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Barack Obama — forever sizing up

The way Barack Obama handles meetings, along with the career they span, suggest a President Obama would prize consensus, except when he would disregard it.
Image: Barack Obama
Winning the presidency would be the latest in a lifetime of dramatic, self-induced transformations for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, shown here in an Indianapolis, Ind., rally.Alex Brandon / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

From his days leading The Harvard Law Review to his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has always run meetings by a particular set of rules.

Everyone contributes; silent lurkers will be interrogated. (He wants to “suck the room of every idea,” said Valerie Jarrett, a close adviser.) Mention a theory and Mr. Obama asks how it translates on the ground. He orchestrates debate, playing participants off each other — and then highlights their areas of agreement. He constantly restates others’ contributions in his own invariably more eloquent words. But when the session ends, his view can remain a mystery, and his ultimate call is sometimes a surprise to everyone who was present.

Those meetings, along with the career they span, provide hints about what sort of president Mr. Obama might be if elected. They suggest a cool deliberator, a fluent communicator, a professor with a hunger for academic expertise but little interest in abstraction. He may be uncomfortable making decisions quickly or abandoning a careful plan. A President Obama would prize consensus, except when he would disregard it. And his lifelong penchant for control would likely translate into a disciplined White House.

Self-induced transformations
Winning the presidency would be the latest in a lifetime of dramatic, self-induced transformations: from a child reared in Indonesia and Hawaii to a member of Chicago’s African-American community; from an atheist to a Christian; from a wonkish academic to the smoothest of politicians; and now, just possibly, from an upstart who eight years ago was crushed in a Congressional race to the first black commander in chief of the only superpower on earth.

Turning deficits into assets — a skill Mr. Obama learned in his 20s as a community organizer — could well be called the motto of his rise. With his literary gifts, he transformed a fatherless childhood into a stirring coming-of-age tale. He used a glamourless state senator’s post as the foundation of his political career. He mobilized young people — never an ideal base, because of thin wallets and historically poor turnout — into an energetic army who in turn enlisted parents and grandparents. And even though his exotic name, Barack Hussein Obama, has spurred false rumors and insinuations about his background and beliefs, he has made it a symbol of his singularity and of America’s possibility.

But in the Oval Office, Mr. Obama would have a new set of deficits. Just 47 years old and only four years into a national political career, he has never run anything larger than his campaign. He began his run for president while he was still getting lost in Washington, a city he does not yet know well. His promises are as vast as his résumé is short, and some of his pledges are competing ones: progressive rule and centrist red-blue fusion; wholesale transformation and down-to-earth pragmatism.

Mr. Obama’s ambition and confidence have long confounded critics and annoyed rivals. In 2006, the still-new United States senator appeared before Washington’s elite at the spring dinner of the storied Gridiron Club, and as tradition dictated, roasted himself. He ticked off the evidence of his popularity: the Democratic convention speech that had won him national celebrity, the best-selling books, the magazine covers.

“Really, what else is there to do?” he said in mock innocence. “Well, I guess I could pass a law or something.”

He passed a few. By the end of the year, he was running for president.

A disciplined life
Barack Obama’s lowest moment as a community organizer in the 1980s came when he brought the executive director of the Chicago Housing Authority to Altgeld Gardens, a decrepit housing project, to hear complaints about asbestos. Seven-hundred residents grew restless waiting for the tardy director. When he finally appeared, the meeting grew so raucous that the director fled after 15 minutes, to chants of “No more rent!”

The young organizer was humiliated and angry, at himself. “It was embarrassing to him to have the residents out of control,” said Johnnie Owens, whom Mr. Obama would hire as a community organizer.

Mr. Obama has always prized order. Even at Occidental College, during what he has called his dissolute phase, students remember him as a model of moderation: not the pot-smoking, booze-swilling Barry of “Dreams From My Father,” his first book, but a morning jogger who studied hard and might allow himself a puff of a joint here, an extra beer there. “He was not even close to being a party animal,” said Vinai Thummalapally, a friend from those years.

When he applied for jobs, prospective employers often found that they were the ones being interviewed. In fact, when Michelle Obama was interviewing for a position in the Chicago mayor’s office, her new husband accompanied her to dinner with her prospective boss to make sure the job would not compromise Michelle’s values.

There is little Mr. Obama has controlled more tightly than his own story and message. Just as he was planning his entry into politics, he used “Dreams From My Father” to cast his peripatetic, confusing childhood into a lyrical journey. When he was elected to the United States Senate in 2004, Mr. Obama wrote his second book, “The Audacity of Hope,” laying out his political philosophy. It meant getting only three or four hours of sleep at night, his editor said, but he insisted on writing the entire thing himself’. (He not only read policy books to prepare, but also some of the articles cited in their footnotes.) For his presidential campaign speechwriter, he chose a 26-year-old who describes his job as channeling the thoughts of a boss who already knows what he wants to say.

The senator has the discipline to avoid flaunting his oratorical gifts. Periodically during the campaign, rivals accused him of offering more style than substance; Mr. Obama responded with such sober speeches that supporters started to worry he was dull.

Time to mull
When it comes to making decisions, Mr. Obama’s impulse for control translates into a kind of deliberative restraint. He has always required time to mull: As a community organizer, he spent his evenings filling journals, trying to sort out the day’s confusion. During his seven years as a state senator, he used the time driving between Springfield and Chicago for contemplation; when staffers suggested that a candidate for the United States Senate should have a driver, Mr. Obama resisted, saying the driver might intrude. Hence Mr. Obama’s fluster when he misses his daily gym time. “That’s when he can get his mind straight,” said Jim Cauley, his campaign manager in the United States Senate race.

Mr. Obama resists making quick judgments or responding to day-to-day fluctuations, aides say. Instead he follows a familiar set of steps: Perform copious research. Solicit expertise. (What delighted Mr. Obama most about becoming a United States senator, he told an old boss, was his access to top scholars: he was a kid in the Princeton and Stanford candy shops.) Project all likely scenarios. Devise a plan. Anticipate objections. Adjust the plan, and once it’s in place, stick with it. In part, this approach explains how Mr. Obama won in the primaries: he exploited the electoral calendar and arcane differences in voting methods, and while Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton continually tried out new messages, Mr. Obama modified his only slightly, even when some supporters urged more dramatic change.

Like all other campaigns, Mr. Obama’s is imbued with its leader’s personality: it is a tight, centralized structure, run by a tiny group that permits no leaks. On the trail, Mr. Obama has struggled with the unpredictable questions and irritating time limits of presidential debates. He does not always react swiftly to unexpected shifts. This summer, Mr. Obama had just finished a perfectly planned tour of Europe when Russia blitzed into neighboring Georgia; he took several days to settle on a position. After Mr. McCain’s surprise selection of Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, the Obama campaign seemed to struggle to react.

The only time Mr. Obama slips from “his normal cool self,” said Marty Nesbitt, a close friend, is “when something surprises him.”

In 2004, Mr. Obama gained sudden fame and fortune: his convention speech drew a nationwide standing ovation, he won a Senate seat, and he signed a multimillion-dollar book contract. Flush with cash for the first time, he made two financial decisions that cast doubt on his reputation as an anti-corruption crusader. He set up a blind trust for his investments, but sloppily so, managing to put thousands of dollars into a biotech company that was developing a drug to treat avian flu just as he pushed for federal financing to battle the disease.

And he allowed Antoin Rezko, a developer and longtime donor, to acquire and sell him land next to the dream house Mr. Obama was buying in Chicago, even though Mr. Rezko’s name was already cropping up in newspaper articles about corruption.

Wielding a scalpel
Mr. Obama’s message of change can be hard to pin down, and he has spent his entire career searching for the right way to fulfill his desire for broad social renewal. First he became a community organizer, thinking change would flow from citizens upward; then he tried the law, which, as he learned from teaching legal history, was a highly imperfect instrument. Since then he has set his sights on changing government institutions, one higher than the next. Even in the Senate, he told a reporter, it was possible to have a career that was “not particularly useful.”

Critics have used the Rezko incident to question Mr. Obama’s reputation as a reformer, to argue he has few core beliefs. They cite a proposal he made in the Senate for stringent reporting requirements concerning nuclear plant leaks, which he then softened after Republican colleagues and energy executives complained. The bill died in committee. Or the time he joined a bipartisan coalition on immigration reform but backed away when labor groups protested. That legislation collapsed, too.

“He folded like a cheap suit,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina and a close ally of Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican rival.

Most of all, his critics point to his “present” votes in the Illinois Legislature, in which he did not choose sides, avoiding difficult matters like trying juveniles as adults. At least 36 times (out of thousands of votes) Mr. Obama was the only senator to vote “present,” or one of just a few.

Even some of Mr. Obama’s friends call him unusually opaque. After hashing out a question with him, “you may come away thinking, ‘Wow, he agrees with me,’ ” said Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Columbia and a former adviser to Palestinian diplomatic delegations. “But later, when you get home and think about it, you are not sure.”

Suspicious of generalizations
But defenders say that Mr. Obama’s reticence is as intellectual as it is tactical. He is a contextualist by nature, they say, suspicious of generalizations. He lived in enough places, at an early enough age, to realize that the same solutions do not work everywhere. Unlike his mother, an idealistic dreamer who moved to Indonesia without realizing a brutal coup had just taken place there, Mr. Obama seems more wary of venturing too far than not far enough. And his years teaching law — particularly chronicling the failure of broad, court-led efforts at social change — gave him a distrust of one-size-fits-all policies.

Countless times on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has cited the forceful speech he delivered in 2002 against the impending Iraq invasion. It had an unusual mantra for an antiwar rally: “I’m not opposed to all wars,” Mr. Obama repeated again and again, making his point as narrowly as possible.

Similarly, in the recent presidential debates, the candidates twice wrangled over the same question: how should the government cut spending? Mr. McCain called for an across-the-board freeze, but Mr. Obama resisted. “That’s using a hatchet,” he said. “I want to use a scalpel,” he continued, once again bypassing broad principle for a case-by-case approach.

A commitment to dialogue
As a law professor at the University of Chicago, Mr. Obama taught a young woman named Uzma Sattar, who was unpopular in class, students said, because of comments she made that others frequently found abrasive. But in a recent interview Ms. Sattar said that Mr. Obama, whom she visited during office hours, was kinder to her than any other faculty member — the only one, she said, who seemed to understand the loneliness of being the sole woman to wear a headscarf.

Barack Obama prides himself on trying to see the world through others’ eyes. In his books, he slips into the heads of his Kenyan relatives, teenage mothers in Chicago, Reagan Democrats, bean farmers in Southern Illinois, and evangelical Christian voters.

He won the presidency of the Harvard Law Review in part because, weeks before voting, he made a speech in favor of affirmative action that so eloquently summarized the objections to it that the Review’s conservatives decided he felt their concerns deeply.

That very first presidential election, carried out in the law school’s stately, leaf-strewn quadrangle, would prove typical of Mr. Obama’s lifelong quest to mediate conflict, and of the way that goal has merged with his own quest for advancement. He wants those on each side of the most toxic conflicts in American life — over race, faith, abortion — to resolve their differences, and in resolving them, to join his cause as well. He has a deep philosophical commitment to dialogue, suggesting that more of it will heal America’s bruised standing in the world, and he has expressed far more willingness to meet with enemies than his primary or general election opponents.

But Mr. Obama’s efforts to relate to everyone can get him in trouble. He initially placed the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his pastor and an incendiary speaker, at the center of his candidacy, titling a book after one of his sermons and originally asking him to speak at the announcement that he would run for president. (Mr. Obama eventually canceled.) “Reverend Wright is a child of the ’60s, and he often expresses himself in that language of concern with institutional racism and the struggles the African-American community has gone through,” he explained in an interview. It took another year and a potentially mortal threat to his campaign for him to sever ties with the minister.

Mr. Obama’s tendency to see things from the perspectives of others, aides say, meant that during the primaries, he could not work up much antipathy for his rivals.

“He’s not consumed by hatred for his opponents,” said David Axelrod, his chief strategist.

In fact, Mr. Obama can be overly familiar with them. When Mr. Obama draped a hand across Cindy McCain’s back after the second presidential debate, she stiffened visibly. He has done the same to President Bush and Mrs. Clinton. In 2004, he approached Alan Keyes, his opponent in the Senate race, at a parade and the situation grew so tense that aides had to diffuse it.

“It’s an uninvited embrace,” said Stanley Renshon, a psychologist who studies presidents, of a habit that Mr. Obama has called unconscious. “Bridging has to be an invitation, not a hand in the back pushing you towards something.”

Bridging the divide
As a teenager, Mr. Obama, son of a white woman from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, wanted little more than to feel like an African-American. Training his eyes on a grainy television in his grandparents’ Hawaii apartment, he imitated the dance steps on “Soul Train” and Richard Pryor’s outrageous jokes. He locked himself in his bedroom to read James Baldwin and Malcolm X.

Decades later, Mr. Obama is a proud son of the African-American community, and at campaign events with black voters, the connection is visceral. He can seem both more relaxed and more animated than usual, stretching out his stump speech into something more like a sermon, luxuriating in the call-and-response with the crowd.

Most of the time, Mr. Obama speaks lightly of the historic nature of his candidacy, and he is something of a postracial figure, with too many varied influences and constituencies to count. But a few times during the campaign — on the night of his Iowa caucus victory; in Philadelphia when he spoke of America’s failure to grapple with the original sin of slavery — Mr. Obama allowed voters to see just how heavily the country’s divided past sits on his slender shoulders. That weight seems like part of the answer to a central Obama mystery: where all of that burning ambition comes from, what possesses him to push so hard and so fast.

Nearly two decades ago at Harvard, Mr. Obama had his first taste of a barrier-smashing presidential victory, one that made other students weep with jubilation.

Gordon Whitman, one of the classmates who decided that long-ago election, recalled: “We all understood there was a chance to make history.”

This report, "Barack Obama, Forever Sizing Up," originally appeared in the New York Times.