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On a Day Like No Other, Obama Is Typically Serene

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

CHICAGO, Nov. 4 -- Barack Obama left his Hyde Park home late Tuesday night and arrived at Grant Park just before 11 p.m. Central time, enveloped in euphoria. Friends who surrounded him near the stage choked back tears. Campaign staffers studied the latest voting totals and gushed about "a blowout." Supporters descended on Chicago, filled the city's biggest park and spilled through downtown, chanting and waving miniature American flags in celebration.

Only Obama, the reason for so much pandemonium, remained characteristically serene. He walked onto a blue stage with his wife and two daughters, stepped to a lectern flanked by 25 American flags and protective glass, and allowed himself a moment to gaze out at the final overwhelming crowd of his campaign. Then, after thanking his family and his staff, he stared at his jubilant audience and struck a somber tone.

"I know you didn't do this just to win an election, and I know you didn't do it for me," Obama said. "You did it because you understand the enormity of the task that lies ahead. For even as we celebrate tonight, we know the challenges that tomorrow will bring are the greatest of our lifetime."

Through the highs and lows of his unlikely rise to the presidency, Obama has maintained a steady equilibrium. It is the quality that helped him become the 44th president of the United States. And it is the quality, friends said, that kept him from reveling in it with carefree abandon.

Instead of pausing Tuesday to rejoice with those around him, Obama generally treated Election Day like any other. Breakfast with his wife and daughters. A business trip to Indiana. A basketball game with friends at a gym on Chicago's West Side. A quiet evening watching television at his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood, shuttered from the chaos.

When he stepped onstage to address more than 125,000 people pressed inside Grant Park's fences and several times more gathered near the shore of Lake Michigan, Obama reminded them that "there will be setbacks and false starts" and that "we know government can't solve every problem."

The past few days have challenged Obama's cool like never before, his Election Day stress amplified by the fatigue of the 21-month campaign and the death of his grandmother. As Obama readied to play basketball with a group of nine friends and campaign staffers late Tuesday afternoon, a few teammates thought to check on his state of mind. How, they wondered, was he holding up?

"Doing fine, doing fine," Obama said. "Let's play."

"When you get on the basketball court with him, he's telling jokes, laughing, arguing for fouls like there's nothing else in the world going on," said Alexi Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer and a longtime friend of Obama's who played in Tuesday's game. "He makes it seem normal. You have to step back from it to think: 'Wait. He's playing with us? Right now?' "

A sense of history stalked Obama all day. He woke up before 6 a.m., after the latest three-hour sleep, and dressed in his typical campaign uniform -- a dark suit, white shirt and black sunglasses. With his wife, Michelle, and their daughters, he traveled about a mile north from his home to arrive at the Precinct 24, Ward 4 polling location. William Ayers -- a Hyde Park associate, 1960s radical and hazardous connection for Obama's campaign -- walked out of the polling station a few minutes before Obama, an unwelcome reminder of how tenuous his campaign's fate remained.

At 7:40 a.m., Obama stepped into a voting booth at Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, where 96 percent of the students are black and 85 percent are poor. He cast his vote for the first black president of the United States as his youngest daughter, Sasha, clung to his right leg. Obama occasionally turned away from the extensive, 60-vote ballot to look down and smile at the 7-year-old, who squirmed amidst the room's adult sterility.

"You know, I'm happy I got to vote with my daughters," Obama said later, in one of his few reflective moments. "That was a big deal."

Even those who travel regularly in Obama's orbit seemed star-struck. When he flew into Indianapolis for a short campaign trip in mid-morning, some of the media members traveling with him sent their press credentials to the front of the plane so Obama could autograph them. Flight attendants handed out bottles of pinot grigio. Aides distributed souvenirs and arranged for a group photograph with their boss.

Obama, meanwhile, strived for normalcy. He cocooned within the protective circle of best friends Marty Nesbitt, Eric Whitaker and Valerie Jarrett, who moved in lockstep with him from one dark Suburban to the next. He read two morning newspapers, as he always does. He talked with Nesbitt about potential teams for the afternoon basketball game. Later, Nesbitt walked around the plane dribbling a ball while Obama watched.

On the tarmac at the Indianapolis airport, Obama knelt to pose for a picture with media members and security staff. He coaxed the group to smile for the camera by saying, "Okay, now everybody say 'tequila.' "

After his longtime photographer, David Katz, took a few shots, Obama walked behind Nesbitt, patted his friend on the back and briefly massaged his shoulders. Obama, who has often described his mood this week as "peaceful," looked at ease laughing with Nesbitt and squinting against the high-noon sun.

"It's like being in the last 120 meters of the 400-meter sprint," Nesbitt said. "And yeah, there's a lot going on around you, but you're trying to keep your head down and not worry about it too much. You're almost finished, and you have to do what you've been doing all along. That's what got you this far."

It's an attitude consistent with one of Obama's themes of the campaign: focusing exclusively on the task at hand. During his two-hour basketball game at Attack Athletics -- a polling-day tradition started during the primaries -- Obama indicated that he preferred not to talk about politics. "That's our usual rule: basketball only," Giannoulias said.

At other times during the past several days, friends said, Obama has refrained from reflecting on his campaign or contemplating his place in history. "He hasn't stepped back, and I'm not sure if he really will," said Abner Mikva, a longtime Obama mentor. "He leaves that part to all of us."

During the final days of the campaign, Obama revealed only an occasional hint of stress. He took his daughters with him on the road last weekend -- a first since the Democratic convention -- because he was tired of being away from them. During a speech Monday in Florida, he mistakenly referenced "here in Ohio," before correcting himself and telling the crowd, "I've been traveling too much."

On Halloween, Obama spotted a group of cameramen filming him as he trick-or-treated with Sasha. Annoyed, he walked over to the journalists and said: "That's enough. You've got your shot. Now leave us alone." It was but a brief flash of irritation, but Mikva said it was the angriest he ever had seen Obama.

Three days later, some friends said, they saw Obama cry for the first time. He wiped his eyes with a tissue as he spoke at a rally Monday in North Carolina, less than 10 hours after his grandmother died in Hawaii from cancer. "I'm not going to talk about it too long," he told the crowd, "because it is hard for me to talk about."

Said Mikva: "It's been a roller coaster, and I think if he let all of that show it would be overwhelming for him. A big emotional reaction -- jumping, or yelling, or doing things like that -- is not his style."

Nor has Obama ever been the type to celebrate. He became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, yet he realized the historic significance of the accomplishment only when a teary-eyed black classmate hugged and thanked him.

After his 2004 speech at the Democratic convention in Boston, Obama left his own after-party early because he deemed the nightclub too crowded.

The group of about 12 friends who spent most of Tuesday night with Obama and followed him to Grant Park said he maintained his usual composure. Becoming president satisfied but did not surprise him, many of them said. Obama has summarized his immediate plans, starting Wednesday, as catching up on sleep and moving quickly to his next task -- governing.

He has no plans for a major vacation. He studied briefing books on plane rides this week and read "Ghost Wars," a book about Afghanistan by Steve Coll, when he felt like something lighter.

"I would expect, the way he works, that he will begin moving on from this campaign right after midnight," said Charles Ogletree, one of Obama's professors at Harvard and now a senior adviser to his campaign. "But I'm going to try to tell him, 'This is a historic night. It's yours. Please, enjoy it.' "

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