Saturday, January 31, 2009
THE 44th PRESIDENT OF AMERICA - BARRACK HUSSEIN OBAMA
Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on Jan. 20, 2009. The son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas, he was the first African-American to ascend to the highest office in the land.
He was also the first new president since terrorists attacked New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, the first to use the Internet to decisive political advantage, the first to insist on handling a personal smartphone while in the White House. So striking was the novelty of his rise that he embraced it himself: as a candidate he called himself “a skinny kid with a funny name” and the theme for his campaign was “change.”
It was a theme with deep resonance for a country enmeshed in what was widely believed to be the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Abroad, many challenges loomed: the war in Iraq, the worsening conflict in Aghanistan, the repercussions from Israel's broad assault on Gaza, the threat of terrorism and the increasing signs that the economic woes that began on Wall Street had spread across the global economy.
Mr. Obama arrived at the White House with a resume that appeared short by presidential standards: eight years in the Illinois State Senate, four years as a senator in Washington. He had managed to wrest the Democratic nomination from a field of far more experienced competitors, most notably Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom he outlasted in what became an epic primary battle. And he defeated Senator John McCain, the Republican of Arizona, by an electoral margin of 365 to 173, while outpolling him by more than eight million votes.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama laid out a set of large promises that were solidly within the traditional agenda of the Democratic Party, with plans to offer health insurance to all and reduce carbon emissions at the top of the list. At the same time, he proposed moving toward what was sometimes called a post-partisan landscape, appealing to voters of all stripes to come together. As he took office, voters seemed cautiously optimistic, with high hopes for the Obama presidency mixed with a sense that complicated problems would take years to resolve.
Republicans attributed Mr. Obama's victory primarily to a dismal trifecta: the cratering economy, an incumbent president, George W. Bush, with near-record disapproval ratings and a series of stumbles by Mr. McCain's campaign. But even his opponents acknowledged that Mr. Obama had run a remarkable campaign, highly disciplined in its message, relentlessly focused on building a field organization that was second to none and unprecedentedly successful in fundraising, particularly over the Internet.
In the weeks after the election, the Obama team tried to bring the same level of focus to the transition, moving rapidly to name a large roster of nominees to posts large and small. He dipped deeply into the pool of Clinton-era officials, beginning with his former rival, naming Mrs. Clinton to be his secretary of state. While he resisted calls to involve himself publicly in many of the pressing issues of the moment, declaring repeatedly that "we only have one president at a time," Mr. Obama began negotiations with congressional leaders on a massive economic stimulus package and hit the road for campaign-style events to build support for the $825 billion bill introduced by the House on Jan. 15, 2009.
CHILDHOOD TO CHICAGO
In his memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” Barack Obama conjures up an imagined meeting between his white Kansas-born mother and his black Kenyan father that could have come straight out of the iconic, if hopelessly dated, 1960s movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
In 1960 such a meeting took place in Hawaii, where his mother’s parents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham, prepared to meet their daughter’s beau, an African student reaching toward Phi Beta Kappa, whom she had met in Russian class.
The parents, Barack Obama’s beloved “Gramps” and “Toot,” were wary. Although Hawaii was a place of rich ethnic blends, racial tensions were still simmering, like those evident in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” where white liberals like the couple portrayed by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn nonetheless cringed over the prospect of a black son-in-law.
The Dunham’s new son-in-law-to-be, Barack (meaning “blessed”), was from the small village of Nyang’oma Kogelo near Lake Victoria. Now an economics student with a polished British accent, as a boy Barack had helped tend his family’s goats and his school was a small shack. If the Dunhams were unsettled by the match between Barack Sr. and their daughter, 18-year-old Stanley Ann (her father had wanted a boy and she was named for him), Obama’s family in Africa was apoplectic over the prospect of their blood being “sullied by a white woman.” (“Dreams from My Father,” p. 126.)
In 1961, the short-lived marriage produced a son, also named Barack. But the father soon abandoned his young family to attend Harvard, and then returned to Africa. The son would see his father only once again, when he was 10. Barack Sr. had a new life, wives and children back in Kenya as well as new demons, including depression and alcohol. One crippling car accident was followed by another, this time fatal, his short life ending in Nairobi at age 46 in 1982.
When, as her son became a young adult, Ann tried to explain his father’s life to him, “she saw my father as everyone hopes at least one other person might see him; she tried to help the child who never knew him see him the same way. And it was the look on her face that day that I would remember when a few months later I called to tell her that my father had died and heard her cry out over the distance.” (“Dreams From My Father, p.127.)
After divorcing Barack Sr., Ann had remarried, another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro, of Indonesia, who was attending the University of Hawaii. After Mr. Soetoro’s student visa was revoked, the family moved to Jakarta, where Barack was joined by a half-sister with whom he remains close, Maya. He attended an Indonesian school, although campaign attacks suggesting it was militantly Islamic were patently false. To make sure her son kept up his English, Ann would wake him hours before school began to study a correspondence course. When Barack balked at her 4 a.m. home-schooling program, she replied, “this is no picnic for me either, Buster.”
Soetoro bought Barack boxing gloves and taught him how to fend off bullies. Ann began bringing home books and records by great black Americans, being a flower child who viewed every black man, including her son, as the next Thurgood Marshall.
But this blended family, too, soon cracked and Ann returned to Hawaii to be near her parents. Through his boss, Barack’s “Gramps” had arranged for him to enter fifth grade at Punahou, an elite prep school founded by missionaries. His grandfather saw the school as his grandson’s meal ticket and Barack said he told him “that the contacts I made at Punahou would last a lifetime, that I would move in charmed circles and have all the opportunities that he’d never had.”
Barack’s sojourn at the school, where there were few other blacks, including learning the folkways of the American elite, grounding that would be helpful at other academic proving grounds, like Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He excelled on the basketball court, with a jump shot that earned him the nickname “Barry O’Bomber.” When his mother returned to Indonesia to do field work for her degree, Obama remained with his grandparents to finish his studies at Punahou.
In “Dreams From My Father,” Obama writes candidly about the struggle for identity that defined his boyhood. At school he heard a coach use the word “nigger,” and his own beloved grandmother “Toot” (his rendering of an abbreviation for “grandparent” in Hawaiian), would occasionally utter “racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe,” Obama recalled in his campaign speech on race. He had a pack of close friends and exhibited behavior, including drinking and smoking marijuana, typical of male teenagers. His mother and grandparents worried that he was lackadaisical about his studies, but Barack had begun a habit of disappearing behind his bedroom door to read for hours, shuttered with Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Malcolm X, and “there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked suddenly in desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth.” (“Dreams From My Father,” p. 85.)
His quest for identity continued at the small California liberal arts Occidental College, known for its diverse student body, and also at Columbia, where he transferred after two years. On his first night in New York City, Obama spent the night curled up in an alleyway, waiting to move into his apartment in Spanish Harlem. The precariousness of his place in the world, the sense that his life could have easily slipped into the stereotype of black male failure, pervades “Dreams From My Father.”
“Junkie. Pothead. That’s where I’d been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man.” (“Dreams From My Father,” p. 93.)
Interestingly, when The Times investigated Obama’s use of drugs during this period of his life, the paper found that it seemed to be less of an issue than Obama portrayed in his book.
He said he used drugs to help numb the confusion he felt about himself and described partying, smoking “reefer,” and doing a little “blow.” But Amiekoleh Usafi, a friend from Occidental, said the most she saw Obama indulging in were cigarettes and beer, and others interviewed had similar accounts.
During his Occidental and Columbia years, Obama became far more aware of politics, becoming involved in student anti-apartheid groups. After Columbia, he had difficulty getting hired as a community organizer, the job he wanted, and worked for a year at a business where he wore a suit and could have started down a path toward money and status.
But in 1985, Gerald Kellman, a community organizer in Chicago’s tough South Side, interviewed a young applicant who “challenged me on whether we would teach him anything,” Mr. Kellman recalled. “He wanted to know things like ‘How are you going to train me?’ and ‘What am I going to learn?’” With a $10,000 salary and $2,000 Mr. Kellman gave him to buy a used car, Obama began a three-year stint as a grassroots organizer in Chicago’s projects and churches.
It is a period that looms large in “Dreams From My Father,” where Obama recounts the frustrations and triumphs of getting asbestos removed from the apartments at Altgeld Gardens and learning the political skills needed to mediate anger and deal with urban poverty. In the book he vividly recounts his disappointment with himself when he was unable to control a group of residents whose anger boiled over at a tense meeting with city officials. But the job, he wrote, was “the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School.” On the streets of Chicago’s South Side, Obama came to terms with his place in black America.
THE MOST FAMOUS LAW STUDENT IN AMERICA
“Dreams From My Father” ends with Barack Obama’s first journey to Kenya, where he went after receiving his acceptance letter from Harvard Law School. He met his half-brothers and half-sisters, forging new relationships with his father’s African family, including his step-grandmother, Sarah, who helped raise his father in the same way his grandmother, Toot, looked after Barack.
He was older than the other first-year students at Harvard and at the end of the year he won a coveted slot as one of about 80 editors of the prestigious law review, the most influential in the country. That summer, he worked as a summer associate at Chicago’s Sidley & Austin, where he met and fell in love with another young Harvard Law grad, Michelle Robinson. They continued a long-distance courtship.
The next year, in February 1990, after a deliberation that took 17 hours, he won the law review’s presidency with support from politically conservative students. Weeks before the voting he had made a speech in favor of affirmative action that so eloquently summarized the arguments against it that conservatives believed he would give their concerns a fair shake.
Mr. Obama sometimes joked that the presidency of the Harvard Law Review was the second-hardest elective office in the country to win. He was the first black elected in its 104 year history and the election made him an instant celebrity, including a profile in The New York Times.
From Harvard he returned to Chicago, where he worked on a voter registration drive, started work at a small law firm specializing in civil rights cases and teaching at the University of Chicago Law School. In 1992, he and Michelle were married.
A Harvard Law connection, Michael W. McConnell, a conservative scholar who is now a federal appellate judge who had been impressed by Mr. Obama’s editing of an article he wrote at Harvard, put him on the path to a fellowship at the law school, which provided an office and a computer, which he used to write “Dreams From My Father.”
He taught three courses, the most original of which was as much a historical and political seminar on racism and the law. He refined his public speaking style. He was wary of noble theories, his students said. He was, rather, a contextualist, willing to look past legal niceties to get results.
Religion had begun playing a role in his life before he went to Harvard, and he had joined Trinity United Church of Christ, led by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who later presided at the Obamas' marriage. One of the pastor’s sermons had inspired both the title of Mr. Obama’s second book and his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, “The Audacity of Hope.” The ties between the young couple and the sometimes incendiary pastor would causean unanticipated firestorm during the 2008 presidential primaries.
Politics was very much on his mind as Barack Obama cemented his ties to Hyde Park, the Chicago neighborhood with a long history of electing reform-minded politicians. A tight-knit community that runs through the South Side, Hyde Park is a liberal bastion of integration in what is otherwise one of the nation’s most segregated cities. At its heart is the University of Chicago, where Mr. Obama also began cultivating connections to the city’s white legal elite, including Democrats like former U.S. Judge Abner J. Mikva and the former chairman of the F.C.C., Newton Minow. “He felt completely comfortable in Hyde Park,” said Martha Minow, Newton’s daughter and Mr. Obama’s former law professor and mentor.
In 1992, Mr. Obama led a successful registration drive that added nearly 150,000 black voters and helped elect Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat and the first African-American woman in the U.S. Senate. Judson Miner, the lawyer who hired him, was also active in Democratic politics. In 1995, Obama kicked off his candidacy for the Illinois Senate at the same Hyde Park hotel where Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, had announced his candidacy.
He did not fit the profile of the typical black politician. For one, he had not grown up in the traditions of the American black church and he was younger than the generation of civil rights leaders for whom Birmingham and Selma were defining moments. He had thrived in white institutions with a style more conciliatory than confrontational, more technocrat than preacher. Like other members of a new class of black political leaders, he tended to speak about race indirectly or implicitly, when he spoke about it at all.
In a state where the Democratic machine still dominated local politics, he was an independent progressive. But once in the Senate, he learned to straddle all of these worlds. He found a mentor in an old-style boss, State Senator Emil Jones Jr., a black leader of the older generation. Mr. Jones made sure to give Obama headline-grabbing issues, including ethics reform and an issue important to the black community, legislation forcing the police to tape interrogations. He played in a regular poker game with other legislators.
However, the legislative footprints he left in Springfield were hardly deep. During the presidential campaign, his record of voting “present” 130 times, rather than casting an aye or a nay, was criticized, although Obama insisted that he did not use those present votes to duck taking controversial stands. And in 1999, he made a rare political miscalculation.
Despite warnings from friends like Newton Minow, he decided to challenge an incumbent Democratic congressman and former Black Panther, Bobby L. Rush. Mr. Rush enjoyed deep loyalty in the black community and trounced Obama. “He was blinded by his ambition,” Representative Rush said later, but he nonetheless endorsed Obama for president.
In 2002, as Washington prepared to wage war in Iraq, Obama contemplated making an antiwar speech, something unusual for a state legislator. He consulted David Axelrod, a prominent national political consultant, and the speech he gave managed to carefully thread the political needle. He called the war in Iraq “dumb,” while carefully pointing out that he was not opposed to all wars. His early stand against the war gave him a defining issue in his run for president.
Unexpectedly, a seat in the U.S. Senate opened up in 2004. This time, Obama was careful to get the blessing of Representative Jessie Jackson Jr., who was thought to have his eye on the seat but had decided against it. The winds were running strongly in Obama’s favor. For one, he had been selected to give the keynote speech at the Democratic convention and he managed to set the place on fire with his youthful energy and lilting rhetoric.Then, his two most serious opponents self-destructed. He won the election with 70 percent of the popular vote.
So by the time he was sworn into the U.S. Senate, he was already a megawatt celebrity.
He did not fall in love with Washington. He was 99th in seniority and in the minority party for his first two years. At committee hearings he had to wait to speak until the end.
Although he won a seat on the coveted Senate Foreign Relations Committee and maintained a solidly liberal voting record, he disappointed some Democrats by not taking a more prominent role in opposing the war. In 2006, he voted against troop withdrawal, arguing that a firm date would hamstring diplomats and military commanders in the field. His most important accomplishment was a push for ethics reform, but as the legislation was reaching the Senate floor, Obama was criticized for not working harder to prevent the bill’s collapse.
During the 2006 mid-term elections, Obama was his party’s most sought-after campaigner and he raised money for many of his Democratic colleagues. In a matter of days, he raised nearly $1 million online, a glimpse of the fundraising prowess to come.
And he was running for president even as he was still getting lost in the Capitol’s corridors.
It was Michelle Obama who kept questioning a run for the presidency. She worried about the disruption of their family life and about her husband’s safety. Over a Christmas vacation in Hawaii in 2006, the couple visited his grandmother, Toot, and took long walks to talk about Barack’s political future. Finally, a decision had to be made and the couple holed up in the office of Mr.Axelrod, a sad-eyed former newspaper reporter, with a few of his lieutenants and trusted friends like Valerie Jarrett.
Michelle wanted assurances on a number of points. Were the Clintons really vulnerable? Would the money be there for a national contest that would drag on for 21 months? And then, after hearing the pros and cons from their six closest political advisers and trusted friends, she turned to her husband.
“You need to ask yourself, Why do you want to do this? What are you hoping to uniquely accomplish, Barack?”
Her husband sat quietly for a moment and then responded: “This I know: When I raise my hand and take that oath of office, I think the world will look at us differently. And millions of kids across this country will look at themselves differently.”
The nucleus of the campaign was a group of Chicago political professionals, Axelrod and one of his younger partners, David Plouffe, who would manage the campaign. Neither man had ever worked on a winning presidential campaign. The core team also included those closest to the Obamas, like Michelle’s brother, Craig, a nationally respected basketball coach.
The initial campaign plan aimed at dealing Hillary Rodham Clinton, the frontrunner, a devastating blow in the Iowa caucuses in early January. Positioning Clinton as a consummate Washington insider, the plan called for harnessing the newest technology to build grassroots enthusiasm, raise record sums of money and build an organization of volunteers across the state. The core theme, from which the campaign never wavered, was change.
An announcement was set for Feb. 10, 2007, a day so frigid that Obama was forced to wear an overcoat and scarf against the cold. He stood before the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln began his political career, and invoked Lincoln’s famous words, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
In Obama’s words, it was the poisoned atmosphere in Washington, a government hobbled by cynicism, petty corruption and “a smallness of our politics,” that now divided the nation. “The time for that politics is over,” he said “It is through. It’s time to turn the page. ”
One of Obama’s aides later asked him how he had prevented his teeth from chattering in the cold. It turned out that a heating device had been positioned at his feet, out of the audience’s view.
After an initial burst of interest and enthusiasm following the Springfield announcement, the campaign floundered. In October 2007, Obama told his aides, “Right now we are losing, and we have 90 days to turn it around.”
Plouffe made good on his pledge to build a first-rate field organization on the ground and opened 37 offices in Iowa. The money came in. Using the Internet to draw in new donors, the campaign hauled in an impressive $24 million during the first quarter of 2007, just behind the Clinton money machine. Then, using his oratorical talents and story-telling ability to the hilt, Obama brought the house down at the annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Des Moines.
One striking anecdote from the speech quickly became a YouTube sensation. In it he recalled a lonely campaign rally in Greenwood, S.C., on a miserable day. Edith Childs, a single voice in the meager crowd, began shouting encouragement. “Fired up! Ready to go.” Soon she had everyone else chanting, too.
Then, pacing back and forth as if marching to the chant, Obama, his voice raised to a spirited shout, asked the crowd, “Are you fired up? Are you ready to go? Fired up! Ready to go!”
The audience was electrified and some had tears in their eyes as Obama left the stage saying, “Let’s go change the world.”
Hillary Clinton said his liberal message was naïve, his Senate record too scant. He seemed cowed, especially when at one early debate he was waiting to shake her hand and say hello and she turned her back. But it turned out that Iowa Democrats were fired up and ready to go and Hillary had a disappointing third-place finish. It was on to New Hampshire.
Addressing voters in a Manchester theater the Sunday before the primary, Obama was unmistakably a candidate tasting victory. “In two days time,” he intoned, they would be making history. Back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, two overwhelmingly white states, would put to rest questions over whether a black candidate could be nominated. But a casual debate put-down, in which Obama muttered to Clinton that she was “likable enough,” backfired. Clinton, meanwhile, was able to shed her icy frontrunner persona and even shed tears at a New Hampshire coffee shop, or came close enough. She seemed to find her voice as the heroine of the struggling working class and New Hampshire responded. Obama came in second.
“I guess this is going to go on for awhile,” Obama said when aides delivered the disappointing results.
With North Carolina’s John Edwards a perpetual also-ran, Obama and Clinton split states on Super Tuesday. Despite the millions it had raised, the Clinton campaign had not really planned to fight beyond that lollapalooza of primaries. Money was running out and there was internal squabbling among top staffers, problems that bedeviled the campaign through June. Axelrod and Plouffe, by contrast, had created a “Feb. 5 and Beyond Room,” where money and organization were meticulously allotted to most of the primary and caucus states. Even as Clinton regained momentum in some big states, winning Ohio and Texas, Obama kept pulling out victories in red states and smaller caucus sates, building up a steady count in delegates. Money kept flowing in ever-larger streams from the Internet.
Obama and Clinton went out of their way to point out their foreign policy differences, with Clinton portraying herself as a hawkish Democrat and defending her decision to vote in favor of the 2002 resolution that President Bush later considered an authorization to use military force against Saddam Hussein. (Later, she said she fully expected Bush to use diplomacy first — and was shocked that he did not.)
On domestic issues, both candidates advocated turning the government onto roughly the same course — shifting resources to help low-income and middle-class Americans, and broadening health coverage dramatically. Clinton criticized Obama’s health care plan for not covering all Americans, though her own plan had become less grandiose than the infamous Hillarycare maze of government-paid coverage she had proposed during her husband’s first term. She now favored allowing citizens to choose their plans.
Many voters were impressed by Clinton’s résumé and her depth of knowledge about America’s biggest problems. But Obama built an exciting campaign around the theme of change. There were some missteps. Obama was caught by a blogger describing some white, working-class voters as “bitter. ” And the Rev. Jeremiah Wright ’s more outrageous sermons almost upended his candidacy (see below.)
But the numbers were the numbers. Although Clinton kept winning primaries to the end, Obama’s early delegate lead proved insurmountable. It was a long slog, but going toe to toe with Clinton on so many battlegrounds actually toughened Obama and made him a better candidate. She had previewed all of the arguments the Republicans would launch: he was too eager to deal with rogue dictators; his stands on the issues offered too little substance; most of all, he lacked experience. But he had stood up to her and won.
On June 3, the final day of the long primary season, he secured the delegates necessary to be the presumptive nominee. Almost immediately, talk centered on whether he would choose Clinton as his running mate. She played coy. Although a Clinton restoration was no longer possible, the great Barack-Hillary soap opera would continue through Inauguration Day.
While Barack Obama projected youth and change, John McCain, the Republican nominee who turned 72 during the campaign, was running on his distinguished biography and experience. A former P.O.W. in Vietnam, the Arizona senator was admired for his straight talk and independent stands on contentious issues, such as torture of detainees, campaign finance and immigration reform. And he should have enjoyed one tremendous advantage.
After a decisive win in New Hampshire, he wrapped up his party’s nomination in early March, leaving Mr. Obama and Mrs.Clinton to slug it out over a long, divisive spring. But Mr. McCain found himself tethered to an unpopular incumbent president,and an even more unpopular war. Mr. McCain not only supported the war in Iraq, he insisted the United States was winning the war. Mr. Obama, of course, had promised to end the war.
But national security was not the dominant issue in this election. All spring and summer, the economy had faltered. By the fall, the bursting of the housing bubble had become a four-alarm financial crisis, requiring an emergency federal bailout of the country’s leading financial institutions. The political environment for Republicans went from challenging to downright sour.
The only strategy that seemed to make a win possible under such circumstances was to go heavily negative against Obama, but McCain was reluctant.
In late July, Mr. Obama toured Iraq, the Middle East and Europe on a trip intended to make him appear presidential, but the trip also showcased him as a political rock star.
The McCain campaign pounced. After Mr. Obama appeared before a huge crowd in Berlin, the McCain team began airing an attack ad portraying him as “the biggest celebrity in the world,” juxtaposing the Berlin speech with pictures of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton.
Money helped insulate the Obama campaign from the attacks. The candidate had made a fateful decision to forgo $84 million in federal election funds for the general election in order to raise donations outside of the limits of the Watergate-era campaign finance strictures. The campaign ended up raising $750 million, more than George W. Bush and John Kerry combined had raised in 2004 and hundreds of millions more than McCain. One of McCain’s signature issues was campaign finance reform and he railed against Obama’s hypocrisy for going back on his early campaign pledge to live within the federal limits. But voters didn’t seem to care, and while McCain struggled to fund a national advertising campaign, Obama had buckets of money.
Clinton’s supporters continued to press her vice-presidential claims leading up to the Democratic convention in Denver. Obama had promised his supporters that he would announce his selection in a mass e-mail (which had the dividend of giving the campaign millions more contacts for getting out the vote in November). The pick was not Clinton but another one of the Democrats Obama had vanquished in the primaries, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. He was a safe choice who brought decades of experience in foreign affairs, helping to parry McCain’s attacks that Obama was too light on national security.
The Democratic convention featured the soap opera of whether the Clintons would fully embrace Obama and Biden in Denver. Bill Clinton could still explode in rage over the way he and his wife had been portrayed during the primaries. But in Denver, he gave a gracious endorsement that betrayed no lingering ill will. Hillary Clinton, too, gave a warm speech and rushed to the floor of the convention hall to make Obama’s nomination unanimous on the eve of his acceptance speech.
For the final night of the convention, the campaign had decided to move everyone, delegates and all, to Mile High Stadium, where 80,000 people, some waiting in line for nearly a day, celebrated the new Democratic ticket. The stage, draped with flags and lined with Greek columns, was meant to evoke the White House but some found the whole thing over the top.
“With profound gratitude and great humility, I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States,” Obama began, the culmination of a marathon political carnival that bore little resemblance to any convention finale that had come before. The speech was being delivered on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and Obama movingly referred to the throngs who had gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to hear “a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.”
McCain seemed to gain ground after the Republican convention in St. Paul, Minn. His choice of a young female governor, Sarah Palin of Alaska, energized the conservative G.O.P. base. But the Obama strategist David Axelrod and others deemed the choice a disaster because it undermined McCain’s major campaign theme, experience. Palin had been in office only a few years and before becoming Alaska’s governor she was the mayor of a tiny town, Wasilla, and was a self-described Hockey Mom. After rejoicing over her strong convention acceptance speech, in which she relentlessly attacked and mocked Obama, the McCain campaign kept her closeted from the national media. Then, after overcoaching her, interviews with the network anchors were scheduled. Her performance during an interview with Katie Couric, in which she stumbled repeatedly over relatively simple questions and spoke in almost comic non sequiturs, went viral on YouTube and became fodder for a barrage of brutally comic skits on “Saturday Night Live.” A $150,000-plus spending spree on clothes financed by the Republican National Committee tarnished her image even more.
Once the campaign turned to party against party, the dynamics changed. Unlike in the primaries, where Obama and Clinton had agreed on more issues than not, Obama and McCain had extremely divergent worldviews.
Their most profound differences were over the war in Iraq. McCain still spoke of “victory” and opposed setting dates for extracting American troops. Obama was an early opponent of the war in Iraq, and he presented a military and diplomatic plan for withdrawing American forces. He also warned that until the Pentagon began pulling troops out of Iraq, there would not be enough troops to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He blamed President Bush for taking his focus off defeating Al Qaeda and becoming distracted by Iraq.
They differed over government’s proper role in people’s lives. McCain was an economic conservative who railed against wasteful government spending and appropriations called earmarks. In his convention speech in Denver, Obama said: “Government cannot solve all our problems, but what it should do is that which we cannot do for ourselves: protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools and new roads, and science and technology.” He favored raising the minimum wage and tying it to inflation.
Both candidates denounced torture and were committed to closing the prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. But Obama went further and promised to identify and correct the Bush administration’s abuse of executive power. McCain promised improved protections for detainees, but he had helped the White House push through the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which denied detainees the right to a court hearing and put Washington in conflict with the Geneva Conventions.
They differed sharply on the kinds of justices they would appoint to the Supreme Court. Obama favored abortion rights, McCain opposed them, and McCain promised to continue the court’s tilt to the right.
In this campaign, McCain abandoned his earlier, moderate positions on climate change and immigration reform. Obama presented himself as an environmental protector who would strictly control the emissions of greenhouse gases. He endorsed some offshore drilling, but as part of a comprehensive strategy including big investments in new, clean technologies.
Right before the first debate, the economy cratered. Lehman Brothers collapsed, a harrowing indicator of the coming financial crisis and a reminder that the presidential campaign was turning into a referendum on which candidate could best address the nation’s economic challenges.
Speaking at an almost empty convention center in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 15, McCain was trying to show concern for the prospect of hardship but also optimism about the country’s resilience. “The fundamentals of our economy are strong,” he said, words that some believed doomed his candidacy.
At the McCain campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., at almost the same moment that morning, McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt, looked stricken when his war room alerted him to the comment. Within 30 minutes, he was headed for a flight to Florida to join McCain as they began a frantic and ultimately unsuccessful effort to recover.
McCain’s inartful phrase about the economy that day, and the responses of the two campaigns, fundamentally altered the dynamic of the race. But the episode also highlighted a deeper difference: the McCain campaign team often seemed to make missteps and lurch from moment to moment in search of a consistent strategy and message, while the disciplined and nimble Obama team marched through a presidential contest of historic intensity learning to exploit opponents’ weaknesses and making remarkably few stumbles.
From there, McCain staggered forward. He announced he was suspending his campaign to return to Washington to help solve the financial crisis, suggesting he might skip the first debate. Then, after he arrived in Washington, Republicans balked at approving the bailout plan. When McCain could not mediate the impasse, the debate was suddenly back on.
After this wild ride, Obama’s calm performance in their first debate made him appear presidential. While McCain jabbed at him during the debate, he did not look at Obama once during the 90-minute debate, despite rules that encouraged them to speak directly to each other.
The second and third debates were really no better. McCain tediously repeated the phrase “My friends,” as the overture to his answers and, in the third, he endlessly invoked Joe the Plumber, a middle-class Everyman who McCain insisted would see his taxes balloon under Obama’s economic plan. In various polls, Obama was deemed the winner of all three debates. Well-prepared and commanding, if not exciting, he had come across as a plausible president.
The negative tone of the McCain campaign and the murmurings about Obama being a Muslim had a powerful impact on one disgusted Republican, former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. During an appearance on “Meet the Press” in late October, Powell broke with his party and endorsed Obama
With plenty of money still flowing into the campaign during the final month, Obama bought a half-hour of national television time for a glossy infomercial. A smashing ratings success, the commercial proved to be more popular than even the final game of the World Series — or last season’s finale of “American Idol.”
Now all the campaign needed to worry about was overconfidence.
When Senator Barack Obama stepped from his plane on the final ride of his presidential candidacy and loped to the bottom of the stairs, he did something he had not done at the end of any of the thousands of miles logged on this journey.
A group of his campaign workers had gathered at Midway Airport in Chicago to watch him arrive from his last trip, a short hop from nearby Indiana. Given the day, as Mr. Obama raised his hand to offer his gratitude, it looked a lot like a gesture from a commander in chief.
In the final hours of a 22-month campaign, he quickly moved on to an Election Day tradition that is rooted in a sweaty superstition: basketball. Twice in his primary fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton he skipped his afternoon game on the day ballots were cast. And both times he lost.
So at 2:45 p.m. Mr. Obama arrived at a gymnasium on the West Side, aptly named Attack Athletics. For two hours, he ran up and down the court with Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, who had become a good friend, along with a close group of Chicago pals who assembled to help take his mind off the other events of the day.
When he went to vote with Michelle and their two daughters on Tuesday morning, he had narrowly missed another familiar face at his polling place. Bill Ayers, the former member of the radical Weather Underground who became a central figure in the attacks from John McCain and Sarah Palin, had dropped by to vote a few minutes earlier.
By nightfall, thousands of his admirers streamed into Grant Park for the celebration. At a nearby hotel, he took one more pass through his speech, while commentary about his future played on television sets in the background.
Celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, gathered in a tent to await the candidate.
As Ohio was called for Mr. Obama, a roar sounded from the 125,000 people gathered in Hutchison Field in Grant Park. It was the last state needed to put Mr. Obama over the top. But the networks waited to make their calls until 11 p.m., Eastern time, when polls in California and on the West Coast closed. The candidate waited to watch Mr. McCain's gracious concession speech, in which he praised the president-elect as a fellow American and paid homage to the racial barrier just fallen.
“This is a historic election, and I recognize the significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight,” Mr. McCain said, adding, “We both realize that we have come a long way from the injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation.”
Finally, looking a bit exhausted, Mr. Obama stood at the lectern, looking over a vast undulating sea of screaming humanity of all races, waving American flags. “What a scene, what a crowd,” he said, shaking his head. “Wow.” He took a long drink out of the water bottle inside the lectern.
With a bank of flags at his back, he told the screaming, dancing crowd, “If there is anyone out there who still 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.”
“It’s been a long time coming,” the president-elect added, “but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
Not only had he captured the presidency, but he also led his party to sharp gains in Congress. This put Democrats in control of the House, the Senate and the White House for the first time since 1995, when Bill Clinton was in office.
Spontaneous parties erupted on streets across America. At 2 a.m., about 20 revelers from Times Square congregated outside The New York Times’s new headquarters on Eighth Avenue, waiting for newspapers to mark the historic occasion. When a senior editor appeared with a bundle of early editions, the crowd went nuts and began taking her picture holding the newspaper with the simple headline that captured their joy: OBAMA.
Oceans away in Jakarta, a young Indonesian student, attending the same public school where Mr. Obama’s mother had sent him, was hoisted aloft on the shoulders of his joyous schoolmates, waving his shirt in the air. It was a picture repeated elsewhere around the globe, especially in Kenya, where some members of Mr. Obama’s more distant family made plans to attend the inauguration.
At Obama headquarters in Albany, Ga., where as a part of the nascent civil rights movement she had been beaten back with tear gas and billyclubs, Rutha Mae Harris could not hold back her tears any longer, the emotions of a lifetime released in a flood.
“Glory, glory, hallelujah,” she sang.
THE NEW TEAM
Throughout November, the financial tsunami was gaining such ferocity that virtually every large institution, from investment banks to insurers to companies like Citigroup, was approaching Washington for federal funds. Help couldn’t wait.
Although Barack Obama kept reminding people that the United States only had one president at a time, he knew the world expected him to get to work to help stabilize the teetering economy. That meant the quick announcement of an economic team and a fiscal stimulus plan, perhaps one as large as $700 billion, equivalent to the financial bailout plan approved by Congress before the election.
For his first staff announcements, the president-elect turned to two old Clinton hands, Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois and John Podesta. Neither was considered a practitioner of the “new” politics, but both were respected for their effectiveness and Washington-savvy.
The captains of his economic team, similarly, were both disciples of Robert Rubin, the treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. The new Treasury secretary was Timothy F. Geithner, the young president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers was to be the director of the National Economic Council in the White House, the president’s principal economic adviser and policy coordinator. Both men believed in the pillars of Rubinomics, including free trade, deregulation and fiscal discipline.
The severity of the economic crisis created an opportunity to act on many of the issues Obama had emphasized in his campaign, including cutting taxes for lower- and middle-class workers, addressing neglected public infrastructure projects like roads and schools, and creating “green jobs” through business incentives for energy alternatives and environmentally friendly technologies.
For his national security team, Obama also went long on experience. The biggest surprise was Hillary Rodham Clinton for secretary of state. Although they had disagreed about the Iraq war and during the primaries Clinton had portrayed herself as more hawkish than Obama, she opted to accept the chance to play on the world stage once again. Although his campaign nickname was “No Drama Obama,” the choices meant an Obama White House that would brim with big personalities and far more spirited debate than occurred among the largely like-minded advisers who populated President George W. Bush’s first term.
Obama asked Bush’s defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, to stay on; and picked Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander and Marine Corps commandant, to be national security adviser. Another former rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Richardson of New Mexico, was chosen for Commerce secretary, although he withdrew because of an investigation into his political donors. Another Western governor, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, was selected as secretary of Homeland Security.
By the end of the process, the 20 members of the Obama cabinet included two Republicans and four African Americans, two Asian Americans. three Latinos and two white women. The nine white men in the Obama cabinet were to be, as they were in the Clinton administration, a minority.
Critics of the Iraq war particularly rejoiced over the choice of Gen. Eric K. Shinseki to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, seeing the appointment as a second chance for a brave truth-teller. Shinseki had been denounced by senior Bush administration officials for prewar testimony in which the general said hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed to stabilize Iraq, predictions that proved accurate.
The mainly centrist cabinet choices angered some liberals, who worried that the team might not deliver the change Obama had promised. But some predicted that the locus of real power would not be cabinet meetings but the meetings of the senior White House staff, working under the leadership of Emanuel, renowned for his tough tactics and language. The staff also included campaign hands like David Axelrod, who would keep his portfolio on message and Robert Gibbs, who was chosen for press secretary, and Chicago loyalists like Valerie Jarrett.
The president-elect finished his Cabinet appointments by announcing his intelligence team, led by another veteran of both Congress and the Clinton White House, Leon Panetta, the nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Although a few Democrats complained about not being informed beforehand of the choice, and others worried that Panetta, a vocal critic of the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods, did not come from inside the intelligence community, it seemed that he and the rest of Obama’s nominees were likely to be confirmed, even the disclosure that Mr. Geithner, the Treasury nominee, had failed to pay some personal taxes in earlier years, appeared to be more of an embarrassment than a stumbling block.
The only real controversy was the continued ethical mess swirling around Rod Blagojevich, the Illinois governor, who was arrested in December and charged with trying to sell the right to be appointed to take Mr. Obama’s seat in the Senate. The Obama camp responded with an internal review that showed that Mr. Emmanuel had held discussions with the Mr. Blagojevich, but that there had been no sign of any favors being traded to secure the choice of a nominee.
Mr. Blagojevich then turned the Senate in knots by filling the seat with a former Illinois state official, Roland W. Burris. Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid at first said Burris should not be seated because Blagojevich was not fit to make the appointment. But they changed their minds, in part because Senate Democrats needed Burris’s vote. Some members of the Congressional Black Caucus also supported Burris, who would be the Senate’s only African-American. In the meantime, in early January, Blagojevich was impeached by a vote of the State House of Representatives, setting the stage for a trial in the State Senate.
Still, these matters appeared as mere distractions, considering the deteriorating state of the economy. In January, as the Obamas returned from their holiday in Hawaii, the nation’s jobless rate rose to a 16-year high of 7.2 percent. Obama enlarged his stimulus proposal to $775 billion over two years, saying it would save between three and four million jobs. Some Democrats criticized the plan for not being bold enough and others worried that Obama should not have proposed tax cuts to offset opposition from Republicans, some of whom railed about the government going into so much debt. But with the country rallying behind him, Obama had the upper hand. National polls showed that 65 percent of the country supported his leadership, a much higher approval rate than other president-elects enjoyed. Congressional leaders promised to act on the stimulus package in February.
On foreign policy, as the conflict between Israel and Hamas raged in the Middle East, Obama continued to stress that there was only one president at a time and left diplomacy to the Bush administration. But on the economy, he stepped fully into the role of president before his inauguration. He met with congressional leaders and, in a somber but commanding tone, gave a major economic address at George Mason University in the Virginia suburbs of Washington. “For every day we wait or point fingers or drag our feet,” he warned, “more Americans will lose their jobs, more families will lose their savings, more dreams will be deferred and denied, and our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.”
The idea was not to wait but to build public support by mapping out a series of events to explain his economic approach, including long, televised interviews.
The Obamas had moved into a suite at the nearby Hay-Adams Hotel, so that Malia and Sasha could begin school after the holiday break.There was one more announcement before the family move into the White House: Marian Robinson, Michelle’s mother and a mainstay for the girls all through the campaign, said she would move in with the First Family after all, putting aside, for now, her worries about losing touch with her friends and beloved Chicago. And the closely followed saga of which breed of man’s best friend would share the Obama White House narrowed to two, Labradoodle and Portuguese water dog.
He took the oath of office on the west front of the U.S. Capitol, where slaves had once baked the bricks, sawed the timber and laid the stone for the foundation. He rose to speak a few minutes after noon, looking out at an ocean of hope, close to two million people gathered on the National Mall, once a slave market, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial, honoring the president who freed the slaves.
The ceremony began with a prayer form the Rev. Rick Warren, a conservative minister selected by Mr. Obama to give the invocation despite protests from liberals and gay activists. He told the crowd: “We know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.”
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., 53, rose to do the swearing-in. For a couple of smooth-talking constitutional experts, Justice Roberts and Mr. Obama had a hard time getting through the constitutional oath of office, with Justice Roberts stumbling over where to place "faithfully'' in "I will faithfully execute the office of the president of the United States.'' (The two did a do-over on Mr. Obama's first day in office, to put to rest any doubts as to whether he had been properly sworn in.)
In his 18-minute inaugural address, the new president left it to others to explicitly mark the history, making only passing reference to his own barrier-breaking role, that “ a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”
The somber, muscular tone of the inaugural address surprised some who expected the more soaring rhetoric of the campaign. But this was the speech of a new president completely aware of the crisis confronting him. Even as he began speaking, the Dow Jones average was sinking on another day of huge bank losses.
Mr. Obama continued the modern custom of thanking his predecessor, but at several points he bluntly suggested that his predecessor had left things in a shambles. He tied America’s economic peril to an era “of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”
Mr. Obama leavened the day's celebration with a sober assessment of the state of the economy, noting the spate of home foreclosures, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, costly health care, failing schools, energy dependence and the threat of climate change.
“Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land, a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights,” he said. “Today, I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America, they will be met.”
When the new president turned to foreign policy, he had more implicit criticisms, noting that the Cold War was won “not just with missiles and tanks,” but by leaders who understood “that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” It grows instead, he said, “through its prudent use.”
It was a message much of the world was waiting to hear. But it was matched with a warning to America’s enemies, especially terrorists and terror-sponsoring nations, that “you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.” The new president declared that it’s time to “begin again the work of remaking America” and “we are ready to lead once more.”
On the streets of Washington, strangers hugged one another. Many could no longer feel their feet from standing in the cold, but there was joyful dancing anyway.
The Obamas attended 10 of the inaugural balls, going first to the D.C. Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, a symbolic choice given the first couple’s pledge to involve themselves in the fabric of the city, rather than living their lives in the predominantly white Oz of the Washington political elite. For their first dance, Beyoncé sang “At Last.” At the Commander in Chief Ball, the new president chatted via satellite with a military team from Illinois serving in Afghanistan. At one of their stops, he asked the crowd, “First of all, how good-looking is my wife?”. END.
This article was adapted from "OBAMA: The Historic Journey," which was written by Jill Abramson, the managing editor of The New York Times in collaboration with the reporters and editors of the Times who covered Mr. Obama's campaign. The book will be published on Feb. 16 by The New York Times and Callaway.