Obama Takes Charge Before the Election

Barack Obama was more cunning than anyone knew. Obama wasn't much of a tennis player, but he mulled a tennis metaphor offered by a friend: his opponent was like one of those guys in white shorts running from the baseline to the net, then from sideline to sideline, all over the court trying to hit the ball. With a bit of luck, Obama might make him run right out of the match.

Two days before the first presidential debate in Oxford, Mississippi, Obama placed a call to John McCain and suggested they issue a joint statement on the financial crisis gripping the country. Calling McCain was a highly unorthodox move in the middle of a campaign. McCain tried to one-up him much faster than even Obama hoped. He publicly announced that he was temporarily suspending his campaign and postponing the first debate in order to fly back to Washington to confront the crisis.

The meeting in the Cabinet Room of the Bush White House on September 25, 2008 was a fiasco. McCain refused to speak until 43 minutes in. At 72, exhausted by the grueling pace of the campaign, the onetime naval aviator was lost at sea. Members of both parties were astonished by his performance. He was the one who had brought them all here—and for what? McCain, holding a single notecard, mentioned almost no specifics at all. The self-styled straight-talking maverick was reduced to a series of platitudes.

A Republican sitting some distance down the long table whispered to a pair of Democratic senators, "Everyone here is ready to vote for Obama, including the Republicans." President Bush's expressive face said it all. When Obama spoke, he paid careful attention, as if he knew that here was his successor. When McCain spoke, Bush's face was quizzical and unconvinced, as if he'd eaten something sour.

By this time the molecules of power in American politics were in a rapid state of realignment. Bush, who was supposed to be leading the meeting, was poorly informed and detached. "He's already in Crawford," whispered one Republican. That left the skinny African American guy who had crashed into their world only three and a half years earlier. He was the only one of the big dogs who seemed to know what he was talking about. Obama was taking charge of the meeting—and the crisis—peppering the others with detailed questions.

After the meeting broke up, the Democrats huddled with their aides in the narrow and crowded hallway just outside the Cabinet Room. They were angry and confused. Should they go to the microphones and blast the TARP deal right then?

"Shhh! This place may be bugged," Obama said, referring to the White House he would occupy four months later. He was joking, but the point was serious. "We need to go back there," he said, gesturing across the hall to the Roosevelt Room, which was fortuitously unoccupied.

Back inside the Roosevelt Room, the Democrats resumed their conversation over what to do next, when there was a knock at the door. In walked a highly agitated Henry Paulson. Bush's treasury secretary started in right away: "Please. I'm begging you—begging you!—don't go out and attack the plan."

Now Paulson was down on one knee, pleading with the Democrats not to "blow up" the deal. It was hard to know how serious he was, but others in the room found it scary to see the treasury secretary pathetically praying in the middle of a crisis.

"I didn't realize you were Catholic," Pelosi deadpanned. (Paulson is actually a Christian Scientist.) Barney Frank muscled his way past Harry Reid and started yelling. "F-you, Hank! F- you! Blow up this deal? We didn't blow up this deal! Your guys blew up the deal! When Paulson tried to equivocate, Frank threw in another "F-you, Hank!"—his third of the day.

Everyone knew Frank had a temper, but no one had seen anything like this. For a moment it struck Robert Gibbs and Jim Manley (Reid's aide) that this little scene really could get physical: the pudgy congressman versus the gawky treasury secretary, right here in the White House. As a former Dartmouth football player, Paulson was the favorite, but maybe Frank had a shot.

The only person standing between Frank and Paulson was Barack Obama, who bent his arms and spread his palms to keep the two men apart. "Okay, guys," Obama said, like a teacher preventing a playground brawl.

"That was surreal," Obama said on the speakerphone from the car on the short ride back to the hotel, with several campaign aides on the call. "Guys, what I just saw in there made me realize, we have got to win. It was crazy in there."

"Maybe I shouldn't be president," he said in his familiar wry tone, only with more amazement than usual. "But he definitely shouldn't be."

Longtime aide Pete Rouse called that September week a "dry run for being president." The Obama administration wouldn't occupy the White House for another four months. But what the Chinese for centuries have called the "mandate of heaven"—the legitimacy mysteriously but unmistakably bestowed upon a leader—had shifted. Barack Obama's first year in power had already begun.

From The Promise: President Obama, Year One, by Jonathan Alter. To be published on May 18 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. © 2010 by Jonathan Alter.