Can Obama Go the Distance?

Barack Obama was badly in need of sleep, but he wasn't going to get any just yet. Late last Wednesday night, the candidate and his wife, Michelle, collapsed on the leather sofa aboard their campaign bus. It was the end of a 17-hour day rolling around Iowa trolling for votes. They had just come from a nighttime rally in Waterloo, where they double-teamed an enthusiastic crowd in an overheated school gym. On the bus, Obama nursed his raw throat with tea from a steel travel mug, his arm around Michelle's shoulder.

The long-awaited Iowa caucuses—portrayed by the pundits as a make-or-break test of a black candidate's viability with white voters, and of his ability to stand up to Hillary Clinton—were the next day. In less than 24 hours, he'd know if it had all been worth it, or if he had been wasting his time. A NEWSWEEK reporter asked him how he felt on the eve of the big event. "I feel calm," he answered. Calm? Not nervous about the results, or plain exhausted after 10 months on the road? "No. Because this is the campaign I always wanted to run. If it doesn't work, it's not because of the organization we built or the respectful tone that we set."

In public, Obama attributes his quick political rise to that "respectful tone," which he believes voters crave after so many ugly, dispiriting campaign seasons. (Which includes most races since 1800.) When he first began thinking about a White House bid, he told advisers that he would be willing to run only if he could do it his way, which meant defying the conventional campaign theology of hitting the other guy hard and first, sticking to simple sound bites and preaching only to the base. He has shown a willingness to stray from his script and risk engaging (or boring) audiences with rambling professorial explanations about the details of this or that policy. And he has tried to rewrite Karl Rove's campaign manual by reaching across racial and party lines to appeal to the broadest—rather than the very narrowest—base of supporters.

But along the way, he has had to resist continual pressure even from inside his own campaign to take a harder and harsher line against his rivals, Hillary Clinton in particular. On the bus the night before the Iowa caucuses, Obama recounted one difficult episode. Early in the campaign, he lectured his staff that he wasn't going to tolerate any bashing of his rivals—no slipping anonymous snarky quotes to reporters, no feeding nasty gossip to bloggers. (Of course, Obama staffers, like all campaign aides, can't resist swapping choice bits of gossip with eager reporters.) But last summer Obama's campaign was stalling after a series of lackluster debate performances. His staff pleaded with him to go after Clinton. Then, a sleazy anonymous oppo-research memo, sourced to the Obama campaign, started making the rounds among reporters. It suggested Bill Clinton had profited from companies that outsourced jobs to India, while Hillary raked in donations from Indian-Americans. The memo was crudely titled "Hillary Clinton (D-Punjab)."

The Clinton campaign was justifiably angry, and seized on the episode as proof that Obama had abandoned his vaunted "politics of hope" and had offended Indian-Americans in the process. Obama was furious with his staff. "Some of my roommates in college were Indian and Pakistani," he told NEWSWEEK. "I had to call some of my best friends and explain that my campaign wasn't engaged in xenophobia." Obama held a come-to-Jesus meeting with his senior aides at his Chicago headquarters and vented his anger. "If you're even going close to the line, you better ask me first," he recalled saying. "That was the most angry I've been in this campaign."

Obama's high-minded themes of hope and change—and not getting your hands dirty—can come off as earnest, even naive, in the world of hardball presidential politics. But Obama is also a streetwise Chicago pol who put together a campaign machine formidable enough to take on the Clintons and win. Polls had made it seem the contest would be close. Instead, Terry McAuliffe, Hillary's campaign chairman, conceded that even Bill Clinton was "very surprised" by Obama's 9-point victory over his wife. The win crowned Obama the front runner, and put to rest the doubts of many people, both inside and outside his campaign. It also suggests that if his unorthodox approach to presidential politics worked in Iowa, it may win over voters in other states as well. Iowa's Democrats tend to be older, whiter and more partisan than the national average. Yet Obama attracted significant numbers of independent voters—along with a fraction of crossover Republicans—and persuaded young people to turn out in record numbers.

Obama, who generally shies away from questions about how "historic" it would be for him to win the White House, nevertheless acknowledged that Iowa was, in fact, a noteworthy moment. "I think there's no doubt that it's a measure of our progress as a country," he told NEWSWEEK. "I've said from the beginning I had confidence in the American people. Race is no doubt still a factor in our culture. But people want to know who is going to provide health care that works, schools that work, a foreign policy that works. If they think you can do the work, I think they are willing to give you a chance."

On the campaign trail, Obama portrays himself as a one-man melting pot. There's something for everyone: A biracial kid with an absentee father whose improbable path carried him from Hawaii to Indonesia to Chicago to Washington. A Harvard Law grad who turned down a coveted Supreme Court clerkship to work with the poor in Chicago. A United States senator who shops for groceries with his daughters and only recently got out from underneath his student loans. The campaign he wants you to see is not about Red America or Blue America, but Obama's America. The soundtrack at his campaign events includes '60s soul (Aretha Franklin's "Think"), the '70s Philly sound (the O'Jays' "Give the People What They Want") and, in a sly nod to the other side, even a little country (Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America"—which was the theme song of Bush/Cheney '04). At a high-school rally in Des Moines, he brought his field organizers onstage to take a bow. The group included whites and blacks, Asians and Latinos. "It's a good-looking bunch," he said. "They're like a Benetton ad."

It's a compelling theme, and it doesn't hurt that Obama, tall and handsome and blessed with a weighty baritone, knows how to bring along a crowd while seeming to stay slightly above it. It also doesn't hurt that he is married to Michelle Obama, a dynamic, ambitious Princeton and Harvard Law grad who is her husband's intellectual equal, and often a better pitch-person than the candidate himself. On the stump, she is direct and sometimes takes up subjects Obama avoids, especially issues of race.

Obama rarely narrowcasts to black audiences, leaving it to her to address concerns among African-Americans. In a November speech before an audience at historically black South Carolina State University, Michelle spoke movingly about doubts that a black man could ever be elected president. She said she understood "that veil of impossibility that keeps us down and keeps our children down—keeps us waiting and hoping for a turn that may never come. It's the bitter legacy of racism and discrimination and oppression in this country. A legacy that hurts us all."

When they campaign separately, she often draws crowds in the hundreds. Stepping down from the stage, she finds people lined up to hug her. Campaign staffers joke that Obama starts the sale, but Michelle is "the Closer." In private, she uses gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) put-downs to keep Obama, who can tend toward the grandiose, from getting too full of himself. "I'm often reminded by events, if not by my wife, that I'm not a perfect man," he says.

Out campaigning, Obama leaves the impression that he is in awe of his good fortune. Yet little about his career—he went from Illinois senator to United States senator to presidential candidate in just 11 years—has had to do with chance. His success so far has just as much to do with what the crowds don't see: the wide and deep political organization that Obama quietly built in preparation for his run.

An obsessive details man when he was a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, Obama and his crew of more than 700 paid staffers are now trying to apply the same low-tech, word-of-mouth methods to the entire country. In Iowa, 17-year-olds who would turn 18 before the November elections were allowed to participate in the caucuses; Obama field organizers recruited high-school students to form Obama '08 clubs to persuade friends to get over their apathy and vote. In South Carolina—considered a critical primary for Obama, especially if he does not win or come in a close second in this week's New Hampshire primary—campaign workers have spent months recruiting barbers and hairdressers to preach the candidate's virtues to their customers.

Obama says the low turnover on his staff—other campaigns have churned through operatives—says a lot about his leadership skills. "I've said from the outset that starting from scratch, starting from zero, we've built the best political organization in the field," Obama told NEWSWEEK. "And I think that [Iowa] confirms it. I have managed this operation without any drama. My staff is famous for being courteous and treating people with respect."

Obama doesn't leave all the manual labor to the grunts. Late last month Angela Hagerty, a young stay-at-home mom from Ankeny, Iowa, says she was playing Sorry! with her kids when the phone rang. "Hello, Angela?" the caller said. "This is Barack Obama." She was stunned. Two days earlier Hagerty, who was undecided, had stopped by an Obama house party. She left still unsure whom to vote for. The next day an Obama canvasser showed up in her driveway. She still refused to commit to the candidate. The following day Obama called. "I hear you're undecided," he said. Within a week Hagerty had signed on as an Obama precinct captain.

After the decisive Iowa win, it might be tempting for Obama and his team to portray his campaign as a smooth operation that took its cues from the top. But for months leading up to the caucuses, Obama's staff continually argued with him over his approach. Those who grudgingly admired his no-attack decree still thought him hopelessly unrealistic about what it takes to beat Clinton and John Edwards. At the very least, his aides urged him to hone sharper responses to questions in the debates and to confront Clinton directly. Although Obama's debate performances improved over time, his aides moaned whenever he gave long, discursive answers to simple questions instead of sticking to pithy sound bites that voters would remember. Sometimes in attempting to appear above politics he can come off as ponderous and unprepared instead. "He always tries to answer the question," says one senior aide, who declined to be named when talking about internal strategy. "He doesn't see the question like the others do, as an opportunity to talk about what he wants." By the late summer and early fall, Obama was coming under more-intense pressure from donors and fund-raisers, who feared the campaign had lost all momentum in the polls and the press.

On Oct. 28, Obama met with a group of nine close advisers, many of them old pros in Washington's political wars, for dinner in a high-rise apartment on Chicago's affluent Lake Shore Drive. Over a dinner of prime rib and red wine, they talked with Obama about tactics. They, too, pressed him to hit back hard against Clinton, who was portraying him as inexperienced. Obama's advisers respected that he was trying to create a different kind of politics that placed hope over fear, substance over slash-and-burn. But at the same time, the novice candidate was up against a formidable opponent. Some of them spoke up to say that Obama could not afford to turn the other cheek forever.

One suggested raising doubts about Hillary by going after her personally. Obama had always been willing to sharpen his tone, and to raise contrasts with his opponents. He and Clinton had traded petty insults—she mocked him for suggesting his years of living abroad as a child counted as foreign-policy experience; he fired back, saying all her supposed experience didn't keep her from voting for the Iraq War.

Pretty mild stuff by recent political standards. But no matter what, he said, he would not demonize her. It would undermine the rationale for his whole campaign. "Barack looked around the room and said, 'That's not the way I want to win'," recalls Eric Holder Jr., deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton, who was present at the dinner. " 'We're not going to get personal. We're not going to kneecap anybody'." The room went silent. "It felt like time slowed down," Holder says. (Asked by NEWSWEEK how he'd recognize the threshold between "sharpening distinctions" and out-and-out attacks, Obama harked back to a noted Supreme Court case. "I think it was Justice [Potter] Stewart during an obscenity case, when they asked him what obscenity is, he said, 'I know it when I see it.' I know where I think you cross the line into the dark side of politics.")

Now Obama looks back on that period with wry humor. At an event last week in Coralville, Iowa, he described a favorite editorial cartoon that had appeared at the time. It depicted him smiling and hugging Hillary. The caption read: OBAMA ATTACKS CLINTON. "Folks were writing us off," he said. "They said, 'He's got to go negative. He can't keep on this positive campaign. If he wants to catch up, he's got to kneecap the front runner, do a Tonya Harding on her.' That's what they said … 'He's too nice. He can't win.' But you know what? We didn't change course. We kept on running a positive campaign. We pointed out our differences, but we rejected the slash-and-burn tactics that Washington is so accustomed to."

In the final three days in Iowa, Obama operatives made 150,000 phone calls to potential supporters. The campaign gave canvassers strict printed instructions telling them how to engage with voters as they went door to door drumming up support. "While canvassing for the campaign, you are acting as a representative of Senator Obama," the sheet read. "It's absolutely imperative that at all times we remain respectful, polite and overly nice to the people we encounter." Obama's Iowa staff painted a motto on the wall of the state's campaign headquarters. It sounded like something more suited to the side of a small-town police car: RESPECT, EMPOWER, INCLUDE.

Obama's reluctance to go negative dates back to his earliest forays into politics. Running for president of the Harvard Law Review, he won the support of conservative students in part by opting out of the culture wars on issues such as affirmative action in the early 1990s. Obama rewarded them for their support by appointing some conservatives to the review's masthead. As a state senator in Illinois, he made friends with GOP lawmakers and worked with them to reform the state's deeply flawed death-penalty system.

This approach does not endear him to some Democrats who, furious at George W. Bush, came to the '08 campaign hoping for a fight. For a more direct, unvarnished approach to politics, they need look no further than Obama's wife. Michelle has thrown herself into the cause and the competition. Where Obama emphasizes hope and self-belief in his stump speech, Michelle Obama throws down a challenge to voters to step up. While Obama rarely references his own racial identity or his personal struggles, Michelle draws a direct link between his experience in overcoming prejudice to his readiness for power. "On the day that he's inaugurated, [he] is going to send a different message to kids like me, thousands of kids like me who were told, 'No, no, wait. You're not ready, you're not good enough'," she told one crowd in Waterloo, Iowa, last week. "See, I'm not supposed to be here. As a black girl from the South Side of Chicago, I wasn't supposed to go to Princeton because they said my test scores were too low. They said maybe I couldn't handle Harvard because I wasn't ready. I don't even know why. But see, every time I pushed past other people's doubts and limitations, [when] Barack and I … earned the seat at the table that other people felt entitled to, the only thing we realized was that we were always more ready, more prepared than we ever imagined."

Still, after speeches, voters sometimes approach Michelle to express fear that Obama may not be able to win or could put himself in harm's way. Obama received Secret Service protection early in the campaign after unspecified threats. It is not a subject his wife likes to talk about. "She doesn't allow herself to go there," says Valerie Jarrett, Michelle Obama's close friend, who says Michelle has not raised the subject with her. "It would paralyze her to think like that." Michelle's brother, Craig Robinson, who is the head basketball coach at Brown University, says the potential danger was one of the things he discussed with her when Obama began his campaign. "That's always in the back of everybody's mind," he told NEWSWEEK. "There are a lot of crazy people out there. But you can't live your life worrying about them."

Sitting on the campaign bus the night before the caucuses, Michelle explained her desire to shake up American politics. "We complain that politicians are mean and cynical and angry, but we've been doing the same thing over and over again," she told NEWSWEEK. "We have been making the same irrational decisions. When faced with the most rational choice, we hesitate—and … we have to break out of this." Stretched out beside her, Obama was clearly enjoying watching his wife getting all worked up even as he was ready to sack out. He leaned forward and stage-whispered, "She's scary." His wife wasn't entirely amused. She poked him and forced herself to smile.

Obama shares his wife's sense of impatience and a certain disbelief that the world might think he's not ready for the presidency. In one of his rare evocations of the civil-rights movement, he said he shares Martin Luther King's belief in "the fierce urgency of now"—suggesting that his own accelerated run for the White House is the result of a burning need to right the nation's wrongs. At times, Michelle's enthusiasm for her husband's talents can come off as a bit regal. She recently told an audience that "Barack is one of the smartest people you will ever encounter who will deign to enter this messy thing called politics," and she has also suggested that if he loses, neither she nor her kids would want to go through the punishment of a national campaign again. That prompted New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to take a swipe at the Obamas. She wrote that they "radiate a sense that they are owed … for offering themselves up to save and uplift the nation, even though it disrupted their comfortable lives." Obama later recast his wife's remarks in more-flattering terms. Michelle, he explained, meant that it was important for him to run now, while he was still rooted in the real world, before life in Washington had "boiled all the hope out" of him. Michelle shrugs off the criticism. "It's ridiculous. People jump on little jokes. But you can't let that stop you."

Michelle has worried for years that politics has the potential to ruin her husband's idealism. In 2000, he lost his first campaign, for a House seat. "It really humbled him. It chastened him," recalls Joe Moore, a Chicago alderman who has known Obama for years. Up until then, Moore says, Obama "felt like he had been God's gift to politics." Three years later, when he toyed with running for Senate, Michelle told him no. With two young daughters, she dreaded losing him to another campaign. "We were uniformly against the idea," says Jarrett. "Our sense was it was just too soon for him to run." At a brunch with a small group of friends, they told him all the reasons he shouldn't do it. Then it was his turn to speak. "I can't quite explain how it happened," says Jarrett, who describes Obama as presenting his side like "he was making a closing argument in a case before the U.S. attorney." He said he wouldn't do it without her support. By the end of the brunch, Michelle had given her blessing.

Michelle didn't need that kind of convincing when he decided to run for president. Though the inexperience question came up in early conversations with friends and advisers, an old political mentor told him the bigger risk was not running. Obama's 2004 convention speech had generated buzz, and Dick Durbin, Illinois's other senator, urged him to take advantage of it while it lasted. "Don't believe you can time this thing," Durbin told his protégé at lunch one afternoon. "I have colleagues who waited for years and the opportunity never came." Forget about the whole "experience" question, he said. "A thousand more votes in the Senate isn't going to make you a better president."

There may be a more personal edge to Obama's impatience—a steadfast belief in his own qualities that he seems to think others should be able to see as clearly as he does. "At some point people have to stop asserting that because I haven't been in the league long enough I can't play," Obama told NEWSWEEK. "It's sort of like Magic Johnson or LeBron James, [who] keep on scoring 30 [points] and their team gets wins, but people say they can't lead their team because they're too young." Faced with stubbornly undecided voters in Iowa in the closing days of the race, Obama would sometimes wonder out loud what it would take to win them over. One church pastor stood up in Boone, Iowa, to praise Obama's 2006 op-ed in USA Today on the relationship between church and state. "I appreciate that, thank you very much," Obama told the man. "So what's the problem? Why don't I have your vote?" Obama demanded. The pastor froze, uncertain if Obama was serious. "I'm teasing you," he said with a smile.

Flying from Iowa to New Hampshire after midnight on Friday, Obama explained his impact on politics a little more modestly. "What I was so pleased with was not just the fact that we won, or the raw numbers, but what it showed about the country."

Obama loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar. "I think it's fair to say that there were some who were skeptical that young people would come out, that independents and Republicans would be voting Democratic in a caucus … I think it's a harbinger of what's going to happen around the country." A few minutes later, Obama cut off the question time. "All right, let me go to sleep," he said. "Can you sleep?" asked a reporter. Obama smiled. "You bet."

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