For Obama, Dialogue Drove Week's Work
Sunday, September 28, 2008
When the news first broke on Wednesday that Sen. John McCain had suspended his campaign, a wave of distress rippled throughout the Obama campaign -- from the Chicago headquarters to the traveling entourage on the ground in Florida.
Some Obama aides worried the move could give their rival a quick advantage, making him seem more engaged in the national financial crisis during a week that was putting the economy, Obama's strongest issue, at center stage. People across the Obama universe reacted "with different levels of hysteria," one aide said.
Then Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, e-mailed his staff members to take a deep breath. Obama himself got on a conference call at a hotel in Tampa with eight of his top advisers and set the tone for the days ahead.
Obama addressed the group with a mixture of amusement and calm, describing his recent phone call with McCain, and quickly ruling out postponing the debate. "He kind of laughed and shook his head, and said, 'This is what has happened,' " said senior strategist David Axelrod. "He went through it all and said, 'There's nothing to do here but what we are doing. We're not going to follow him down this path. There's nothing to be accomplished here by making a show of imposing ourselves in the process.' "
Obama had been considering his own course of action when McCain made his dramatic move. Flying Tuesday night to Tampa, where he would prepare for the Mississippi debate, Obama told Axelrod and senior aide Robert Gibbs that he was considering asking McCain to join him in issuing a "statement of principles" on the bailout proposal.
The next morning, Obama called McCain, but didn't hear back from him until six hours later. The two agreed to issue the joint statement, but McCain asked to take it a step further by suspending the campaign and postponing the debate. Obama suggested putting out the statement first, and the two hung up. He was on the phone to Jason Furman, his economic policy adviser, in Chicago when Furman glanced up at his television screen to see McCain appearing live, a banner headline declaring that he had suspended his campaign.
Throughout the week, Obama cast himself as the responsible stakeholder and party leader, communicating with White House and Democratic leaders as he tried to influence the outcome of the bailout talks behind the scenes. He made no sudden or dramatic public moves. He slipped the trap his advisers believe McCain tried to set for him by proposing a delay in the debate -- and simultaneously avoided tying himself inextricably to a bailout proposal that, even if it passes, may remain extremely unpopular.
One of the most dramatic confrontations between the two rivals did not even occur at the debate but at the private White House meeting that President Bush hosted the day before. As House Republican leaders explained their objections to the bailout agreement, Obama pressed McCain on whether he supported their alternative plan. "What do you think of the plan, John?" he asked repeatedly. McCain did not answer.
Later, pulling away from the White House, Obama called senior advisers from the car to convey how strange he had found the entire session.
During the debate, Obama was courteous and at times almost deferential to McCain, while the senator from Arizona seemed more aggressive in questioning him. Obama's supporters thought that he had more than held his own, but the outward calm that Obama showed all week came with a potential downside: He seemed less of an actor than McCain, who became the center of each news cycle leading up to the debate and a sometimes dominant force during it.
But Obama's cool-under-pressure approach became a selling point for Democrats.
In an interview Friday before the debate, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) described his behavior as pitch-perfect, even if it did not always satisfy partisans craving a bigger punch.