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16.11.2008 US & Canada

Obama's journey: He gets it

By The Financial Times
Obama's journey: He gets it

At the 2000 Democratic convention in Los Angeles, an obscure 39-year-old African-American state senator from Illinois tried and failed to obtain a floor pass. So low were his fortunes that, in another rejection, his bank card was refused by a nearby cash machine.

Eight years later, an extraordinary 7m Americans gave up their free time in one way or another to help elect that same man to the presidency. One of them was Al Gore, from whose convention floor the young politician was debarred. The bookish product of a broken interracial marriage and peripatetic childhood poverty won the world's most powerful office by convincing an ample majority of compatriots who turned out on Tuesday that he would bring the change they craved.

By no means has Barack Obama's journey to the White House been free from criticism. Some say he has the thinnest résumé of anyone to lead America. Others see a self-appointed Messiah with less executive experience than Jesus. Still others depict him as an empty vessel into which the naïve, particularly the young, project whatever fantasies they wish.

Some of that may be true. Yet in conversations with people who have known Mr Obama at all stages of his life, from a friend at his elementary school in Jakarta, where he wrote that one day he would be president, to his initial meeting last year with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser who says, “Obama made the best first impression on me of anyone since John F. Kennedy,” a different portrait emerges.

These people depict a man who, in Mr Brzezinski's words, is “better equipped in temperament and intellect for the highest office than anyone I can think of in recent memory”. Close friends describe someone who is so self-possessed that nothing appears to rattle him. “I have never heard Barack raise his voice – not once,” says Valerie Jarrett, his friend and mentor of 17 years who is widely tipped to be a senior counsel in the Obama White House. “His highs are never very high and his lows are never very low.”

Lawrence Tribe, the renowned Harvard constitutional law professor, who hired Mr Obama as his research assistant on his first meeting with him – something he has never done before or since – says: “Absolutely nothing throws him into a panic ... he has enormous calm and tranquillity.”

Such an unusual measure of self-control can sometimes strike people as arrogant. Anyone already sceptical about some of Mr Obama's more prophetic self-assertions was sent into a tailspin after listening to Oprah Winfrey describe Mr Obama as “The One, The One we have been waiting for” when the celebrity television host endorsed him last year.

One of them was John McCain, who made little secret that he viewed Mr Obama as an inferior opponent. “I can't tell you how frustrated John has been – to the point of self-destruction – by facing off against someone that he doesn't respect,” says a close friend who chatted frequently with the defeated Republican nominee throughout the general election. “John has been in public service one way or another since 1954. What has Obama really done?”

By conventional measures, the answer is: strikingly little. Much has been made of the two, mostly fruitless, years spent in his twenties as a community organiser among unemployed steel workers on Chicago's south side when he could have been making money on Wall Street. Then there is his time as a legislator. After his eight years as an Illinois state senator, he served four years in the US Senate, two of which he has spent almost permanently on the campaign trail. Unlike some of the lesser qualified recent presidents, including Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, neither of whom had national or foreign policy experience, Mr Obama has not served as the governor of a state.

In her drippingly sarcastic Republican convention speech in August when nominated as Mr McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin said that even being mayor of Wasilla, an Alaskan town of 9,000, involved taking actual decisions. Mr Obama himself, at the jokey annual Gridiron dinner with Washington-based journalists two years ago, parodied his lack of experience. “Really, what else is there to do? Well, I guess I could pass a law, or something...”

Mr Obama has probably the least conventional – and, to some people, the most refreshing – background of any White House occupant in decades. “People often say someone or other lacks experience for the presidency,” says Mr Brzezinski. “But in truth, nothing can prepare you for the job. So you have to look to other qualities, such as character and judgment.”

Born to an 18-year-old white mother from Kansas and a black father in his mid-twenties from Kenya, “Barry” Obama found his childhood years were spent moving from place to place. His upbringing was very different to that of most presidents in three respects. First, he spent several years away from the US mainland, in Indonesia and in far-flung and racially diverse Hawaii, where he was reared by his grandparents. “Living abroad and having a father who was foreign gave him a sense of the world that was enriching,” says Ms Jarrett.

It may also have given him a perspective on how others sometimes view Americans. In his book, Dreams From My Father, which he started writing at 31 when he had become the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, Mr Obama says his mother taught him to “disdain the blend of ignorance and arrogance that too often characterised Americans abroad”.

Second, the Obama childhood years were penurious. Other presidents including Abraham Lincoln, who was raised in the semi-proverbial log cabin and whose short Illinois résumé Mr Obama almost precisely tracks, grew up in poverty. But none grew up in a single-parent family or was sent off to live for years with grandparents. In his campaign speeches, Mr Obama often mentioned his mother's struggle with cancer in which she devoted much of her final months trying to get insurance companies to pay medical bills.

Michelle Obama, who has devoted much of the last 21 months to sketching out her husband's biographical roots, repeatedly says, “Barack gets it,” in a partially successful attempt to convince sceptical blue-collar whites that he is not an east coast elitist. “Barack's mother taught him to raise yourself up by your bootstraps and work hard for everything to the best of your ability,” says another of Mr Obama's friends. “He was raised on food stamps. He knows where he comes from.”

The third and genuinely unique aspect to Mr Obama's background is his mixed-race descent. In his book, he writes of the “split second” response of people when they learn that he is neither white nor black. “Privately they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose – the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds.”

Coming from a mixed background can create a lifelong conundrum for some. Others get to see the world through more than one pair of eyes – never complacent, always questioning, often more intelligent than those around them. Mr Obama fits the second description. Friends and colleagues describe him as someone acutely sensitive to other people's predicaments, including those who work for him.

In contrast to almost every presidential campaign in living memory, Mr Obama's has suffered no defections, leaks, public bickering or sackings. Even fierce critics have expressed admiration for the sense of loyalty and devotion that he inspires in those who work for him.

Friends attribute much of this quality to his background. “When you are an outsider you can either try to be like everybody else or you can identify with other outsiders,” says Gerard Kellman, who recruited Mr Obama to work as a volunteer on Chicago's south side. “That includes people who were poor, people who faced discrimination . . . it made him more reflective.”

Even in those years, Mr Kellman says he saw in Mr Obama some of the hallmarks of his campaigning style. On occasion, ministers would accuse him of being a “pawn of Jews and Catholics” because of the source of funding for the community projects. But Mr Obama would “work through it with patience and humour – the same traits we saw in his debates with McCain”.

Many also trace Mr Obama's passion for bipartisanship and intellectual synthesis to his biracial roots. He was elected as editor of the Harvard Law Review principally because there was a deadlock between the conservative and liberal candidates. The conservatives ultimately voted for Mr Obama after he promised he would give them a fair hearing. “His focus was always to try to bring people together to find a solution in the middle. He was brilliant at that,” says Thomas Perrelli, who also worked on the Review.

Perhaps the quality that friends and colleagues mention most frequently about Mr Obama is his discipline. Whether it is the fact that he chose to give up smoking (with almost success) at the same moment he launched his presidential campaign, or the fact that during that campaign he rose every morning for a 30-minute session in the gym, America's next president has a fiercely disciplined approach to life.

“Last Sunday night we all sat down to dinner and Barack, as usual, had salmon, broccoli and brown rice,” says Ms Jarrett. “He doesn't drink much – he never has – does regular exercise, eats healthily and genuinely loves nothing more than to spend time with Sasha and Malia [his seven- and 10-year-old daughters].”

That sense of discipline also characterises his approach to meetings with advisers and staff. Unlike Mr Clinton, whose mercurial mind would often keep personnel up until the small hours roaming endlessly over different subjects, Mr Obama approaches meetings with a clear objective in mind.

“It's not that he lacks intellectual curiosity – he has plenty of it,” says a senior staff member who has worked for the senator since 2005. “But he goes into meetings knowing what he wants out if it.” Ms Jarrett says: “He has no difficulty taking decisions. Once he feels he has all the facts at his fingertips, he takes a decision and moves on. He's not the kind of person who sleeps badly at night.”

Such attributes have been amply evident in the way Mr Obama has managed his campaign – his ability to stick to a clear message of hope and change and to weave it into a narrative that fits with his personal story. It has also been evident in his approach to the 76-day presidential interregnum for which he set up a transition team at a much earlier stage than any of his predecessors.

But does running an impressive and highly disciplined campaign translate into being a good president? The short answer is: nobody knows. “George Bush ran a really impressive campaign in 2000 and 2004,” says one unpaid adviser to Mr Obama. “So running a good campaign is not evidence in itself that you will make a good president.”

Mr Obama's mixed record in the US Senate and in the Illinois state senate suggests that there is room for doubt. In contrast to the way he campaigns, which is decisive and sometimes ruthless, Mr Obama's legislative record is average. In Illinois, Mr Obama developed a reputation for voting “present” quite frequently – a device peculiar to that state which enables the legislator to avoid taking a stance.

In Washington, Mr Obama became involved in meaty initiatives such as ethics reform and fuel efficiency standards. But his record is more political than most. The nonpartisan National Journal ranks his voting record as the second most liberal in the Senate over the last four years. “In the Senate there are show horses and work horses,” says one Democratic staffer. “Obama has shown both tendencies.”

Others describe Mr Obama as someone blessed by good luck – a quality Napoleon said was most important in his generals. He was lucky that Hillary Clinton so mismanaged her nomination campaign. He was lucky that Mr McCain turned out to be such an inept candidate. And he was lucky that the financial meltdown occurred at a crucial stage in the election campaign.

But luck, says James Carville, Mr Clinton's former campaign manager and now admirer of Mr Obama, is something you have to be prepared to exploit. Few presidents-elect have prepared as assiduously for this moment as Mr Obama. “The more I practise at golf, the luckier I get,” observes Mr Carville. Americans of many stripes will be hoping Mr Obama's lucky streak continues.


August 4 1961 Born in Honolulu to Ann Dunham from Kansas and Barack Obama Sr from Kenya, to which the father returned two years later. Childhood in Jakarta, Indonesia, with his mother, then high-school years with his grandparents in Hawaii.

1983 Graduated from New York's Columbia University with a degree in international relations, having also attended Occidental College in Los Angeles. Moved to Chicago for a job as a community organiser, where he worked for three years.

1991 Graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Then recruited by the University of Chicago to teach constitutional law. Remained a lecturer for 12 years.

1992 Married Michelle Robinson.

1997 Elected to the Illinois state senate, serving for three terms.

2003 Revealed he was seeking the US Senate seat for Illinois.

2005 Entered the US Senate, serving on the foreign relations, homeland security and other committees.

February 10 2007 Announced his candidacy for president, mobilising a grassroots campaign. By year-end he emerged as one of three frontrunners for Democratic party nominee.

January 3 2008 Won the Iowa Democratic caucuses but, after a tight month of primaries, emerged neck and neck with Hillary Clinton. Gained convention delegates through the spring.

June 3 Became the presumptive presidential nominee by securing the 2,118 delegates needed.

June 7 Gained the endorsement of Mrs Clinton.

Late July Tour including Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan and Europe, addressing 200,000 in Berlin.

August 28 Accepted the Democratic nomination in Denver.

November 4 Elected to be the 44th US president.

● The president-elect has 11 weeks in which to appoint cabinet members, senior advisers and heads of departments.

● The transition occurs amid two wars and a financial crisis. The Treasury is among departments that will work with incoming appointees before inauguration day.

● A first international policy test may come on November 15 at the G20 Washington summit.

● Barack Obama will become 44th US president on January 20 2009

By Edward Luce and Demetri Sevastopulo

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008