How Obama Won
It is a Saturday night in Des Moines, Iowa. In an arena that has hosted Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and Ozzy Osbourne, nine thousand Democrats have seen five of their party’s presidential candidates set out why Iowans should vote for them in the first primary of the season, now less than two months away. The event is Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner, a fixture in the Democratic primary calendar.
John Edwards, the boyishly handsome former Senator from North Carolina, tells the crowd how, as the self-made son of a millworker, he has been driven by a lifelong passion for fighting poverty and injustice. He promises that, as president, he will combat the corrupt corporate interests that dominate Washington politics, and stand up for working people.
Bill Richardson, the jocular Governor of New Mexico and America’s most prominent Hispanic politician, flatters Iowans by thanking them for embodying democracy at its best. He appeals to Iowa’s affection for the underdog, and implores fellow Democrats not to ‘tear each other down’.
Senator Joe Biden begins with a joke about the leading Republican candidate, Rudy Giuliani: that every Giuliani sentence seems to contain nothing but a noun, a verb, and ‘9/11’. But now that right-wing preacher Pat Robertson has endorsed Giuliani, Biden says he’ll add ‘an amen’ in there. He goes on to outline his plan to end the war in Iraq and ensure that America regains its reputation in the world.
Chris Dodd, the silver-haired Senator from Connecticut, declares that his first priority will be to ‘restore the US constitution’ after what he says are the abuses of the Bush years.
All of the speeches are solid, as you’d expect from candidates who had been honing and developing their stump speech in town halls, churches and rallies across Iowa for months. Different sections of the crowd cheer loudest for their favourite candidates, waving banners and chanting slogans in the intervals between speeches. But it is a long night, and cheers become more muted as the evening goes on. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic congressional leader, and officially neutral in the race, is a slightly awkward master of ceremonies. She takes care to be even-handed, introducing every candidate as ‘the next president of the United States’.
The last two candidates to speak are the two leading contenders for the nomination, and the crowd is eager to hear them.
Hillary Clinton, the Senator from New York and front-runner for the 2008 Democratic nomination, is up first. Suffering from a cold, her voice is pitched lower than usual. She begins by pointing out that on January 20th 2009 somebody will raise ‘his or her hand’ to be sworn in as the next president. Rarely can this familiar formulation have raised such a cheer. After laying into the ‘incompetence’ of the current administration, she goes on to explain her plans for comprehensive healthcare, and an end to the war in Iraq. Clinton’s emphasis throughout is on her ability to get things done. Change is just a word, she says – an implicit reference to her main rival – unless you have the strength and experience to make it happen. Americans need a president who is ‘ready to lead on day one’. Clinton’s speech is well received. It is a persuasive pitch from the woman most observers judge to be the likely winner of this race.
By the time the last candidate gets his turn, the event is running an hour over time. It is shortly before midnight, and most of the audience has been sitting for at least four hours, hearing speech after speech cover familiar ground. But as Barack Obama, junior Senator from Illinois, makes his way through the arena, a current of energy surges through the auditorium. He is almost physically propelled up the steps to the stage by the noise of the crowd. His campaign has packed the hall with more supporters than anyone else. But the cheering is coming from every corner. It is hard to escape the impression that tonight, the previous candidates – even Clinton – were support acts, and that the headliner has arrived.
Voters in Iowa are fascinated by the young man who is challenging Hillary Clinton for the presidential nomination. They’ve heard he can give a great speech. But perhaps they’re wondering which Obama is going to turn up. His appearances on the campaign trail in recent weeks have been lacklustre, long on policy detail but short on passion. It’s almost as if he’s been rebelling against his own charisma. But tonight, after sitting through hours of worthy speeches, the crowd desperately want some excitement – and that is what Barack Obama delivers.
He thanks the hosts, and in the pause before he begins his speech a lone female voice from the arena cries out ‘I love you’. Without missing a beat he says, ‘I love you back’, flashing a megawatt grin.
Obama starts with an easy applause-line about how, in November, the name George W. Bush will not be on the ballot. ‘Neither will my cousin Dick Cheney’ (a recent story in the press had found an obscure genealogical connection between Obama and the vice-president). ‘Everybody has a black sheep in the family,’ he deadpans.
He looks at ease, entirely comfortable on the big stage. Physically he is less than graceful. He gangles. His suit seems to hang off him. He has a boyish face, a small head, and protruding ears. But his voice, a deep rich baritone, is powerful and he uses it artfully, rhythmically layering sentences on top of each other with beats in between, building to a series of climaxes each of which yield noisy applause from the crowd. Holding the microphone with his left hand he strolls around a small area of the stage, emphasising words with his free hand, occasionally unfurling a long index finger to jab a point home as if concluding an argument to the students of his former employer, the Chicago Law School.
He lists the broken promises of the Bush administration, winning the ready applause that the other candidates enjoyed for similar litanies. But then he goes further. He uses the audience’s dislike of Bush to pivot into an attack on ‘old style politics’, and by extension, Hillary Clinton (though he never names her). He declares that the ‘same old Washington textbook campaigns just won’t do’, emphasising each of those last words with his right hand, as if knocking three times on a door.
The same three words punctuate a crescendo-building riff about the difference between old and new politics. ‘That’s why not answering questions ’cause we are afraid our answers won’t be popular just won’t do. That’s why telling the American people what we think they want to hear instead of telling the American people what they need to hear just won’t do.’ He lets the ‘why’ lengthen and expand to suggest the cadences of a pastor at the pulpit, before bringing each sentence up sharp with those three raps on the door. It’s a compelling mix of teacher and preacher, and the crowd are enthralled.
Barack Obama is himself a mixture of these things: lecture theatre and church, Harvard and Chicago’s South Side. Back in his days as a community organiser he knew that if he was to make a name for himself he would have to improve his speaking style, which was too cerebral, too professorial for his audiences. So he studied the preachers in church and made a conscious effort to emulate their soaring oratorical flair. As his Chicago friend and mentor Abner Mikva recalls, ‘he listened to patterns of speech, how to take people up the ladders. It’s almost a Baptist tradition to make someone faint, and by God he’d doing it now.’
This evening Obama leads the crowd of Iowa Democrats up the ladder of their party’s glorious history. He calls on them to revive the spirit of Jefferson, Roosevelt and Kennedy, each of whom led ‘not by polls but by principles’. He declares his intention to summon the nation to ‘a common purpose, a higher purpose’. ‘That’s why I’m in this race,’ he says, ‘to offer change we can believe in.’ The audience erupts. At least one or two of its members faint.
For a candidate who has spent just three years in national politics to position himself as the heir to the party’s greatest figures is an act of extraordinary audacity. But then, audacity is something Obama had come to be known for, ever since he seized the opportunity to introduce the party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, at the 2004 Democratic Convention, giving a rip-roaring speech that brought the hall to its feet and his face to the attention of millions of viewers around the country.
In that speech’s most famous passage he decried the division of America’s political and cultural map into ‘Red States for the Republicans and Blue States for the Democrats’, declaring that ‘we worship an awesome god in the blue states… and we have gay friends in the red states’. The coming contest between Bush and Kerry, he said, came down to a choice between cynicism and hope: ‘It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too… the audacity of hope!’
The structure of this ringing passage itself declared Obama’s ambition. By placing his own story last, he managed to suggest that John Kerry and his running mate John Edwards were mere supporting acts to his own inevitable triumph – indeed, that the whole of American history would find its apotheosis in the coming of Obama. The aggressive self-promotion was little commented on at the time, but the appeal of this new face – who did not even hold national office yet – was the story of the convention.
Given the vaulting ambition evident in his convention speech it was hardly surprising that Obama, after becoming a Senator, would consider a run for the presidency. Few expected when he moved into his Senate office that the time would come so soon - least of all Obama. But the stuffy nature and sluggish pace of the Senate were not to his liking, and throughout his second year there, Obama was titillated by the number of Democrats who urged him to consider a run in 2008. He didn’t need much convincing of his own political talents, however. ‘I think I’ve got something,’ he told a friend.
By the autumn of 2006, when he went on a national book tour to promote his second book, The Audacity of Hope (already the phrase most associated with him), Obama let it be known that he was considering a run at the next opportunity. The result was a sustained wave of publicity. Time magazine put him on the cover, with the headline, ‘Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President’.
In November of that year, Obama, his wife Michelle and his team of advisers crowded into a meeting room in the Chicago offices of his chief strategist David Axelrod’s consulting firm. Michelle Obama was sceptical, concerned about the effect of a long campaign on her children and about her husband’s safety. If they were going to run, she wanted to know they could win. ‘I want you to show me you’re going to do this. You need to show me that this is not going to be a bullshit fly-by-night campaign,’ she is reputed to have told the assembled team.
A month later, at an all-day meeting billed as ‘The Summit’, Obama’s would-be campaign manager, David Plouffe, presented a detailed plan for the potential campaign to Senator Obama and his wife. They discussed not only the plan, but why he should run: the basic motivation that would get him and his family through the hard times. They agreed that it was the need for a new type of politics; the need for change more fundamental than a change of administration or even party.
In December, after an encouraging visit to New Hampshire, second on the primary calendar, Obama met with former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle for a long heart-to-heart at a restaurant in Washington. Daschle, a Democrat from South Dakota, had enjoyed a long career in the Senate but never found the right moment to run for president (he lost his seat in 2004). ‘Don’t think that you’re going to have another opportunity in 2012 and 2016,’ he told Obama. ‘You might. But – like me – you might not.’ Obama also called and spoke to an old friend and mentor: the Reverend Alvin Love, a Baptist Minister from Chicago’s South Side. ‘My dad told me that you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,’ said Love. ‘The iron can’t get any hotter,’ replied Obama. In early January, after spending Christmas with his grandmother in Hawaii, Obama called Daschle at home to tell him he’d made up his mind. ‘I’m going to run.’
On February 10 2007, Obama stood in front of the building where Abraham Lincoln had delivered his famous ‘House Divided’ speech against slavery in 1858. On the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, Obama formally announced to the world that he was running for president.
In his speech he acknowledged that he hadn’t spent a long time in national politics, but that he’d ‘been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change’. He bemoaned ‘the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics – the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and the trivial’. He declared that his campaign would be the vehicle for the hopes and dreams of ‘millions of people calling for change.’ Referring to a ‘tall, gangly lawyer’ who believed that ‘we are one people’, he self-consciously positioned himself as the heir to Lincoln.
Obama’s announcement shouldn’t have been a surprise to Hillary Clinton and her team of advisers but somehow it was. Clinton’s team had already spent years putting together a plan for her presidential campaign, but they saw John Edwards as their sole credible rival. Obama did not figure in the polls that Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, had been conducting amongst the electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire.
It was only in January 2007, when the Clinton team got word that several of the party’s top fund-raisers had pledged loyalty to Obama, that they began to wake up to this potential threat. They rushed forwards the announcement of Clinton’s candidacy. In a video emailed to her supporters and the media, a relaxed-looking Hillary Clinton made the announcement that everyone had been expecting for at least the last four years.
Obama’s entrance was worrying to the Clinton team for two reasons. First, it disrupted the assumption that Clinton’s nomination was inevitable. The Clinton strategy, modelled after George Bush’s successful nomination campaign in 2000, was to persuade the party’s donors and key players that her victory was assured, and that they should get behind her as quickly as possible or risk missing the bus. The media and party had so far concurred. Obama threatened this consensus, and slowed her momentum.
Second, it undermined Clinton’s ability to represent change. With a massively unpopular incumbent president, a war in Iraq that dragged on with no victory in sight, and an uncertain economic future, the country wanted to start afresh. Clinton’s advisers hoped that the possibility of electing the first female president would help overcome her associations with the past. But now along came somebody whose ability to symbolise the future was as great if not greater.
Unsurprisingly, Obama made ‘change’ the theme of his campaign. His strategy was to tie Clinton and Bush together as part of the ‘failed politics’ of the last twenty years. Building on the theme he’d established so resoundingly at the 2004 convention, he promised to reach across partisan divisions and unite the country.
Obama knew that he couldn’t rely on the early support of the party’s establishment. He aimed instead to build a popular movement of ordinary voters behind his campaign. His novelty and broad appeal made this viable. Volunteers rushed to support him in large numbers, enabling it to set up operations in primary states across the country with unprecedented speed. Thousands turned up to hear him speak at major rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire, and their names were added to mailing and email lists. But the most extraordinary manifestation of Obama’s ‘movement’ was its fundraising capacity. Within months, drawing on an army of small donors, many of whom contributed via the Internet, Obama had raised more than all the other Democratic candidates combined. For the Clintons, who had assumed that their grip on the traditional fundraising levers of the party would assure a big financial advantage over all comers, the news of Obama’s ability to raise such sums was deeply unsettling.
But despite this early success, the shine came off Obama’s candidacy during a long summer of campaigning. He didn’t overtake Clinton in the polls, and by the autumn she had recovered her balance. She seemed to have found the measure of her youthful opponent, winning the first televised debate between all the major Democratic candidates. In response to a question about how he would react to a terrorist attack, Obama rambled on about disaster preparedness, sounding more like a mid-level bureaucrat than a potential president. Clinton, seeing her chance, answered as a commander-in-chief: ‘I think the President must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate.’
It was a moment that crystallized the difference in experience between the two candidates. Clinton’s debate style was practiced and confident. A close observer of her talented husband and the winner of tough debates during her Senate run in New York, Clinton’s command of the detail of policy and her focus on preparation made her a formidable opponent. Obama, on the other hand, often seemed ill-at-ease on these occasions. He was no fan of debates, disdaining the pressure to come up with soundbites and ‘zingers’ that would make the morning news bulletins, and he hadn’t mastered the knack of communicating his positions in short, clear sentences. As a result he came across as hesitant and ponderous.
Neither was Obama living up to expectations on the stump. In an effort to compensate for the charge that he was all talk and no substance, Obama had been giving defiantly dull speeches at events across Iowa and New Hampshire. Voters who turned up in their thousands ready to be awed by the inspirational speaker they’d heard so much about found themselves listening to a disquisition on the nuances of health care provision, devoid of uplift. Leaving the venue, many concluded that if it was policy wonkery they wanted they could hardly do better than Hillary Clinton.
In October 2007, Obama was campaigning in one of the early primary states, South Carolina, when he received a call from the head of his campaign’s finance committee, Penny Pritzker. Back in Des Moines, Iowa, around 200 of Obama’s biggest fund raisers were holding a two-day meeting over a weekend and, Pritzker informed Obama, there was a sense of anxiety, verging on panic, in the room. Despite the record-breaking sums of money raised by the campaign and the massive crowds drawn by the candidate, Obama remained well behind Hillary Clinton in the national polls. Some were calling for Obama to shake up his campaign and switch tack. Surely it was time to drop the lofty ‘new politics’ stance and go negative against Clinton?
Obama made his way back to Iowa to make an unscheduled appearance at the meeting that Sunday night. He called for a show of hands from his finance committee. ‘Can I see how many people in this room I told that this was going to be easy?’ No hand was raised. ‘We’re up against the most formidable team in twenty-five years’, he said, referring to the collection of high-powered talents that Clinton had put together. ‘But we’ve got a plan, and we’ve got to have faith in it’. To those who called on him to go aggressively negative, he replied ‘That’s not who I am’. He asked his backers to be patient. A win in Iowa would launch them on the route to victory, he said. But until then progress would seem slow. At the end of October, Obama had dinner with nine advisers at a supporter’s apartment in Chicago’s affluent Lake Shore Drive. The old Washington hands present pressed him to hit back hard against Clinton. ‘You gotta get down, get dirty,’ they urged – or risk being destroyed by a more ruthless opponent. But Obama held his ground. ‘If I’ve gotta kneecap her,’ he said, ‘I’m not going there.’ For Obama, this wasn’t a question of decency so much as a political calculation: the rationale for his claim to be a transformative leader would disappear, he believed, if he came to be seen as just another politician.
Some of those in the room, and many more in the media, concluded that Obama’s candidacy was fated to be a retelling of the familiar story of Democratic insurgencies, whose past protagonists included Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean. A young charismatic candidate promises a new kind of politics, and builds a movement of voters, many of them young, around him. He enjoys tremendous media attention and early success, but is then crushed into dust by a machine politician using standard operating procedures. Hillary Clinton was this year’s candidate of the party establishment, and once again, commentators talked of her as the almost-certain nominee.
It took one question in a televised debate at the end of October to dispel Clinton’s aura of inevitability.
That night in Philadelphia, the other candidates all turned their fire on the front-runner, hoping that she would buckle under the pressure. They sensed that unless something happened to change the dynamic of the race very soon they would all be making an early exit. Edwards and Obama, but also Chris Dodd and Joe Biden, attacked Clinton from all angles. They repeatedly challenged her on the issues and on her electability, portraying her as a symbol of the Washington status quo. Most damagingly, they began to question her honesty and her character.
Clinton, who had not experienced such a sustained barrage of attacks before, was shaken out of her usual composure by its intensity. She looked grim, turning her head back and forth to respond to attacks from Edwards and Obama on either side. ‘I need to rebut that,’ she said at one point. ‘I don’t know where to start’. She didn’t quail or lose her temper, however, and for the most part retained her impressive command of the issues. But her response to a question about a minor topic became the story of the night. The moderator asked her if she agreed with Governor Eliot Spitzer’s plan to issue driving licenses to illegal immigrants in New York, on the principle that if they were going to be on the roads anyway, the government may as well keep a track of them. Clinton, stuck between her desire to appear tough on illegal immigration and her need to maintain a working relationship with the Democratic Governor of her state, refused to say clearly if she was for or against it.
Chris Dodd, an opponent of the policy, spotted an opening and sharply pointed out Clinton’s evasion. In response, Clinton, voice raised and eyes popped wide, affected anger. But she still didn’t answer the question, managing only to sound strident and shifty at the same time. John Edwards, who had made millions as a trial lawyer from his ability to expose the flaws in an opponent’s argument, followed up with a silky evisceration of Clinton’s non-answer, linking it to the question of her character. Obama piled on, questioning Clinton’s ability to be honest with the country about the challenges it faced.
The next day, Clinton’s trouble with the driving license question was the story all the news shows focused on. It was the worst part of a bad night for Hillary Clinton, because it appeared to confirm what many voters suspected: that she had trouble being straight with people.
From that moment onwards, the Democratic race became a real contest. The other candidates and the media sensed that Hillary Clinton might not be inevitable after all. But it was still up to her opponents to prove that they could exploit her sudden vulnerability.
Eleven days later and to noisy cheers at the Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines, Obama is doing just that.
‘Triangulating,’ he says, referring to the famous Clintonian political strategy, ‘just won’t do… this party has always made the biggest difference in the lives of people when we led not by calculation but by conviction.’ He doesn’t mention Clinton, but then he doesn’t have to. Her reputation as a calculating, poll-driven politician is the vulnerability Obama is attacking. Obama explains his decision to run with another swipe at the former First Lady: ‘I am not in this race because of some long-held ambition or because I believe it’s somehow owed to me. I am in this race because of what Dr King called “the fierce urgency of now”.’
In his closing section, he works the crowd into a frenzy by challenging them to ‘stop settling for what the cynics say we have to accept. In this election – in this moment – let us reach for what we know is possible. A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again’.
With that, he leaves the stage to wild cheering from all corners of the hall. Iowa’s Democrats go home exhilarated, with one name on their lips more than any other.
The next day, media commentators are unanimous in calling Obama the evening’s winner. If the Philadelphia debate had been the moment when Hillary Clinton stopped seeming inevitable, Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner is the night when an Obama victory starts to seem possible.
This is an extract from Ian Leslie’s book, To Be President: Quest for the White House 2008, published by Politicos on January 21, 2009.