How do you know if Barack Obama is unhappy with what you're saying— or not saying? At meetings of his closest advisers, he likes to lean back, put his feet on the table and close his eyes. If he doesn't like how the conversation is going, he will lean forward, put his feet on the floor and "adjust his socks, kind of start tugging at them," says Michael Strautmanis, a counselor to the campaign. Obama wants people to talk, but he doesn't want to intimidate them. "If you haven't said anything, he'll call on you," says Strautmanis. "He's never said it, but he usually thinks if somebody is very quiet it's because they disagree with what everybody is saying … so Barack will call on you and say, 'You've been awfully quiet'." There are no screamers on Team Obama; one senior Obama aide says he's heard him yell only twice in four years. Obama was explicit from the beginning: there was to be "no drama," he told his aides. "I don't want elbowing or finger-pointing. We're going to rise or fall together." Obama wanted steady, calm, focused leadership; he wanted to keep out the grandstanders and make sure the quiet dissenters spoke up. A good formula for running a campaign—or a presidency.
It worked against Hillary Clinton, whose own campaign has been rent by squabbling aides and turf battles. While Clinton veered between playing Queen Elizabeth I and Norma Rae, Obama and his team chugged along with a superior 50-state campaign strategy, racking up the delegates. If the candidate seemed weary and peevish or a little slow to respond at times, he never lost his cool. But the real test is yet to come. The Republican Party has been successfully scaring voters since 1968, when Richard Nixon built a Silent Majority out of lower- and middle-class folks frightened or disturbed by hippies and student radicals and blacks rioting in the inner cities. The 2008 race may turn on which party will win the lower- and middle-class whites in industrial and border states—the Democrats' base from the New Deal to the 1960s, but "Reagan Democrats" in most presidential elections since then. It is a sure bet that the GOP will try to paint Obama as "the other"—as a haughty black intellectual who has Muslim roots (Obama is a Christian) and hangs around with America-haters.
Obama says he's ready for the onslaught. "Yes, we know what's coming," he told a cheering crowd as he won the North Carolina primary last week. "We've seen it already … the attempts to play on our fears and exploit our differences to turn us against each other for pure political gain—to slice and dice this country into Red States and Blue States; blue-collar and white-collar; white, black, brown." Hillary Clinton was not above playing on those fears. Refusing to concede defeat last week, she cited an Associated Press poll "that found how Senator Obama's support among working, hardworking Americans, white Americans, is weakening again." As Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote: "Here's what she's really saying to party leaders: There's no way that white people are going to vote for the black guy. Come November, you'll be sorry." A top Clinton adviser, speaking anonymously so he could be more frank, says the Clinton campaign has actually been holding back, for fear of alienating other Democrats. The Republicans "won't suffer from such scruples," this adviser says. Sen. John McCain himself has explicitly disavowed playing the race card or taking the low road generally. But he may not be able to resist casting doubt on Obama's patriotism. And the real question is whether he can—or really wants to—rein in the merchants of slime and sellers of hate who populate the Internet and fund the "independent expenditure" groups who exercise their freedom in ways that give a bad name to free speech. (In an email to Newsweek Editor Jon Meacham on Sunday, McCain adviser Mark Salter responded to NEWSWEEK's cover story)
For Obama, the challenge will be to respond quickly and surely—but without overreacting or inviting an endless cycle of recriminations. Team Obama has been a model of tight, highly efficient organization, certainly in contrast to most presidential campaigns. The few tensions that have emerged have been between those who want to stick to the high ground and those who want to fight a little dirtier. (Such debates could intensify in a hard-hitting general campaign.) The campaign has at times been a little slow to fight back. Some of this deliberation is a measure of the candidate's personality. Obama disdains cable-TV talk-show shoutfests as trivial sideshows, and he tends to discount the seriousness of campaign gaffes and flaps. As a result, he was slow to denounce the most recent round of tirades by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. By failing to alert Obama to the gravity of the Wright fiasco, "I don't think we served him well," admits his chief strategist, David Axelrod.
But Team Obama has been consistently able to outstrategize the opposition, and it does have a plan for the coming mud war. In conversations with NEWSWEEK, Obama's aides have signaled their intention to put McCain on the spot. They note that McCain himself has been the victim of a smear. In the South Carolina primary in 2000, GOP operatives spread the rumor that McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child. Recently, when a reporter asked McCain, "Does it bother you at all that you might actually benefit from latent prejudice in the country?" he answered: "That would bother me a lot. That would bother me a great deal." And last week his wife, Cindy, told NBC News, "My husband is absolutely opposed to any negative campaigning at all." So if McCain's camp does try to exploit Obama's ties to the fiery Reverend Wright, the Obama-ites can question his sincerity—is he really the "Straight Talk" candidate? And if McCain can't stop others from the sort of innuendo and code that Republicans have learned to frighten voters, Obama can cast doubt on McCain's credentials as a commander in chief. ("In other words," says liberal political pundit Mark Shields, "they can say that McCain is either a hypocrite or impotent.")
Some early skirmishes reveal the strategy. In North Carolina, the state Republican Party aired a TV ad suggesting that Obama might be "too extreme" because of his ties to the Reverend Wright. McCain told the North Carolina GOP to take down the ad, but he said that he couldn't force the state party to act, and the ad stayed on the air. "I assume that if John McCain thinks it's an inappropriate ad, that he can get them to pull it down since he's their nominee and standard-bearer," Obama declared. A campaign spokesman said, "The fact that Senator McCain can't get his own party to take down this misleading personal-attack ad raises serious questions about his promise that he will run a civil, respectful campaign."
At the time of the Pennsylvania primary, the McCain campaign sent out a letter suggesting that Obama was the candidate of Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group ("Barack Obama's foreign policy plans have even won him praise from Hamas leaders," read the letter). McCain, by contrast, portrayed himself as "Hamas's worst nightmare." (In fact, Obama and McCain have the same position on Hamas —no talks, no recognition, no outreach.) Last week Obama told CNN: "This is offensive. And I think it's disappointing because John McCain always says, 'Well, I'm not going to run that kind of politics' … For him to toss out comments like that, I think, is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination."
Longtime McCain strategist Mark Salter quickly charged that Obama was guilty of "ageism," i.e., that the Democrat was trying to slyly slip in the issue of the Republican candidate's age with his crack about McCain's "losing his bearings." It's easy to see how the presidential campaign could swiftly descend into tit-for-tat name-calling. Obama's advisers insist that the race will be about the big issues because there are stark contrasts between the candidates on Iraq and the economy. But if McCain thinks he can't win on those issues—if the war remains unpopular and the Bush downturn goes on—he will be sorely tempted to run down his opponent. The McCain campaign is now poring over Obama's record, looking for weaknesses that can be exposed without race-baiting or hitting below the belt. They want to brand Obama as a "superduper liberal who is out of the mainstream," says one McCain adviser who did not wish to be identified discussing internal campaign strategy.
A campaign insider who declined to be identified for the same reason says McCain aides are studying a private, 52-page dossier, compiled for the aborted 2004 campaign of Illinois Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan (slated to be Obama's opponent until disclosure of some embarrassing records related to his divorce forced him to drop out). The dossier, a copy of which was obtained by NEWSWEEK, brands Obama as "in favor of coddling sex abusers" and "shamefully soft on crime and drugs." It hits, for instance, Obama's vote in 2001 against a GOP-sponsored measure to toughen penalties against "gangbangers," pushed after a particularly brutal gang killing in Chicago. Charlie Black, McCain's top strategist, tells NEWSWEEK he had not personally reviewed the Ryan dossier, but saw no problem with using Obama's votes on justice issues in the Illinois Legislature. "What's wrong with that?" he says. (An Obama spokesman says the criticism in the dossier was "long ago debunked," and that the candidate "is supported today by law-enforcement officials across Illinois and the nation.")
McCain's top aides include some veterans of past Republican attack campaigns, like campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, who was in charge of rapid response for Bush-Cheney '04, and Black, whose experience goes all the way back to the campaigns of right-wing Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina. John Weaver, McCain's former chief strategist who resigned from the campaign last summer but keeps ties to McCain, suggests that McCain could try to block low-road smears. "He could say, 'If any major donors or political operators do that, then you will be persona non grata in my administration'," says Weaver. But McCain himself has said that he will not "referee" between various independent groups who always want to have their say in presidential campaigns. (The model is the notorious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who unfairly but effectively questioned John Kerry's war record in 2004.) Black tells NEWSWEEK McCain was powerless to stop the "527s," named after the provision of the tax code that covers political expenditures by nonprofits, from running attack ads on their own. "Look, there's nothing we can do about the 527s," says Black.
Another McCain adviser, who asked for anonymity discussing internal campaign strategy, bluntly warned: "It's going to be Swift Boat times five on both sides … The candidates will both do their best publicly to mute it. But in a close race, I don't see how to shut that down." Indeed, two of the most experienced attack artists are already gearing up. Floyd Brown, who produced the infamous "Willie Horton" commercial that used race and fear of crime to drive voters away from Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988, produced an ad before the North Carolina primary accusing Obama of being soft on crime. He tells NEWSWEEK that Obama is "extremely vulnerable" to questioning about his ties to Chicago fixer Tony Rezko, who has been indicted for political corruption. (Obama is not linked to any wrongdoing.) Another target is former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, whose association with Obama will remind voters of bomb-throwing student radicals of the 1960s. "There's plenty of stuff out there," says Brown. "I'm kinda like in a candy store in this election."
Then there's David Bossie, already deep into a mudslinging campaign against Obama through a political organization called Citizens United. Bossie is planning a widespread DVD release of a documentary that will portray Obama as a "limousine, out-of-control leftist liberal … more liberal than [Vermont Sen.] Bernie Sanders, who is a socialist," Bossie tells NEWSWEEK. McCain has little leverage over Bossie, who has run ads attacking McCain as too liberal in the past.
It's possible that aiming low will backfire. In the recent special election for a solidly Republican House seat in Louisiana, the national GOP ran an ad tying the Democratic candidate, Don Cazayoux, to Obama and his allegedly "radical agenda." The Democrat won—taking away the seat from the Republicans for the first time in 33 years. The result was "a sharp wake-up call for Republicans," declared former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "The Republican brand has been so badly damaged that if the Republicans try to run an anti-Obama … anti-Reverend Wright campaign, they are simply going to fail," Gingrich wrote. "This model has already been tested with disastrous results."
Maybe so, but desperate times can call for desperate measures. With his huge Internet network of donors, Obama can raise much more money than McCain. The Republicans will need those independent expenditures to try to keep up, no matter how distasteful the attack ads they buy.
The last Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, dithered and failed to quickly strike back when he was attacked by the Swift Boat veterans. The Obama team says it will not make the same mistake. "You fight back aggressively and play jujitsu," says David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager. Obama has a much more disciplined, focused team than Kerry, whose organization was prone to infighting and lacked strong leadership.
Obama has been fortunate in his senior advisers. Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, combines big-picture idealism and Chicago School politics of hard knocks. Plouffe is sure and steady. Having managed the successful campaign to get the mercurial Bob Torricelli elected in New Jersey to the Senate in 1996, Plouffe impressed Democratic political gurus. In 1997, Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff to former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, hired Plouffe as his deputy. "There are a lot of people in politics who are good strategists and there are a lot of people who are good managers," says Elmendorf. "There are not a lot of people who can do both, and David can do both." The genius of Axelrod and Plouffe was to combine astonishing (even to them) fund-raising potential on the Internet with grass-roots organizing. While Clinton was aiming for a knockout by sweeping Super Tuesday, Axelrod and Plouffe were methodically organizing a state-by-state, district-by-district strategy—including states that most political experts ignored. For example, Idaho: Obama won by 60 points and netted more delegates than Clinton took out of either Ohio or Pennsylvania.
Obama "doesn't micromanage," Axelrod tells NEWSWEEK. But, he adds, "there's never a doubt who the alpha dog is." The day after his big defeat in Ohio and his popular-vote loss in Texas, Obama traveled to the large corporate offices in Chicago that serve as his campaign headquarters. The mood was grim; they had, after all, blown their third chance to end the primary season early—after the shock of New Hampshire and the muddled results of Super Tuesday. Obama toured the office, visiting every desk to thank his mostly young staffers for their efforts and urging them to keep their chins up. Then he walked into a conference room for a far tougher two-hour conversation with his senior staff. "We rise or fall together," he started out. "I'm not pointing fingers at any single person because we all share responsibility." He talked through his own mistakes as a candidate and went around the table asking people for their input in the postmortem. Speaking calmly but intensely, he then took control to explain how he saw it. He worked his way through a detailed, handwritten list of what went right and wrong—including how they misspent time and money, how they relied too much on impersonal rallies and how the schedule was flawed.
At the end of the meeting, Obama stood up and began to walk out of the room, before wheeling around to say one more thing to his somber staff: "I'm not yelling at you and I'm not screaming. Although for $20 million for two primaries and the results we got, I could," he said, laughing. "But I'm not."
Obama's almost preternatural equanimity has helped keep his campaign on an even keel. Although he can seem slightly humorless on TV, as he is fencing with an inquiring anchorperson or debating an opponent, he has a light touch in the office, and he can laugh off adversity. Obama has shown signs of exhaustion, and he has appeared increasingly gaunt. Mocked for not finishing his waffles, he has made a joke about his newfound willingness to drink beer in blue-collar bars and sop up the gravy at working-class diners. After he lost the Pennsylvania primary to a beer-swilling, whisky-downing Hillary, Obama mordantly announced to his staff, "OK, now I'll eat anything."
Some candidates are feared and respected by their staffs, but they are very rarely liked after a few grueling months on the campaign trail. Obama seems to have retained the affection of his. As the crucial North Carolina and Indiana primaries approached, Axelrod pulled a series of all-nighters to try to close the deal. After the campaign plane landed at one brief stop in Charlotte, N.C., Obama asked how Axelrod was doing. "I'm really tired," Axelrod said. Obama put his hand on his shoulder and said, "Why don't you stay here and have a nap?" Axelrod reluctantly agreed: "You know, I think I will." To those around, it spoke to the unconventional and close partnership between the candidate and his consigliere.
On the night before Indiana and North Carolina, Axelrod appeared unusually grim and gloomy. The final night of internal polling showed Obama 12 points down in Indiana against Clinton—a disastrous collapse after two or three days of closing the gap. The campaign's pollsters cautioned that the last night's sample seemed weird and they should rely instead on the three-day rolling average of 2 points. But Axelrod feared the worst, that Wright had sunk the campaign in Indiana and possibly in North Carolina, too.
The next day, after visiting some polling stations, Obama arrived back at his hotel and stopped by the coffee shop, where he urged some curious bystanders to vote for him. When a NEWSWEEK reporter asked him about Axelrod's gloomy prognosis, Obama shrugged and said: "It is what it is. We've had a month, two months of bad stuff. It's been hard to change the storyline." He smiled and walked out to get ready for his now traditional Election Day game of basketball. If he was at all worried, as his senior staff was, he hid his concerns successfully from the outside world.
There is no ready training for commander in chief, and no real way to predict how a man or woman will perform once in the Oval Office. Campaigns can deceive voters, or at least mask shortcomings. After watching his father's triumph in 1988 and failure in 1992, George W. Bush had a good feel for the mechanics of campaigning: the importance of money, message and geography. His 2000 campaign was well managed by a tight group of loyal aides, with little infighting. It was only after he became president that voters began to grasp Bush's failings as an executive—his disdain for expert opinion, his stubborn approach to policy or rivals, his fatal lack of follow-through.
Obama, at least, seems to be more curious than the current president. Ruchi Bhowmik, a legislative counsel in Obama's Senate office, is one of the staffers whom Obama has called upon because she was too quiet in a gathering. "When he's at a meeting, he's very inclusive and a very good listener," she tells NEWSWEEK. "He's not looking to dictate what everyone is discussing, and he wants to hear what everyone is thinking. He doesn't discount things." On Capitol Hill, Senator Obama has been a foe of "knee jerk" thinking, says Bhowmik. "Obama's response is, 'Well, we've always done it that way—why?' "
Presidential campaigns may be in some ways little more than glorified stress tests, not true measures of the potential for presidential greatness. Still, they do offer significant peeks into personal character. Obama "does not get rattled," says Bhowmik. "I've never seen it." He has "grace under fire." In the coming campaign, he will need it.