A Long Time Coming

The Inspiring, Combative 2008 Campaign and the Historic Election of Barack Obama


Edited by Evan Thomas

By Staff of Newsweek

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Since 1984, Newsweek has been renowned for its vivid, in-depth special election coverage of the ordeal of running for the presidency. A year before the election, Newsweek assigns reporters to get inside the campaigns of the Republican and Democratic candidates. Newsweek promises not to publish any information until after the votes are cast, and in exchange, the reporters receive remarkable access. They travel with the candidates, are there at crucial turning points and confidential meetings, and uncover stories not covered in day-to-day reporting.

In this book, a compelling narrative by Evan Thomas, Newsweek shares the inside stories from one of the most exciting elections in recent history, illuminating the personalities and events that influenced the outcome, and taking stock of the key players and key issues for the new administration. This will be an absorbing read for anyone interested in American politics.


U.S. President-elect Barack Obama stands onstage along with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia (red dress) and Sasha (black dress) in Grant Park on November 4, 2008, in Chicago, Illinois. Obama defeated Senator John McCain by a wide margin in the election to become the first African-American U.S. president-elect.

The Age of Obama
Jon Meacham
HE WAS, ONCE, the consummate outsider. The first time Barack Obama saw the White House was a quarter century ago, in 1984, when he was working as a community organizer based at the Harlem campus of the City College of New York. President Reagan was proposing reductions in student aid. The young Obama, just out of Columbia, got together with student leaders—“most of them black, Puerto Rican, or of Eastern European descent, almost all of them the first in their families to attend college”—to take petitions protesting the cuts to the New York delegation on Capitol Hill. Afterward, Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, the group wandered down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument and then to the White House, where they stood outside the gates, looking in.
The glib literary move at this point would be to note how Obama, who will become the forty-fourth president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009, will now return to that house to undo the work that was unfolding inside all those years ago—the work of the Republican Party of Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush. But the story, like Obama himself, is more complicated than one might think. The Democratic Party’s success in 2008 is not a straightforward revenge-of-the-left drama. Many true believers say this is the dawn of a new progressive era, a time of resurgent (and in many ways rethought) liberalism. The highly caffeinated have high hopes. At the same time, many conservatives—most, it seems, with a show on Fox News Channel—see things the same way, and believe an Age of Obama will be a grim hour of redistribution at home and weakness abroad.
But if Obama governs as he ran—from the center—then there will be disappointed liberals and conservatives. The left may feel somehow cheated, and the right, eager to launch perpetual assaults on the new administration, could well find Obama as elusive and frustrating as the opposition found Reagan.
Parallels from the past risk seeming irrelevant and antique given the enormity of the historical moment. A nation whose Constitution enshrined slavery has elected an African-American president within living memory of days when blacks were denied fundamental human rights—including the right to vote. Hyperbole around elections comes easy and cheap, but this is a moment—a year—when even superlatives cannot capture the magnitude of the change that the country voted for on November 4, 2008. “If there is anyone out there who doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our Founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer,” Obama told an adoring yet serious throng in Chicago’s Grant Park on the night of his election. He alluded to the historic nature of the victory only indirectly. “This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations,” he said. He did not need, really, to add anything to that: that he was saying the words was testament enough.
Obama ran, in part, by arguing that his candidacy transcended race. Perhaps it did; many of us believed that his skin color, unusual name and unfamiliar background might well cost him the election. As it turned out, he won decisively, a rare feat for a Democratic presidential nominee. Does this mean that America is now beyond black and white? No, but we are much further ahead than we were a year ago. Obama’s victory, no matter what one’s politics, is a redemptive moment in the life of a nation for which race has been called, simply and starkly, “the American dilemma.”
John McCain is a man of honor, a patriot who has lived a life of service and devotion to country. He was, however, on the wrong side of history in 2008. Like Hillary Clinton, also a formidable American and public servant, he had the great personal misfortune to be standing in the path of an unstoppable political force. (One of the riddles of the age will be what might have happened had he survived the South Carolina primary in 2000 and defeated Bush for the Republican nomination eight years ago.) External forces, chiefly the economic collapse in the autumn and President Bush’s stubbornly low approval ratings, created an environment that made a GOP victory virtually impossible. With a man of Obama’s undeniable political gifts on the other side, the task became actually impossible.
Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 and Reagan in 1980, the Obama win of 2008 marks a real shift in real time. It is early yet, but it is not difficult to imagine that we will, for years to come, think of American politics in terms of Before Obama and After Obama. Certainly many of his voters already see the world this way. Exit polls suggest that one of every 10 voters was casting a ballot for the first time, and they were overwhelmingly minority or young. Eighteen- to 24-year-olds accounted for roughly the same percentage of the electorate—17 percent—as they did in 2004, but while the split four years ago was 54-40 percent for John Kerry, it was 68-30 percent for Obama, a net swing of 24 points in Obama’s favor, which was by far the biggest shift in any age group.
Their battles are not the battles of their fathers and mothers. Why, Obama once asked someone he identified only as “an old Washington hand,” did the capital of the first decade of the 21st century feel so much harsher than the postwar era? “It’s generational,” the man replied. “Back then, almost everybody with any power in Washington had served in World War II. We might’ve fought like cats and dogs on issues. A lot of us came from different backgrounds, different neighborhoods, different political philosophies. But with the war, we all had something in common. That shared experience developed a certain trust and respect. It helped to work through our differences and get things done.” That version of the past was heavily edited: Joe McCarthy was a veteran, too.
Still, the point stands. Shared experiences tend to create shared values. Even the epic events of recent years—September 11, Iraq, the economic crisis—cannot begin to give the Obama coalition anything like World War II to smooth the rough edges of partisanship. His voters share convictions, not experiences. Chief among these convictions is a passion for a change from the rule of George W. Bush and an unabashed love for Barack Obama.
In this light, Obama has more in common with Reagan than appearances might suggest. Reagan’s loyalists believed in his issues, or at least one of his issues, and they believed in him. They were anxious for a change from the incumbent administration at a time of shattered confidence and economic turmoil. The comparison is revealing, for it may foreshadow the nature of the next four or eight years. Like Reagan, Obama is an astute performer, a maker of myths and a teller of stories. Like Reagan, he is popularly seen, by friend and foe alike, as an ideological purist—but has demonstrated a tendency toward the pragmatic. Like Reagan, he is the leader of a core of believers so convinced he is on their side that they are likely to forgive him his compromises.
Obama gets the Gipper. “Reagan spoke to America’s longing for order,” he has written, “our need to believe that we are not simply subject to blind, impersonal forces but that we can shape our individual and collective destinies, so long as we rediscover the traditional virtues of hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith.”
A man with a vivid literary and historical imagination, Obama is something of a dreamer, if a down-to-earth one. As a senator, he saw things that are not there, but once were. “Sometimes, standing there in the chamber, I can imagine Paul Douglas or Hubert Humphrey at one of these desks, urging yet again the adoption of civil-rights legislation; or Joe McCarthy, a few desks over, thumbing through lists, preparing to name names; or LBJ prowling the aisles, grabbing lapels and gathering votes. Sometimes I will wander over to the desk where Daniel Webster once sat and imagine him rising before the packed gallery and his colleagues, his eyes blazing as he thunderously defends the Union against the forces of secession.”
Visiting the White House when he arrived in Washington as a senator, Obama mused: “The inside of the White House doesn’t have the luminous quality that you might expect from TV or film; it seems well kept but worn, a big old house that one imagines might be a bit drafty on cold winter nights. Still, as I stood in the foyer and let my eyes wander down the corridors, it was impossible to forget the history that had been made there—John and Bobby Kennedy huddling over the Cuban missile crisis; FDR making last-minute changes to a radio address; Lincoln alone, pacing the halls and shouldering the weight of a nation.”
It is telling that his visions ended before the middle of the 1960s, a decade that has disproportionately shaped subsequent decades. Obama’s campaign was about moving beyond the wars of the baby-boom generation. In this he is a contradictory figure. Pressing a centrist message in the presidential campaign, he had a reliably liberal and not terribly interesting voting record in the Senate. Which Obama will show up for work in the White House? The New New Democrat, or the safely liberal former community organizer from Chicago? It seems safe to say that he would not have won as he did if he had appeared to be an eloquent Walter Mondale, or a tactically brilliant Michael Dukakis. He ran as a more practical kind of center-left politician—not a Great Society liberal, but one who, in the tradition of Bill Clinton, believes in pursuing progressive goals through centrist means and with an occasionally conservative cultural message. The “socialist” attacks of the McCain-Palin ticket failed in part because they stretched credulity.
Liberals who have thrilled to Obama could grow disenchanted with him if he fails to deliver a progressive Valhalla by, say, Valentine’s Day. But the Reagan example offers a different—and more likely—possibility. Given Obama’s popularity with his base, he may be that rare politician who can get away with making a deal without being seen as selling out. Reagan raised taxes and nobody held it against him, or even noticed all that much. Obama could be a Teflon man for the new century.
One thing is certain: Obama knows the Washington game he disdains, and he knows it well. He confounded virtually every prognostication in the campaign, and he knows politics, psychology and history. He understands that patience is a rare American virtue, and that it is easy to lose one’s perspective. “When Democrats rush up to me at events and insist that we live in the worst of political times, that a creeping fascism is closing its grip around our throats, I may mention the internment of Japanese Americans under FDR, the Alien and Sedition Acts under John Adams, or a hundred years of lynching under several dozen administrations as having been possibly worse, and suggest that we all take a deep breath,” he wrote.
Before the crowd in Grant Park, Obama acknowledged the difficulties: “two wars, a planet in peril, the worst financial crisis in a century.” In characteristically serious tones, he downplayed expectations, trying an all-too-novel approach in American politics: he was (basically) honest about what awaits us. “The road ahead will be long,” he said. “Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America, I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there.” But he quickly came back to earth. “There will be setbacks and false starts,” he said, promising that “I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face.”
To govern well, Obama will need all those spirits he once evoked—FDR, Kennedy, Lincoln—and he will need an understanding public. Two years ago, on the eve of his campaign for president, Obama said this about the American people: “I imagine they are waiting for a politics with the maturity to balance idealism and realism, to distinguish between what can and cannot be compromised, to admit the possibility that the other side might sometimes have a point.”
Now he has the chance to help make such a politics a reality. On the night before the election, en route from Akron, Ohio, home to Chicago, Obama wandered back into the press section of his campaign plane, thanking reporters—especially those who had been with him from the beginning. “It will be fun to see how the story ends,” said Obama, as he headed to the front of the plane. Yes, Mr. President-elect, it will.
Senator Obama talks with his senior staff—David Axelrod (left) and Robert Gibbs (right)—backstage before speaking to supporters at a town hall meeting in Erie, Pennsylvania, on April 18, 2008. Senator Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary vote four days later.
Photo by Charles Ommanney/Newsweek

How He Did It
Sometimes, Barack Obama wondered whether
he really was “the One,” as Oprah called him.
But Hillary Clinton’s campaign was chaotic.
BARACK OBAMA HAD A GIFT, and he knew it. He had a way of making very smart, very accomplished people feel virtuous just by wanting to help Barack Obama. It had happened at Harvard Law School in the mid- 1980s, at a time when the school was embroiled in fights over political correctness. He had won one of the truly plum prizes of overachievement at Harvard: he had been voted president of the law review, the first African-American ever so honored. Though his politics were conventionally (if not stridently) liberal, even the conservatives voted for him. Obama was a good listener, attentive and empathetic, and his powerful mind could turn disjointed screeds into reasoned consensus, but his appeal lay in something deeper. He was a black man who had moved beyond racial politics and narrowly defined interest groups. He seemed indifferent to, if not scornful of, the politics of identity and grievance. He showed no sense of entitlement or resentment. Obama had a way of transcending ambition, though he himself was ambitious as hell. In the grasping race for status and achievement—a competition that can seem like blood lust at a place like Harvard—Obama could make hypersuccessful meritocrats pause and remember a time (part mythical perhaps, but still beckoning) when service to others was more important than serving oneself.
Gregory Craig, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., was one of those Americans who wanted to believe again. Craig was not exactly an ordinary citizen—he had served and worked with the powerful all his life, as an aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy in the 1980s, as chief of policy planning at the State Department in the Clinton administration and as a lawyer hired to represent President Clinton at his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate in 1999. He had seen the imperfections of the mighty, up close and personal, and by and large accepted human frailty. But, like a lot of Americans, he was tired of partisan bickering and yearned for someone who could rise above politics as usual. A 63-year-old baby boomer, Craig wanted to recapture the youthful idealism that he had experienced as a student at Harvard in the 1960s and later at Yale Law School, where his friends included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. In the late fall of 2003, he was invited to hear a young state senator from Illinois who was running for the U.S. Senate. Craig was immediately taken with Barack Obama. “He spoke 20 to 30 minutes, and I found him to be funny, smart and very knowledgeable for a state senator,” Craig recalled. Craig was so visibly impressed that his host that evening, the longtime Washington mover and shaker Vernon Jordan, teased him, saying, “Greg has just fallen in love.”
IT WAS TRUE. CRAIG READ Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope, which, Craig said, “floored me,” and later chanced to ride with Obama on the Washington shuttle. He read Obama’s earlier autobiography, Dreams of My Father, and was “blown away,” he recalled. “In my judgment, he showed more insight and maturity than Bill Clinton at the age of 60 in terms of understanding himself.” In November 2005, Craig sat next to George Stevens, an old friend of the Robert Kennedy clan, at another Obama speech. Stevens leaned over to Craig and said, “What do you think of this guy for president? I haven’t heard anybody like this since Bobby Kennedy.” Craig instantly replied, “Sign me up.” Stevens and Craig approached Obama coming out of the speech and asked, “What are you doing in 2008?” Obama gave them a big grin and said, “Oh, man, it wasn’t that good.” But before long Craig and Stevens were raising money for Obama’s political-action committee, the Hope Fund. Obama was amused by the devotion of the two old Kennedy hands. After a while, every time he saw the two men he would say, “Here come the Kool-Aid boys.”
In December 2006, Obama told Craig and Stevens, “Lay off me for a while. I’ve got to talk to Michelle.” Obama went off to Hawaii with his wife and two girls for the holidays. “I thought, ‘We’re dead,’” recalled Craig. “He’s not going to be able to do it.”
Craig was not wrong to be pessimistic. Obama could marshal a lawyerly set of arguments about how he could win, that the country was at a “defining point” and that Obama was the best hope to bring change. “I, I, I actually believe my own rhetoric,” Obama stammered, uncharacteristically, in an interview with Newsweek in the spring of 2008. But Michelle was not eager to subject her family to a process that was dangerous and ugly—uplifting and history making, maybe, but also a potential family wrecker. Her kids would be given cute names by the Secret Service (“Radiance” and “Rosebud,” as it turned out), but their lives would never be the same.
Obama had been warned. In November 2006, at dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant in Washington, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle had reminded Obama that he had never really been attacked before. “I told him he should think about how he might react if his wife was attacked—the emotional discipline it takes,” recalled Daschle. At about the same time, with his fellow Illinois senator, Richard Durbin, Obama had talked about the physical risks. At a political event at the Union League Club in Chicago before Thanksgiving, Obama told Durbin that many of his African-American friends were advising him not to run, some of them because they were afraid he would get killed. (Durbin shared their fears and began lobbying to get Obama put under Secret Service protection. In May, eight months before the first primary, the Secret Service would begin standing watch over Obama, the first time such protection had been extended to a candidate so early in the process.)
Michelle Obama was worried about her husband’s safety, but was also seized with a kind of free-floating anxiety, recalled Durbin. Even after she said yes, she asked Durbin, “They’re not setting him up, are they?” The “they” was all the people who were urging Obama to run. Michelle wondered at their motives.
Obama understood his wife’s fears and even, to some degree, shared them, but he had a way of turning empathy into persuasion. “Her initial instinct was to say no,” Obama recalled. “She knew how difficult it was for me to be away from the girls, she feels lonely when I’m not around, so her initial instinct was not to do it. And I think she also felt that, you know, the Clintons are tough, and that I would be subject to a lot of attacks.” So that Christmas season, Michelle and Barack went for some long walks on the beach in Hawaii, where they were visiting his grandmother, and “just talked it through. It wasn’t as if it was a slam-dunk for me,” said Obama. “I think part of the reason she agreed to do it was because she knew that she had veto power, that she and the girls ultimately mattered more than my own ambitions in this process, and if she said no we would be OK.” Michelle was able to extract a promise: if he ran, her husband would have to quit smoking.
In some ways, running for president was a preposterous idea for someone who had served as a two-term state legislator and had spent only two years in the United States Senate. But Obama, a careful student of his own unique journey, could see the stars coming into alignment—the country was exhausted by the Iraq War (which he, alone among leading candidates, had opposed as “dumb” from the outset). As Obama saw it, the conservative tide in America was ebbing, and voters were turning away from the Republican Party. People were sick of politicians of the standard variety and yearned for someone new—truly new and different. Another politician with a superb sense of timing, Bill Clinton, perfectly understood why Obama saw a golden, possibly once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity. The former president believed that the mainstream press, whose liberal guilt Clinton understood and had exploited from time to time, would act as Obama’s personal chauffeur on the long journey ahead. “If somebody pulled up a Rolls-Royce to me and said, ‘Get in,’” Clinton liked to say, with admiration and maybe a little envy, “I’d get in it, too.”
BARACK OBAMA CAN BE COCKY about his star power. On the eve of his speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, the speech that effectively launched him as the party’s hope of the future, he took a walk down a street in Boston with his friend Marty Nesbitt. A growing crowd followed them. “Man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said to Obama. “He looked at me,” Nesbitt recalled in a story he liked to tell reporters, “and said, ‘Marty, you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘My speech is pretty good.’”
Obama’s 2004 convention speech launched him into the strange world of celebritydom; he acquired the kind of aura that can transform a skinny, scholarly man with big ears into a sex symbol. Eureka Gilkey, one of Obama’s aides, recalled going with him when he made a speech to the Democratic National Committee shortly after he began his campaign. Obama was mobbed outside the bathroom. “These were DNC members; they’re supposed to be jaded by politicians,” recalled Gilkey. “Not trying to tear their shirts off. I remember going home that night, and my boyfriend saying, ‘What is that purple bruise on your back?’ I had bruises on my back from people pushing and shoving, trying to get to [Obama] ... I remember grabbing women’s hands because they were trying to pull his shirt from his pants. I couldn’t believe it.”
Obama was growing accustomed to adulation. Greg Craig was not the only old Kennedy hand to fall in love. At Coretta Scott King’s funeral in early 2006, Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, leaned over to him and whispered, “The torch is being passed to you.” “A chill went up my spine,” Obama told an aide. The funeral, he said, was “pretty intimidating.”
Obama understood that he had become a giant screen upon which Americans projected their hopes and fears, dreams and frustrations. Maybe such a person never really existed, couldn’t exist, but people wanted a savior nonetheless. As a bestselling memoirist he had created a mythic figure, a man named Barack Obama who had searched and quested and overcome travails, who had found an identity and a calling in public service. Obama recalled that he often joked with his team, “This Barack Obama sounds like a great guy. Now I’m not sure that I am Barack Obama, right?” He added, pointedly, “It wasn’t entirely a joke.”
In the first quarter of 2007, Obama put the political world on notice when he raised $24.8 million, more money than any other Democrat, and drew huge crowds at his early rallies. But he was a tentative, awkward presence in the endless Democratic debates through the spring and summer of 2007. He didn’t really seem to have his heart in it; he appeared to lack the required, almost pathological drive to be president. The campaign strategist, David Axelrod, told Obama he worried that the candidate was “too normal” to run a presidential campaign, and Obama began wondering himself. He missed going to the movies and reading a book and playing with his kids. He worried about “losing touch” with “what matters.” To a Newsweek reporter he said, “I’m not trying to say that I’m some sort of reluctant candidate—obviously this is a choice I made. But there was some tension there in my own mind.” He seemed so distracted in one debate that one of his rivals, former senator John Edwards, came up to him during a break and scolded him, “Barack . . . you’ve got to focus.”
Obama bridled at the sometimes mindless rituals and one-upmanship of a national political campaign in the age of cable news. He resented the pressure he felt to declare, as he put it to Newsweek, that you “want to bomb the hell out of someone” to show toughness on terrorism. He was surprised when Hillary Clinton refused to shake his hand on the Senate floor after he declared his candidacy. And he was upset with his own campaign after a low-level staffer referred in a press release to Clinton as “(D-Punjab)” because of her ties to supporters of India. “I don’t want you guys freelancing and, quote, protecting me from what you’re doing,” he lectured his staff. “I’m saying this loud and clear—no winks, no nods here,” he said, irritated to take the heat for a clumsy dirty trick he had not known about and would never have authorized. “I’m looking at every one of you. If you think you’re close to the line, the answer isn’t to protect me—the answer is to ask me.”


On Sale
Jun 17, 2009
Page Count
256 pages