blog Archive » Barack Obama on social media in his campaign

    [...] (Via ValleyZen): [...]

  8. Eileen Donahoe

    I totally agree with Bill – and Barack is a perfect example of his point – that a force for the positive is a difficult target. Barack knew from day one – that the only way to approach this campaign was to be true to himself and to understand his bid for the presidency as a force for the positive. He knows that staying true to this purpose has been the key to his success to date. Despite many efforts to throw him off his center, Barack has held onto himself with exceptional authenticity.

    Barack’s answer to the final question at Sunday’s event was a good example of this – while the questioner did not have any negative intent – the question presented an “opportunity” for Barack to easily “pander” to one constituency at the expense of others. He resisted that challenge, without being demeaning to the questioner – by simply answering with honesty.

    It is so refreshing to think that we could soon have a President who speaks to us with such honesty and clarity of purpose.

  9. Drue Kataoka

    @ Shawn–
    Yes! A ValleyZen interview with all candidates would be great. Keep your suggestions and comments coming.

    @ Howard Weaver–
    Your commentary on traditional and emerging media is greatly valued here. Glad you like a few moments of gold flute at the beginning and end. That is from one of my performances of what was Dr. King’s favorite hymn, “Precious Lord.”

    @ Howard Rheingold–
    Thanks for sharing this post and video on your amazing Smart Mobs blog.

    @ Eileen–
    Nice riff off of Bill’s concept. I agree that clarity, transparency and honesty are like pure sparkling precious gems in the sometimes muddied political waters and media mud.

    Barack Obama hit the mark when he said “Eileen is a force of nature!”

  10. Jim Lloyd

    I also was at the Obama event in Atherton. I got there early, and managed to be just a few feet from Barack. What an experience! The man is so articulate and so centered. I enjoyed the portion of the talk that you selected Drue, but am I remembering correctly that just after your cut he briefly mentioned that we need an “Open Source government”? One of the reasons I am drawn to Barack is his position on transparency and accountability, and the use of technology to enable transparency in government. I’d like to see more attention to this in coverage of his campaign.

  11. Costa Casasbuenas

    Dear Drue,
    Cool you met him! Though I am far from the political debate in the US, since he appeared in the world stage I had the feeling that he embodies several of the Zen principles. I admire his imbalance and energized calm (speech on economic matters on 26/03), when advocating for defending the power of democracy to control chaotic capitalism. He is asking for the state to control the market and defend the well-being and rights of most of society. A big THANK YOU!

  12. Obama: Sociale medier og selv-organisering vandt mange stater f.eks. Idaho for os (video) |

    [...] videoen her (tak til Valley Zen: Meeting Barack Obama in Atherton): Læs mere om Obamas brug af sociale medier her: Barack Obama’s brug af sociale medier/web [...]

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  14. Melinda

    I agree this provides interesting incite in to the Obama campaign, but not necessarily an attractive one. Home grown as his supporter groups may be, the fact that they organize on their own to impose their preference on others using the flawed caucus system, does not make that imposition any less disturbing.

  15. Melinda

    Sorry, that was insight, of course.

  16. Jeff McNeill

    Thank you for posting this Drue. “Midwifing a new kind of politics.” Excellent.


  17. Clay

    Thanks for your astute observations, Drue. I always learn something new from you. It worries me, however, that Barack’s appeal apparently does not extend to white working-class people. His speech about race was brilliant, but there is also a class divide that few Americans want to talk about.

  18. Ira Bolden

    Thanks for providing a discerning take on Barack Obama. His openness, eagerness to embrace new mediums (e.g. social media), and willingness to take on sensitive topics like racism are refreshing. I second Howard’s point. Your coverage of Silicon Valley happenings is superb.

    Ciao… Ira

  19. abarefootboy

    Nice work Drue .. I love watching you zooooom through the world with your sumi-e mind and spirit… !

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    [...] encourages supporters to set up their own web page and affinity group, share it most anywhere, then invite their colleagues and friends to donate and see their online personal “thermometer” rise as [...]

  21. Roger

    Here’s a more detailed writeup of the use of Skype in the Palo Alto field office:

  22. korma

    i feel mr.barack obama is the best for me!because he lecture appaling for wold!!!!!!!!!!GBU MR.BARACK OBAMA~~`>

  23. Intellectual Property Watch » Blog Archive » Rumoured New US Ambassador To UN In Geneva A Major Obama Fundraiser

    [...] of technology and Zen aesthetics at Fenwick and his coblogger, Drue Kataoka, wrote after talking to Donahoe at an August 2008 Obama fundraiser: “Donahoe told me, ‘Barack has a natural Zen approach to things – he is calm and curious – does [...]

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