A Political Odyssey: How Obama's Team Forged a Path That Surprised Everyone, Even the Candidate

By Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson
Sunday, August 2, 2009

Adapted from the upcoming book "The Battle for America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election"

" I think the whole election was a novel," Barack Obama said.

It was mid-December 2008. The president-elect was seated in his transition headquarters in the federal building in downtown Chicago. Next to him were a football, and a basketball with an "Obama '08" insignia. Bulletproof panels had been placed along floor-to-ceiling windows.

Obama was welcoming and upbeat, although later that day he would learn during a meeting with his economic advisers that the fiscal crisis was even worse than they had believed. Escorting us to his office, he expressed mock dismay at the mess around the desk of his personal assistant, Reggie Love. Eyeing an open bag of potato chips and papers strewn on the floor, he exclaimed that this was no way for the president-elect's space to look. "Reggie!" he shouted, but Love was nowhere to be seen.

As Obama settled into his sofa, drinking bottled tea and munching almonds, he grew more and more reflective, offering his most expansive rumination on the election to date. He spoke candidly about his competitors, his own failings, his controversial former pastor and how he hoped to govern, providing insight that is useful today as Americans observe a president struggling with the nation's enormous challenges.

"I don't think I was the most interesting character in the election," he said, noting "a whole cast of characters at the beginning who are fascinating in their own right, in some ways compelling just from a human perspective: John Edwards, [Mike] Huckabee. And then comes the general election [and] you get Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. You've got Reverend Wright, Bill Ayers. It's a pretty fascinating slice of Americana."

He was asked how the writer in him would spin the tale of what ultimately happened in 2008. "The way I would tell the story would really have to do with what this campaign said about America and where we've traveled," Obama said. "The fact that just a little over 40 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that I can run. That just a few decades after women were admitted to professions like law or medicine in any meaningful numbers, that Hillary could run in a credible way. The generational changes between John McCain's era and our own, and sort of the vestiges of Vietnam, the shift that's taken place in the salience of some of the culture wars that emerged in the '60s that really were the dominant force in our politics, starting with Ronald Reagan, and how that had less power. Which, by the way, includes why the issue of Reverend Wright or Bill Ayers never caught as powerfully as it might have 15 or 20 years ago. The way the Internet served our campaign in unprecedented ways."

Six months into his presidency, there are questions about whether Obama can deliver on the promises of his campaign. His health-care initiative continues to meet difficulty in Congress. Increasing unemployment has raised doubts about his economic stimulus package. His energy plan faces real resistance on Capitol Hill.

As a candidate, Obama confronted similar questions and doubts: Was he too inexperienced, was he strong enough to lead the country, were his governing instincts liberal or moderate, was his commitment to bipartisanship achievable? Those questions were on the table in the late fall of 2006, as Obama and his advisers deliberated a presidential run.

David Axelrod knew his candidate as well as anyone in the inner circle. The transplanted New Yorker was a political reporter turned political consultant and strategist. He helped Obama win election to the Senate in 2004 and was at Obama's side as the presidential campaign took root.

In the days leading up to Obama's decision to run, Axelrod prepared a private strategy memo -- dated Nov. 28, 2006 -- that has never been published before. He wrote that an outgoing president nearly always defines the next election and argued that people almost never seek a replica -- certainly not after the presidency of George W. Bush. In 2008, people were going to be looking for a replacement, someone who represented different qualities. In Axelrod's opinion, Obama's profile fit this historical moment far better than did Hillary Rodham Clinton's. If he was right, Obama could spark a political movement and prevail against sizable odds. He also counseled Obama against waiting for a future opportunity to run for president. "History is replete with potential candidates for the presidency who waited too long rather than examples of people who ran too soon. . . . You will never be hotter than you are right now."

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