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A Rising Political Star Adopts a Low-Key Strategy
Obama's office received more than 300 speaking requests each week, and he turned down almost all of them. He waited two months before he held a news conference in Washington and seven more months before he made a notable public appearance outside Illinois. His assistant press secretary, Tommy Vietor, spent the first year refusing national media requests -- from CNN, NBC, Newsweek -- that most senators pursue. Some news outlets started calling Vietor "Mr. No."
Obama "wanted to earn a reputation as someone who took the nitty-gritty details of his job seriously," Vietor said. "He never wanted to come in and play that role of just being the big, out-of-town star."
Obama purposefully focused on issues that were unglamorous, waiting his turn to speak last on the Senate floor about ethanol, highway funding and Illinois dams. He looked for opportunities to work alongside Republicans and build his image as a reformer, working on a major ethics bill and writing government-transparency legislation with Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), one of the chamber's most conservative Republicans.
Meanwhile, Obama largely avoided major partisan debates such as those over judicial nominations and immigration. After making a strong stance against the Iraq war the centerpiece of his campaign, he waited 11 months into his term to give a speech about Iraq. His long-anticipated message hardly proved revolutionary: While some Democrats called for plans to withdraw troops, Obama asked for a troop reduction but not a concrete timetable for withdrawal.
He traveled to the far corners of Illinois 39 times in the first nine months of his term to host town hall meetings with constituents, spending his off days in backcountry libraries and cafeterias. While in Washington, Obama used his renown only when it helped the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raise money.
Chris Lu, Obama's legislative director, advised his boss to stay at committee meetings "from gavel to gavel," even if every other senator tired of the proceedings and left. Obama sometimes complained of boredom in a Senate that moved at a "glacial pace," he said, but Lu insisted that he stick with the strategy. Late in one meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) scanned the room and found it empty except for Obama. "I'd like it noted for the record," he announced, "that Senator Obama is the only member still here."
That marked the beginning of one of Obama's most fruitful relationships in Washington. A 30-year veteran of the Senate and a one-time presidential candidate, Lugar mentored Obama across party lines. In 2005, he invited Obama on his annual trip to inspect weapons-destruction facilities in the former Soviet Union, and the two men returned with a proposal aimed at eliminating Cold War weapons stockpiles; it became one of Obama's most significant legislative accomplishments.
On the trip, his first major overseas journey while in national office, Obama relied on Lugar for everything -- including weaponry insights as well as etiquette tips before meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "I feel very much like the novice and the pupil," Obama told a reporter on the trip.
Obama tried to re-create that type of relationship time and again in Washington. Every Thursday morning, he hosted a question-and-answer session for constituents with Sen. Richard J. Durbin, his fellow Democrat from Illinois. Most of the constituents came to see Obama, and they often directed their questions exclusively at him. Uncomfortable upstaging his senior colleague, he deferred to Durbin.
"He would always say that I knew more, so why not ask me?" Durbin said. "A lot of people would not have handled it so gracefully. He could have been the star, no question. But that would have bothered a few people, and he knew it. He was very careful to avoid making those kind of enemies."
In his first three months in office, Obama scheduled meetings with 14 senators -- including Democratic power brokers such as Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) -- to seek advice. He joked with each visitor about his typically meager first-term office -- "a whitewashed basement bunker," one staffer called it -- and then sought perspective on the history of the Senate, its leaders and traditions. He sent out early chapters of "The Audacity of Hope" to more than a dozen Washington colleagues, soliciting feedback.
By the summer of 2006, when Obama launched a national tour promoting the book and stopped regularly along the way to campaign for House and Senate Democrats, some of his colleagues began to wonder if the timetable they had imagined had been moved up. When Obama spoke late that summer at Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry in Iowa, a gathering known as the jumping-off point for aspiring presidential candidates, his intentions -- if not his final decision -- seemed clear.