MOMENTS OF TRUTH: OBAMA IN THE SENATE
A Rising Political Star Adopts a Low-Key Strategy
Friday, October 17, 2008
Early in 2005, Barack Obama met with half a dozen advisers in Washington to plot strategy. Some of those who participated remember that the group focused less on the details of Obama's new job as the junior senator from Illinois than on managing his overall political image. He wanted to run for governor, maybe even president, someday, and preparing required a risky choice between two approaches to Washington.
Obama arrived as a celebrity, a best-selling author whose keynote speech was the only moment Democrats wanted to remember from their 2004 convention. He could capitalize on that reputation by speaking out against the Iraq war, scheduling prime-time television interviews and seizing control of high-profile bills. He could, as one Chicago friend suggested, "go in, do your thing and take the place by storm."
Or, others advised, Obama could assume the typical role of a freshman senator, maneuvering with deference and humility. By endearing himself to Washington's elite, he could build the foundation for his future.
"I think it's important to take it slow," Obama told his advisers. "I want to be liked."
The result of those meetings was a kind of road map for the months ahead -- a document his advisers called the "strategic plan." Its creation testified to the focus and self-discipline that are part of Obama's nature. While designed to outline Obama's first 16 months in the U.S. Senate, its central tenets have delivered him to the brink of the presidency: Seek advice. Listen. Make cautious decisions. Strive for consensus.
But above all, the plan reminded Obama to manage his image and cultivate his political future. He came to the Senate with an inkling that he might seek the presidency, friends said, but his ambition and self-confidence compelled him to run much earlier than he had anticipated. By August 2006, a little more than 18 months after arriving in Washington, he began asking people he had barely met what they knew about New Hampshire and Iowa.
With an eye on his next goal, Obama treated the Senate as a bridge to be crossed -- a place to learn the conventions of Washington, win powerful friends and shape what advisers referred to as his "political brand." Despite meager legislative accomplishments, Obama built a reputation among many Democrats as a hard worker, a reformer, an eager learner, a smart politician.
And he did it while maintaining a cool air of detachment, colleagues said. He focused on his professional goals and showed little interest in personal connections not outlined in the plan. In a senatorial culture famous for its chumminess, Obama generally preferred to eat alone and go back to his apartment away from Capitol Hill.
The understated approach was a considerable gamble for Obama at a key juncture in his career, and some old friends from the Illinois legislature worried that he would waste his cachet and chart a path toward obscurity. When they brought their concerns to Obama, he responded simply, "Have faith." He had his plan, and he intended to stick by it. He would thrive in the Senate by fitting in and not by standing out, by winning over Washington without giving too much of himself.
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Most senators move their families to Washington, and Obama expected to follow that convention. In the final months of 2004, he explored Chevy Chase and other Maryland suburbs with his wife, Michelle, browsing neighborhoods and looking at houses. The couple called school administrators to discuss placement for Malia and Sasha, their two young daughters.
For a few weeks early in 2005, the Obamas joked with friends in Chicago about the magnitude of their upcoming transition: from a 2,000-square-foot condo in the Hyde Park neighborhood to a big house outside Washington, with the girls in private school and a glamorous social calendar.