By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
"I'd rather err on the side of someone who's got that kind of equanimity -- and I think we've seen it over and over in the campaign -- as opposed to someone who, and some Democrats I realize want this, has passion spilling out of them," Casey said. "In a campaign context, that may seem like a stronger candidate, but as a president may not be as effective."
"Obama on the phone this week sounded like a president should: asking the right questions, being substantive, not looking for an immediate political benefit," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who fielded two or three calls from the Illinois Democrat during the course of the negotiations.
"Certainly the economy is the high ground for Obama, and McCain has made it only more so," Schumer said. "I think this past week could end up being a turning point for the presidential race."
For Obama, who struggled with how to make the economy an issue during the Democratic primaries, it was not always a given that he would be much more successful against McCain, despite the inherent advantage in running against the Republicans who oversaw the current downturn. Just three months ago, Democrats openly fretted that Obama would fail to connect with the white, working-class voters who were drawn to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Obama set out to conquer that challenge right after clinching the nomination, launching a 2 1/2-week economic tour three days after Clinton dropped out and bringing new economic advisers into his campaign. By the time Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. called Obama on Sept. 5 to discuss the quickly developing crisis surrounding housing giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, Obama was relatively up to speed on the issue, his aides said.
Obama's response to unfolding events in the days since has offered a window onto his style of management as well as his substantive economic beliefs.
As a slew of financial institutions collapsed and the entire Wall Street landscape shifted, Obama delivered a series of economic speeches on his regular campaign stops -- adding new statements about the failures of Wall Street and their effects on "Main Street," synthesizing previous proposals he had laid out for greater oversight, and eventually remarking on a $700 billion bailout proposal as it emerged. He began speaking to Paulson on a daily basis, aides said, asking for status updates; he also increased his phone calls to members of Congress involved in the talks. Several Democratic members of the House and Senate reported hearing from Obama up to several times a day.
"The center of gravity of the election has moved toward the economy and the message of change and away from the culture of slashing the budget and reform," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a member of Congress who speaks to Obama most frequently. He described Obama as having economic instincts similar to those of former President Bill Clinton, for whom Emanuel worked in the White House during the international financial meltdowns of 1998. "You would want to see that same type of judgment, and that's exactly what I'm seeing," Emanuel said.
Not all Democrats are convinced that Obama has entirely closed the gap that emerged in the spring. Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell said that Obama now fully owns the economy but still has work to do conveying his sense of command to the electorate.
"I think his ideas are great, and if they ideas are properly transmitted, he scores heavily with them," Rendell said. "I'm not sure the campaign has done quite as good a job in transmitting those ideas. But once they do -- and I think they will in the next six weeks -- those white, working-class voters are going to like what they hear."