Measured Response To Financial Crisis Sealed the Election

By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama, so steady in public, did not hide his vexation when he summoned his top advisers to meet with him in Chicago on Sept. 14.

His general-election campaign had gone stale. For weeks, he had watched Sen. John McCain suction up the oxygen in the race, driving the news coverage after the boisterous Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn., and suddenly drawing huge crowds with his new running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Convening the meeting that Sunday in the office of David Axelrod, his chief strategist, Obama was blunt: It was time to get serious.

"He said, 'You know, maybe we can just win it on the issues. But I don't think so,' " recalled senior adviser Anita Dunn. With the debates approaching and just seven weeks until the election, "his charge to everybody was 'Guys, we're back in combat mode,' " Dunn said.

And then, the next morning, a global earthquake hit: Lehman Brothers, the giant investment firm, filed for bankruptcy, triggering the biggest corporate collapse in U.S. history and an international financial meltdown, and transforming the presidential race.

It was a moment neither the senator from Illinois nor his advisers had anticipated, but one for which they were uniquely prepared. In the days that followed, the newly chastised Obama team became more aggressive, with a message they had refined over the summer. The candidate himself, criticized as too cool, too cerebral and too detached, suddenly had the opportunity to show those qualities to be reassuring and presidential.

For McCain, already struggling with the economic issue, the Wall Street meltdown became part of a much different narrative. By the time the senator from Arizona made the surprise announcement on Sept. 24 that he would suspend his campaign, a powerful image had been framed: of an "erratic," older Republican who could not be trusted to handle a crisis, economic or otherwise.

In a race that had been thought to be even, the polls showed Obama to be pulling ahead, a lead that he would not relinquish through three debates and the election's closing weeks.

"It was a pivotal two weeks of the election," Axelrod said yesterday. ". . . It changed the structure of the race, in that it just never went back. Once people had rendered that verdict, it just didn't change."

In the end, both the candidate and the campaign lived up to the challenge Obama outlined that Sunday in Chicago. They benefited from a dose of what his staff called "Obama luck." But to paraphrase the famous adage of Pasteur, it was the kind of luck that favored only a prepared candidate.

If Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) had been a formidable primary opponent, McCain seemed to present another challenge to Obama -- as one of the few Republicans who could potentially slip the damaging shackles of his party and run on his compelling biography as a former prisoner of war and as someone with a record of working with Democrats.

"John McCain had the potential to be the toughest Republican opponent we could have drawn," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's communications director. "Although his record told a different story, his national celebrity was based on his opposition to President Bush and his reform credentials. On paper, McCain was perfectly suited to run a very strong campaign that nullified some of our strengths and exploited some of our weaknesses."

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