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."

The second half of the Axelrod memo was more personal and pointed. "We should not get into a White Paper war with the Clintons, or get twisted into knots by the elites," he wrote. He argued that the issue of experience was overrated but said strength was not, and he conceded that Clinton, because of all she had weathered, was seen by voters as a candidate of strength. "But," he added, "the campaign itself also is a proving ground for strength."

Clinton, he wrote, "will try to command the race early. . . . Her goal will be two: to suggest that she has the beef, while we offer only sizzle; and that she is not about the past but the future. But for all her advantages, she is not a healing figure. As much as she tacks to the right, she will have a hard time escaping the well-formulated perceptions of her among swing voters as a left-wing ideologue."

Axelrod also warned that Obama's confessions of youthful drug use, described in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father," would be used against him. "This is more than an unpleasant inconvenience," he wrote. "It goes to your willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism. At the risk of triggering the very reaction that concerns me, I don't know if you are Muhammad Ali or Floyd Patterson when it comes to taking a punch. You care far too much what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty. When the largely irrelevant Alan Keyes attacked you, you flinched," he said of Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate opponent.

Axelrod's memo proved prescient in many respects, particularly about the confluence of public mood and Obama's innate political appeal and how that could be more compelling than the experience and network of Hillary Clinton. He also rightly judged that the campaign would be an opportunity for Obama to demonstrate that he had the strength and toughness. Now, as Obama grapples with the huge demands of his presidency, the question is whether the experience of the campaign provides a reliable indicator of his performance as chief executive.

* * *

One day in late September 2008, aboard his chartered flight from North Carolina to Chicago, Obama talked about what pushed him into the presidential race after only two years in the Senate. "Objectively you've got to say there's a certain megalomania there that's unhealthy. Right?" he said with a chuckle. "Axelrod said this to me, and he always reminds me of this. One of the things he said to me is he wasn't sure I would be a good candidate because I might be too normal. Which is why it's amusing, during the course of this campaign, the evolving narrative about me being aloof and elitist.

"Axelrod's right," he continued. "I'm not somebody who actually takes myself that seriously. I'm pretty well adjusted. You know, you can psychoanalyze my father leaving and this and that, but a lot of those things I resolved a long time ago. I'm pretty happy with my life. So there's an element, I think, of being driven that might have operated a little differently with me than maybe some other candidates. The way I thought about it was more of a sense of duty, in this sense. I thought to myself: There aren't that many people put in the position I'm put in. Some of it's just dumb luck. Some of it maybe has to do with me embodying some characteristics that are interesting for the time that we're in. But when I made the decision to do this, it wasn't with the certainty that I was the right person for the job. It was more the sense of, given what's been given to me, I should probably just give it a shot and see whether in fact there's something real there.

"But I went into it with some modesty, thinking to myself: It may be that this really is all hype, and once people get a sense of my ideas and what's going on there that they think I'm some callow youth or full of hot air, and if that turned out to be the case, that was okay. I think for me it was more of a sense of being willing to do this, understanding that the odds were probably -- I gave myself 25 percent odds, you know, maybe 30 -- which are pretty remarkable odds to be president of the United States, if you're a gambling man."

Still, there was no doubting Obama's driving ambition and sense of self-confidence, no matter what odds he had given himself at the beginning of his campaign.

Yet his early days as a candidate were difficult, and Obama knew it. There was a disastrous appearance at a health-care forum in Las Vegas, poor performances before several union audiences in Washington, and the physical and mental taxation that went with the grueling schedule he was keeping. By the end of the first quarter of 2007, he was exhausted and down, aides said.

"I'm actually always sort of a slow starter," Obama said. "The same thing happened during my U.S. Senate race. My stump speeches tend to come to me organically. I try a bunch of things out. And sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. So in those first couple of months, I wasn't operating on this tight script." He recalled the opening months of the Senate campaign. "I'd be talking to an audience of 30 people in a living room somewhere or in a diner or a VFW hall. So you're off-Broadway and nobody's paying attention," he said. "But the problem for us was, we were already on Broadway. The media was following us nonstop. In April of 2007, we had 23,000 people show up in Austin, Texas. So suddenly you've got these enormous crowds, huge spotlight, and I'm still sort of working out my riff."

Aides worried that Obama's low morale might infect others in the campaign and spoke to him about it. They tried to buck him up, but at points in the spring and early summer of 2007, he was deeply frustrated -- with his own performance and with that of much of his campaign. On July 15, he met with his senior staff at the home of Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and confidante to both Obama and his wife, Michelle. One adviser recalled it as the moment Obama began to take a more direct role in the operations of his campaign. He was blunt in his critique, and the exchanges among some of his advisers became testy. Beyond fundraising and the operation overseeing the Internet and new media, the campaign was not performing well, Obama said. The message still wasn't where it should be. The political operation wasn't up to speed. The campaign lacked crispness and good execution. He thought it was becoming too insular, and he wanted new people added to the inner circle. He told his team members they were all doing B-level work. If they continued on that course, they would come in a respectable second.

"Second is not good enough," he said.

Obama's struggles continued. In October, Jarrett traveled to Iowa with him for a meeting with members of his national finance committee, who were peppering the candidate's advisers with doubts and complaints. Obama was well aware of the concerns, and what he said that day stayed with Jarrett for months afterward. "He said, 'I know you guys are nervous, I know it's much bumpier than you thought it would be, but I'll hold your hand and we'll get through this,' '' she said. "He said, 'I'll hold your hand if you're nervous, I'll be right there with you, but we're going to get through this, we're going to do this together.' "

Obama said that trip was an important moment of confidence-building. "I just told people -- I said, 'If you guys thought this was going to be easy, you must have not been listening to us. We always knew this was hard and that I'm the underdog, but we can win this thing if you don't waver.' "

The real turnaround came a month later at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner, which featured all the presidential candidates. Obama delivered a rousing speech that, without mentioning Clinton, drew a sharp contrast with her and better defined his own candidacy. That speech gave Obama's well-organized Iowa operation the boost needed to propel him to win the caucuses on Jan. 3, 2008. A stunned Clinton finished third, behind John Edwards. The moment of victory spawned a movement.

If Iowa launched his candidacy, New Hampshire the next week almost ended it. Clinton's come-from-behind triumph was a moment of crushing disappointment for Obama and his team. The candidate took the news stoically when his advisers came to tell him that she would win after everyone had counted her out. To aides, he quoted Frederick Douglass, who had said that if there is no struggle, there is no progress, that power concedes nothing without a demand.

We asked Obama what had happened in New Hampshire. "What our pollsters told me was every undecided woman swung to Hillary that last three days," he said. "All of them. Which just doesn't usually happen. I think the combination of her choking up; an inartful comment by me during the debate that wasn't intended in any way the way it came out, but I understood it came out as sort of dismissive; John Edwards doing a weird thing and kind of ganging up on her, despite the fact that I had won [Iowa]. . . . And I just think the sense that, 'Gosh, you know, we shouldn't just hand it to this guy, and she's really fighting for this thing and has paid her dues.' I think all those things just converged for people to say to themselves, 'Let's keep this going a little bit.' "

There would be other losses ahead, disappointing setbacks in Ohio and Texas that would prolong the nomination battle for three more months. "After Ohio and Texas, my attitude was: We will win this thing, but it will be painful, and let's figure out what we need to do to execute and win," Obama said, adding that he told his staff and supporters that "it probably shouldn't be this easy for me to win, that we probably do need to earn this thing, because we're going to have a tough time, should we get the nomination, against Republicans and we need to have one of these under our belts."

* * *

There was no greater threat to Obama's chances of winning the presidency than the controversy that erupted over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his former longtime pastor. In early April 2008, ABC News aired a report about Wright's incendiary sermons, particularly one that came shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, in which he thundered from the pulpit, "God damn America!" The preacher in the videos was not the benign and fatherly figure Obama had described as his spiritual adviser and inspiration for the title of his second book, "The Audacity of Hope." This pastor was divisive and offensive, filled with resentment toward white America and the national government Obama was seeking to lead.

In our December interview in Chicago, we asked Obama what had made him believe that the country was ready for an African American president. He cited his run for the Senate in 2004, saying the experience had given him confidence that his race would not be an insurmountable obstacle. "Illinois is a pretty good microcosm of the country, and when I started my U.S. Senate race everybody said a guy with your name, African American, can't win a U.S. Senate race. And we won," he said. "And my approval ratings, I think, when I announced for the presidency here in Illinois, were like 70 percent. So I thought to myself, 'If I'm in a big industrial state with 12 percent African American population and people seem to not be concerned about my race and much more concerned with my performance, why would [that not hold true] across the country?"

He never lost confidence that he could overcome racial barriers, though the Rev. Wright flap had severely tested that belief. Race, the topic that Obama had tried to transcend, now dominated the discussion about him. He wanted to be a post-racial candidate, not an extension of the civil rights generation, and he suddenly found himself at the center of a controversy that highlighted the gulf that still divided blacks and whites. "What you had was a moment where all the suspicions and misunderstandings that are embedded in our racial history were suddenly laid bare," he said during one of our interviews. He knew there was no way to dodge this crisis. "If we had not handled the Reverend Wright episode properly," he said, "I think we could have lost."

The Wright controversy led to perhaps Obama's most important speech of the campaign, his discussion of race before an audience in Philadelphia. "I thought it was very important at that point for me to help translate the experiences both of Reverend Wright but also how the ordinary white American might feel in hearing Reverend Wright and how both sets of experiences were an outgrowth of our history and had to be acknowledged and dealt with instead of just papered over or reduced to a caricature. And I think that the speech in Philadelphia succeeded in doing that."

The speech did not end the controversy over Wright. His reappearance later in the spring, in a series of events in which he declined to take back his most controversial statements, brought a new test for the candidate. "The second [Wright eruption] was in some ways more painful because I felt that was a personal breach on the part of Reverend Wright," Obama said.

He added: "He's a great preacher . . . but Reverend Wright remained rooted in the rhetoric of the '60s. . . . What he was saying was not considered in any way exceptional in the African American community for his generation. He never updated or refreshed that worldview to accommodate the changes that were taking place in America. And what you were seeing in Reverend Wright and those statements were not only offensive to everybody in many ways, but it also showed an anger and bitterness . . . that may be more acceptable in some circles in the African American community but is never acceptable in mainstream America. And so you had that sudden, really volatile potential clash of visions."

Wright's reappearance came the week before two crucial May 6 primaries in Indiana and North Carolina. The evening before the primaries, Obama was in Indiana and had some time to relax before a late-night visit to a factory. As was often the case in moments of stress or relaxation, he was joined by friends Valerie Jarrett, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt. Jarrett remembers Obama despondent, worried that the Wright controversy might undo all his campaign had accomplished. She said she had never seen him as down as he was that night.

"We had lost Pennsylvania and now we're going into a couple of pretty tough states," Obama told us, recalling that moment. "We [were] just getting our groove back and suddenly this [Wright] thing pops up again. And you felt like, well, maybe we're just not going to survive this. Maybe people are just going to feel too skittish or just feel that I was mortally wounded and that I wouldn't be able to survive a general election, and that could start changing how delegates think."

In fact, the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina proved to be effectively the end of Clinton's campaign. Obama easily won North Carolina and barely lost Indiana. Now there was no way for Clinton to amass enough delegates to win. A month later, on June 3, Obama celebrated the end of the primaries and his nomination at a rally in St. Paul, Minn. During our September 2008 interview, we asked whether, on that night, he felt caught up in the emotion of making history as the first African American nominated for president by a major party.

"I am very glad that there are people who have been inspired by this race. But I did not begin this race to run a symbolic contest. I ran to win," he said. "And what I thought, and this is the honest truth -- I said this to Axelrod -- having won against a very formidable opponent, my main thought was, I'd better win the general election. Because this should be a Democratic year and I beat somebody who would have been a good general-election candidate, so we'd better get our act together now."

But history-in-the-making was always part of the Obama campaign, and in the hours before he was to give his acceptance speech before 80,000 people at Denver's Invesco Field during the Democratic National Convention, even the candidate was overwhelmed by it. It happened in a hotel room during his late-afternoon rehearsal before Axelrod and speechwriter Jon Favreau. When he got to the passage in the speech in which he was going to refer to the historic address the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave 45 years earlier on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Obama suddenly was overcome.

"I started reading it and I got to the section right at the end when it talks about, you know, this young preacher from Georgia. And . . . I had to stop. I choked up," Obama said. He went into the bathroom and closed the door. He returned composed and ready to continue.

* * *

As he reviewed the campaign from his transition headquarters in mid-December, Obama offered a frank assessment of his two main competitors: Clinton and John McCain. "I was sure that my toughest race was Hillary," he said. "Hillary was just a terrific candidate, and she really found her voice in the last part of the campaign. After Texas and Ohio she just became less cautious and was out there and was working hard and I think connecting with voters really well. She was just a terrific candidate. And [the Clinton campaign] operation was not as good as ours and not as tight as ours, but they were still plenty tough. Their rapid response, how they messaged in the media was really good. So we just always thought they were our most formidable challenge. That isn't to say that we underestimated John McCain; it's just that we didn't think that their campaign operation was as good. And one of the hardest things for me, during the primary, was finding differences with Hillary. I mean, a lot of the differences between us, substantively, were pretty modest. . . .

"Going into the general election, I just felt liberated, because there was such a stark contrast between John and myself. . . . They made a strategic decision early on to flip on the Bush tax cuts, and in fact double down on them, which locked them into a domestic agenda that was very difficult to separate from George Bush's domestic agenda. So that just gave us a lot of running room on the issues."

Did he believe that his election marked the end of the Reagan era?

"What Reagan ushered in was a skepticism toward government solutions to every problem, a suspicion of command-and-control, top-down social engineering," he said. "I don't think that has changed. I think that's a lasting legacy of the Reagan era and the conservative movement, starting with Goldwater. But I do think [what we're seeing] is an end to the knee-jerk reaction toward the New Deal and big government."

Added Obama: "What we don't know yet is whether my administration and this next generation of leadership is going to be able to hew to a new, more pragmatic approach that is less interested in whether we have big government or small government, [but is] more interested in whether we have a smart, effective government."

And what had he learned about the American people from his campaign?

"I have to tell you," he said, "and this is in no way an indication of overconfidence -- I was not surprised by the campaign. I felt that, and I said this on the stump, I felt vindicated in my faith in the American people."

Drawing on his legal background, he offered "a theory of the case" that he said guided his campaign. "For at least a decade, maybe longer," he said, Americans have been "frustrated with a government that was unresponsive; that their economic life was becoming more difficult despite the surface prosperity; that wages and incomes had flat-lined and that in this new globalized world people were feeling more and more insecure; that we had never replaced or updated the structures for security that the New Deal had provided with something that made sense for this new economy; that people were weary of culture wars as a substitute for policy; that people were tired of only focusing on what divides instead of what brought us together; that the 50-plus-one electoral strategies that were generally pursued in national elections were completely inadequate to solve big problems like health care and energy that would require a broader consensus; that people were embarrassed by the decline in America's standing in the eyes of the world and that that would have political relevance to voters who normally might not care that much about foreign policy; and that the American people were decent and good and would be open to a different tone to politics.

"So that was the theory that we started with. What was remarkable in my mind about our campaign was we never really changed our theory. You could read the speech we gave the day I announced and then read my speech on election night, and it was pretty consistent."

* * *

It was time to leave, but not before raising one last subject. Obama started his campaign in the shadow of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln had delivered his famous "House Divided" speech, warning that the nation could not survive half slave and half free. Now, as he prepared to return to Washington, his transition team had announced plans for him to follow the last part of Lincoln's train ride to Washington before his inauguration. We wondered how Lincoln, an Illinois lawyer with little national experience, affected Obama's thoughts about his own presidency as another young Illinois lawyer with limited national experience soon to take his oath of office.

"Lincoln's my favorite president and one of my personal heroes," he answered. "I have to be very careful here that in no way am I drawing equivalence between my candidacy, my life experience, or what I face and what he went through. I just want to put that out there so you don't get a bunch of folks saying I'm comparing myself to Lincoln."

He paused. "What I admire so deeply about Lincoln -- number one, I think he's the quintessential American because he's self-made. The way Alexander Hamilton was self-made or so many of our great iconic Americans are, that sense that you don't accept limits, that you can shape your own destiny. That obviously has appeal to me, given where I came from. That American spirit is one of the things that is most fundamental to me, and I think he embodies that.

"But the second thing that I admire most in Lincoln is that there is just a deep-rooted honesty and empathy to the man that allowed him to always be able to see the other person's point of view and always sought to find that truth that is in the gap between you and me. Right? That the truth is out there somewhere and I don't fully possess it and you don't fully possess it and our job then is to listen and learn and imagine enough to be able to get to that truth.

"If you look at his presidency, he never lost that. Most of our other great presidents, there was that sense of working the angles and bending other people to their will. FDR being the classic example. And Lincoln just found a way to shape public opinion and shape people around him and lead them and guide them without tricking them or bullying them, but just through the force of what I just talked about: that way of helping to illuminate the truth. I just find that to be a very compelling style of leadership.

"It's not one that I've mastered, but I think that's when leadership is at its best."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company