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What Obama Shouldn’t Learn from Steve Jobs

Watching some of the breathless reaction to Apple’s unveiling of the iPad today, I’m reminded a bit of the Obama campaign back during 2008.

The essence of a good brand is establishing high expectations with the consumer and consistently meeting them. What’s striking about the iPad is how much it meets — but does not really exceed — expectations. Wow, the iPad looks just like a giant iPod! It has one button, just like the iPod! It plays songs and videos, just like the iPod! Multi-touch recognition! A really smart web browser! An exceptionally cool mapping function! Just like the iPod! iPad! iPod! iPad! iPod! Oh, and get this: now you can download books for your iPad too!

Who could possibly have seen this coming?

OK, well just about everyone. I’m not an Apple basher, by the way. Although I think their computers are about 40 percent overpriced, I looooove my iPhone. (For the time being, I’m biphonal, but the iPhone just does so much more than my Blackberry and does it so elegantly and engagingly that the Blackberry is probably headed for the recycling bin once its contract expires.)

And I’m sure the iPad will be a good product too. I never quite understood the appeal of the Kindle: there were relatively few things that it could do that my smartphone and/or laptop couldn’t, but a lot of things that my smartphone and/or laptop could do that the Kindle couldn’t. I don’t own a Kindle so I have no right to bash it — but there’s nothing compelling about it. The appeal of the iPad, on the other hand, is a little bit more self-evident.

Still, as good as Apple’s products are, they tend to get a little bit of a bonus from consumers. Average products are thought of as good; good products are thought of as great; great products are thought of as revolutionary. That’s what a good brand does for you.

Back in 2008, Obama had an exceptionally strong brand — one which, I pointed out at the time — bore some resemblance to Apple’s. He was able to maintain that brand because his “products” consisted of things like big speeches and wins in primary elections, and more often than not, he was able to deliver.

You often heard the refrain about how can Obama possibly deliver when expectations are so high? But rarely if ever was there a major Obama speech that was panned by the critics. How to explain this paradox? Human beings love having their expectations fulfilled; it makes us feel smart. And the thing about a great brand is that, although it necessarily entails high expectations, it also leads one to evaluate performance in the most favorable possible light. Each Obama speech reminded us enough of the Platonic ideal of the Great Obama Speech that we substituted the Platonic ideal for the reality. Thus the “glow” around Obama (like the glow around Apple) was somewhat self-perpetuating.

But once Obama became President, he was competing in a different vertical. Great speeches have their role in the Presidency, but elections only come along once every four years; what the President basically has to deliver upon is policy. And here, Obama has not delivered very much. The oceans have not begun to recede; the planet has not begun to heal. More tangibly, there’s been a failure to deliver on promises to gays and lesbians, to environmental advocates, to unions, to civil-rights hawks, and to the working class. I do think there are a class of people who enjoy critique more than actual progress, and that people underestimate how difficult it is to get anything done in Washington when the economy is facing 10 percent unemployment. Nevertheless, the high expectations that once worked so much to Obama’s benefit are now detrimental to him.

What Obama needs tonight, therefore, is a re-branding. He needs to create a new set of expectations, one which he can more easily fulfill. This is different from lowering expectations, or meeting them in a half-assed way. He can’t promise an iPad, for instance, and roll out a Kindle. And it’s also different from completely giving up on his original message. Successful re-brandings achieve the right alchemy of the virtues of the original brand and the changes that are needed to adapt to the new marketplace. It is not easy; for every Dunkin’ Donuts (a company which successfully leveraged its reputation for convenient and unpretentious service and managed to make itself hip again), there are five Blockbuster Videos, companies which flail hopelessly and give up on any hope of differentiation as the world evolves around them.

The extent to which I’ll look favorably on Obama’s State of the Union address tonight is the extent to which it surprises me. When you have great brand, like Apple does now or as Obama once did, some well-choreographed boilerplate usually does the trick. But Obama needs to think differently about the country — and motivate the country to think differently about him.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.