WASHINGTON—One evening in February 2005, in a four-hour meeting stoked by pepperoni pizza and grand ambition, Sen. Barack Obama and his senior advisers crafted a strategy to fit the Obama “brand.”
The charismatic celebrity-politician had rocketed from the Illinois state Legislature to the U.S. Senate, stirring national interest. The challenge was to maintain altitude despite the limited tools available to a freshman senator whose party was in the minority.
Yet even in those early days, Obama and his advisers were thinking ahead. Some called it the “2010-2012-2016” plan: a potential bid for governor or re-election to the Senate in 2010, followed by a bid for the White House as soon as 2012 or, if not, 2016. The way to get there, they decided, was by carefully building a record that matched the brand identity: Obama as unifier and consensus-builder, an almost postpolitical leader.
The staffers in that after-hours session, convened by Obama’s Senate staff and including Chicago political adviser David Axelrod, planned a low-profile strategy that would emphasize workhorse results over headlines. Obama would invest in his long-term profile by not seeming too eager for the bright lights.
“My profile outstripped my power in the Senate,” Obama said in a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. “I was mindful of the importance of establishing good relationships with my colleagues early on, and making sure that people didn’t think I bought into all the hype.”
But eventually he succumbed to the buzz enveloping his political persona and decided to run for the presidency of the most powerful nation in history after only two years in national politics. Barely more than one-third of the way through his first term in the Senate, his tenure is marked by enormous media interest and modest legislative achievements on issues ranging from international weapons proliferation to hometown bridges and highways.
Throughout his time in the Senate, Obama has followed a cautious path, avoiding any severe political bruises. Even before the national mood was turning on Iraq, Obama was a critic of the war, but for most of his time in the Senate he was not a strong voice in opposition. Similarly, the former civil rights attorney and University of Chicago law lecturer did not take to the bully pulpit to speak out publicly on judicial appointments. His strategy called for him to turn away from the cameras when he might otherwise have been a resonant voice.
Friends think Obama managed to accomplish a lot, given the time and tools at his disposal. But several GOP senators say Obama has yet to make his mark in Washington.
“He’s easy to get along with. I admire him. I enjoyed reading his book. But he hasn’t been here long enough to have an impact on the Senate,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former governor and presidential candidate. “It’s like asking how’s a football player doing halfway into the first quarter. It’s too early to say.”
Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., added: “I don’t think he has enough experience to be president of the United States, particularly in defense and foreign policy areas and overall in domestic areas. But overall, in the Senate, he has done a good job.”
Even many Republicans in the Senate credit Obama for skillfully managing the transition. Obama made it an early priority to fit in at the institution, reflected in his choice of a chief of staff, Peter Rouse, a veteran Senate insider who had been the top aide for departing Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Rouse crafted the memo that formed the basis of the conversation at the strategy session that February night at a Democratic Party office near the Capitol. (Descriptions of those and other deliberations depend on the accounts of Obama’s inside and outside advisers—all of whom are sympathetic to him. With few exceptions, those advisers insisted on anonymity.)
The plan they hatched focused on concrete, achievable goals that included delivering for Illinois, fitting in at the Senate and developing cross-party alliances while avoiding the limelight.
They would schedule Obama on trips that traversed two-lane country roads throughout Illinois. He would do his duty raising money for fellow Democratic senators during the “Power Hour,” a regular telephone fundraising commitment set up by party leaders. And he would sit through lengthy committee hearings to wait his last-place turn as the most junior member to ask a question.
First and foremost, the Obama team placed a high premium on working well with others.
“So much of what happens around here depends on relationships and on a committee chairman’s willingness to help you out,” said Chris Lu, Obama’s legislative director. “It helps if those relationships are strong.”
When asked to speak in 2006 at the Gridiron Dinner—a white-tie-and-tails gathering that brings together Washington’s political and media elites—he reached for humor to show a bit of humility and deflate expectations.
“Most of all,” he told reporters gathered for the function, “I want to thank you for all the generous advance coverage you’ve given me in anticipation of a successful career. When I actually do something, we’ll let you know.”
To some liberals, the proposal was a no-brainer: a ceiling of 30 percent on interest rates for credit cards and other consumer debt. And as he left his office to vote on it, Obama planned to support the measure, which was being considered as an amendment to a major overhaul of the nation’s bankruptcy laws.
But when the amendment came up for a vote, Obama was standing next to Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., the senior Democrat on the banking committee and the leader of those opposing the landmark bill, which would make it harder for Americans to get rid of debt. “You know, this is probably not a smart amendment for us to vote for,” Obama recalled Sarbanes telling him. “Thirty percent is sort of a random number.”
Obama joined Sarbanes in voting against the amendment, but they lost the larger battle when the new bankruptcy law passed by a lopsided 74-25. There remains no federal ceiling on credit card interest rates.
Obama’s deferral to Sarbanes was just one example of the freshman senator learning to navigate a chamber famous for its egos.
He temporarily set aside the high-minded rhetoric of a 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched him into the national spotlight in favor of a more realistic view of what he could accomplish.
He also turned down just about every national media invitation that came his way that first year. He focused on Illinois, and by the fall of 2005 he had done 39 town hall meetings, according to his office schedule, the vast majority of them in communities outside Chicago. The only national speaking invitations he accepted came from the NAACP and from Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a civil rights icon.
He also sat through many of his committee hearings from beginning to end, something senators rarely do.
“My job was to work and learn the institution,” Obama said. “I’m somebody who generally thinks that listening and learning before you start talking is a pretty good strategy. It’s like any other social setting—a new job, a new school, a new town. People appreciate it if you spend a little time getting to know them before you announce that you are looking for attention.”
One colleague who took note was the powerful then-chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, who later invited Obama on a trip through the former Soviet Union, inspecting projects to decommission Cold War-era weapons. The two ultimately worked together to pass legislation to control the spread of weapons.
“I like him, and I appreciate working with him,” Lugar said. “It seems to me that he was adept in finding partners and coalitions and actually was able to achieve results.”
In addition to a legislative accomplishment teaming with Lugar, the partnership gave Obama the added credibility he sought in an association across party lines. A former presidential candidate who has seen many fellow senators launch White House bids during his 30-year Senate career, Lugar offers unusually strong praise for Obama.
“He does have a sense of idealism and principled leadership, a vision of the future,” Lugar said. “At certain points in history, certain people are the ones that are most likely to have the vision or imagination or be able to identify talent and to manage other people’s ideas. And I think he does this well.”
Within his own party, Obama gained the confidence of the leadership and soon took on a role as the Democrats’ spokesman on ethics reform. A package that included many of the provisions he championed ultimately passed the Senate.
Obama the candidate for U.S. Senate spoke out forcefully against the Iraq war. For most of his tenure in Washington, though, Obama the U.S. senator has not been a moving force on Iraq.
He left it to others to lead public opinion. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., emerged as the strongest voices against the war. Those critics all spoke out before Obama gave his first major policy speech on the war—11 months after he took office.
Several advisers said that during that time Obama wrestled with how to proceed, concerned about the worsening news from Iraq and convinced the public’s mood was turning against the war more rapidly than most members of Congress appreciated.
In keeping with the pattern of his political career, he moved cautiously. During the summer of 2005 he considered proposing a plan to partition Iraq. But he backed off the idea as advisers raised two key concerns: that the proposal was fraught with complexities and that he could be seen as overstepping his expertise.
Ultimately Obama delivered a more modest speech in November 2005, five days after Murtha’s call for a troop withdrawal. In that address, he called for reductions in U.S. troop strength but not a timetable for withdrawal.
In a Senate debate the following June, Obama voted against an amendment proposed by Feingold and former presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to set such a timetable.
Only after Obama announced his presidential exploratory committee did he introduce legislation this January that sets a date for withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. By then the high-profile, bipartisan Iraq Study Group also had endorsed a deadline for troops to leave.
In May he voted against continued funding of the war, after Bush vetoed a funding package that included a timetable for withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
Obama defended his reluctance to call for withdrawal during most of his first year in the Senate.
“At the time, my view was that the (Iraqi) government was still forming and it would be important to not give the impression, prior to the formation of that government, that we were already on the way out,” Obama said. “Now, what changed? We have the breaking out of a complete civil war, at least a significant low-grade civil war.”
Feingold offers Obama mixed reviews for his handling of Iraq.
“I’ve been pleased that his opposition has intensified over time. I was not that happy with his initial opposition to a timeline,” Feingold said.
“I regard him as clearly stronger (on Iraq) than Sen. (Hillary Rodham) Clinton, indeed than (former) Sen. (John) Edwards,” Feingold said. “Of all the people I’ve worked with that are running for president, I think Sen. Obama probably made the proposal that was most helpful in moving the (Senate Democratic) Caucus in the direction I would like to see it go.”
His path on other issues, such as energy, has hewed closely to Democratic orthodoxy.
He co-sponsored legislation to require automakers to make annual improvements in fuel efficiency. But he has concentrated on promoting alternative fuels that provide the added political benefit of catering to home-state industries. He joined with other farm-state senators to introduce a measure to encourage production of biofuels, including corn-based ethanol.
Obama has pushed for parochial energy interests even when it has raised environmental concerns.
Reflecting the interests of southern Illinois coal producers, he sponsored legislation to provide tax breaks and other incentives for refineries that turn coal into liquid fuel, generating criticism from environmental groups that say the coal-based technology would contribute to global warming.
Some of those home-state industries also have been big campaign contributors. Obama has said nuclear power plants should be considered part of the solution to global warming—good news for Exelon Corp., the giant nuclear-plant operator based in Illinois. Exelon’s executives and employees were big backers of Obama’s 2004 Senate bid and gave his presidential campaign nearly $160,000 in the first quarter of this year, second only to UBS-Americas, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group.
A broader examination of Obama’s voting reveals a decidedly liberal record.
He voted to increase the minimum wage, to permit federal funding of stem cell research and against banning desecration of the flag, votes that could become fodder for GOP critics.
In a few significant instances, though, he broke with the ranks of liberals, voting, for example, to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state. He voted against both of Bush’s choices for the Supreme Court but sided with conservatives three times on other controversial Bush judicial nominees.
Perhaps one of the most surprising breaks with liberal interest groups came early in his term, when Obama voted for a class-action reform bill that would give federal courts jurisdiction in more such cases. Trial lawyers were stunned.
“How could someone, who would otherwise be a voice for consumers, vote for this?” said Todd A. Smith, a Chicago attorney who at the time was president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.
Obama said he was concerned about the problem of plaintiffs’ lawyers shopping around for friendly judges and juries.
In his second year, Obama began to make use of the bully pulpit that had been at his disposal all along.
He dotted his 2006 calendar with a few high-profile speeches, including one on energy policy and a well-received address on the role of faith in politics. In addition, he used his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” as a broader platform for national policy ideas.
In keeping with the original game plan, staff members spent nights and weekends scouring the chapters as they rolled in, looking for potential political pitfalls—a vetting committee Obama didn’t have when he published his earlier, more provocative memoir.
For instance, when Obama was seeking to name someone as the epitome of left-leaning politics, an aide urged him to use a House member instead of a Senate colleague. So the book names now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., though Obama’s voting record is similar to hers.
The news media chronicled his summer pilgrimage to Africa, the homeland of his father and a poignant part of his personal story.
That fall, his book tour brought out large and enthusiastic crowds. Big crowds also turned out for fundraising appearances he made for Democratic candidates in the midterm election campaign, during which he made 40 stops for candidates in 21 states during the closing six weeks. The excitement surrounding his emergence on the national political scene had given him entree to some of the nation’s wealthiest and best-connected people, and he now employed his flair for fundraising to help fellow Democrats and potential friends.
Obama was particularly taken with the success of his book. When he was new to the Senate, a friend said, “It was possible his star quality would fade.” But the reception on the book tour and fundraising circuit suggested the public’s enthusiasm for him was not so ephemeral.
And with popular opinion turning against the Iraq war, many of Obama’s friends thought his time to run for president was not in 2012 or 2016 but now.
One of those urging Obama to move forward was Illinois’ senior senator, Democrat Dick Durbin.
“I told him, `These opportunities come around once, at best twice in a lifetime,’” Durbin said. “`You ought to think about that seriously.’”
For much of last year, Obama focused on the congressional campaigns. But last fall he began sounding out close friends on a presidential run.
“During those final months of the midterms, it became clear we were going to have to have a conversation after the election,” said Axelrod, the political consultant.
“But it wasn’t at all clear where that conversation would go,” he said. “If you’re going to consider this, we better get together and run through what it would entail—whether it’s doable, whether it’s advisable, and ultimately, whether you feel like you want to do it.”
The morning after the November election, high-ranking Senate staffers and a few of Obama’s friends were summoned to meet with the senator and key political advisers at Axelrod’s office in Chicago. Obama was ready to talk.
Seated around the table in the conference room, the political experts talked in explicit terms. They gave Obama a primer on running a campaign, emphasizing its organizational and personal demands.
And they carefully parsed the question of how—and whether—they could even put together such a campaign so quickly.
When they left, the people who had so carefully mapped Obama’s cautious Senate career had a new task to consider: an audacious, caution-be-damned run for the presidency in 2008.