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Confidence, Openness Mark Obama’s Decision Making Style

September 23, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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In the second of a series of reports examining the presidential candidates' leadership styles, Margaret Warner talks to colleagues and advisers of Sen. Barack Obama about how his decision making style would translate to the White House.
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SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Now, with Joe Biden at my side, I am confident we can take this country in a new direction.

MARGARET WARNER: If you want to get an idea of how Barack Obama would govern at president, look at whom he picked for vice president and how.

DAVID AXELROD, Obama Campaign Chief Strategist: He’s very methodical in how he evaluates decisions. He asks a series of questions. He’ll engage you in dialogue on the options. And then he’ll make a decision. And he doesn’t look back at that decision.

MARGARET WARNER: His chief political strategist, David Axelrod, said the choice of the far more experienced Senator Biden was no fluke.

DAVID AXELROD: You know, there were those who said, “Well, you don’t want Joe Biden because Joe has been around a long time. He’s got a lot of opinions. He’s a strong personality.”

And Barack said, “No, that’s exactly what I want.” He’s completely comfortable with very bright people. He doesn’t mind being challenged. He enjoys it.

MARGARET WARNER: The novice presidential candidate built a formidable campaign organization just that way: with a multilayered brain trust of aides and advisers. Insiders say Obama manages by hiring people he trusts and giving them a long leash. His light-handed management style became an issue this spring.

TIM RUSSERT, Former Host, NBC’s “Meet the Press”: You said one of your weaknesses is, quote, “I’m not an operating officer.”

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Well, I think what I was describing was how I view the presidency. Now, being president is not making sure that schedules are being run properly or that paperwork is being shuffled effectively. It involves having a vision for where the country needs to go.

A 'no-drama' mantra

Susan Rice
Obama campaign adviser
He listens to various viewpoints. He elicits dissenting views. He weighs those rationally and pragmatically. But then he tends to make a relatively swift and clear decision.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama makes the big decisions, but he expects his advisers to speak up.

SUSAN RICE, Obama Campaign Adviser: He listens to various viewpoints. He elicits dissenting views. He weighs those rationally and pragmatically. But then he tends to make a relatively swift and clear decision.

MARGARET WARNER: Susan Rice is one of his key foreign policy advisers.

SUSAN RICE: He makes everybody feel as though their viewpoint has been heard and appreciated. So even if you happen to be on the losing end of a decision, you feel like your perspectives have been valued, which makes it much more easy for you to be enthusiastic in supporting the decision he ultimately makes.

MARGARET WARNER: That has made for an extremely disciplined campaign, where there are few leaks to the media about internal disagreements. Rice says Obama laid down a no-drama mantra when he hired her.

SUSAN RICE: That means that people check their personal histories and their personal baggage at the door. There's no tolerance for people biting at each other, trying to tear each other down.

MARGARET WARNER: What happens if someone violates that?

SUSAN RICE: I haven't seen it happen yet. We'll see. I suspect it won't be well-tolerated.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama's own decision-making, his advisers say, is dispassionate and never off-the-cuff. Former congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva is a long-time mentor.

FORMER REP. ABNER MIKVA (D), Illinois: I have never seen anybody in the political arena who can be as deliberate and cool as he is on decisions. In all the years I've known him, I've never seen him emotionally angry. I'm sure he's been -- I mean, I could tell he was upset at times, but the emotions never went into the decisional process.

MARGARET WARNER: When Russian troops moved into Georgia last month, Obama's campaign issued a carefully worded statement calling on both sides to stop fighting. Only later that day and the next did Obama have tough words for Russia.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The United States, Europe, and all other concerned countries must stand united in stemming this aggression and seeking a peaceful resolution.

SUSAN RICE: The basic point here, Margaret, is he's fact-driven. He didn't look at the initial reports and view them through the prism of preconceived notions about Russia or Georgia.

A blend of principle, pragmatism

Jerry Kellman
Community organizer
He's tied to the principles, you know, but he's not tied to how you get there. That's very much out of organizing. You're there to do a job, and you're there to get things done.

MARGARET WARNER: His decisions are a blend of principle and pragmatism, as evidenced by his stand on the war in Iraq over the past five years.

His campaign likes to point to a speech then-State Senator Obama gave in October 2002 arguing against going to war. Long-time friend and adviser Valerie Jarrett says it was an example of his boldness and prescience.

VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Campaign Adviser: At the time that he took the position that we shouldn't have gone into the Iraqi war, it was an unpopular decision to make. And there were a lot of people around him who said, you know, you're in the middle of a Senate campaign. Do you really want to make a decision that's not going to be popular? Our country is ready to do something.

MARGARET WARNER: But it was an anti-war rally, and he was careful to say he didn't oppose all wars.

And when Obama arrived in the U.S. Senate more than two years later, he did not immediately join the ranks of Democrats demanding an immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces or even a fixed timetable.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: None of us are interested in dictating military strategy to the president, but rather to set a mission for the military, and that is what this debate is about.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressional watcher Norm Ornstein believes Obama had an eye on his political future.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: This was somebody who was looking ahead thinking, "You know, I might be president. The last thing I want or need is to dig myself into a hole or back myself into a corner. I want to leave some running room here."

MARGARET WARNER: Obama learned the value of pragmatism in his early days as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago. Jerry Kellman had hired the 25-year-old Obama to train low-income clients how to push for what they wanted from public officials, but not to turn their nose up at getting something less.

JERRY KELLMAN, Community Organizer: He's tied to the principles, you know, but he's not tied to how you get there. That's very much out of organizing. You're there to do a job, and you're there to get things done. But beyond that, you'll use anything and do anything within the limits of what you define as ethical and what you define as your ultimate goal to get it done.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I would urge an aye vote.

MARGARET WARNER: He followed the same M.O. after law school, when he took a Chicago seat in the Illinois State Senate in 1997. The Harvard-educated young reformer quickly realized it took more than good ideas to get something done, especially since the Democrats were in the minority.

DONNIE TROTTER (D), Illinois State Senator: Barack is no different than any other elected official who comes down to Springfield with the belief that they can change the world, that, "I'm going to go down there. I'm going to make this difference." Actually, it's shattered.

MARGARET WARNER: Democratic State Senator Donny Trotter.

DONNIE TROTTER: He came down and learned very rapidly that he had to start building coalitions with the other side if he wanted to advance his agenda.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama did just that. He spearheaded bipartisan compromises on a number of issues, including ethics reform for legislators and videotaping confessions in death penalty cases.

Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, who wrote a biography of Obama, spoke to us at the Democratic National Convention.

DAVID MENDELL, Obama Biographer: He would always try to bring all sides of an issue, if there were conflicting sides, into the room, into one room, sit them all down, and try to get them together. He came out what seemed to be with respect from both sides.

Political caution, compromises

David Axelrod
Chief Strategist, Obama campaign
His style of leadership is to try and bring people together. His attitude is, "We may disagree on 90 percent of what we - of issues, but on those 10 percent, how do we work together and move things forward?"

MARGARET WARNER: Yet Obama voted with his party most of the time, dismaying many Republicans who had hoped for something different.

Former Republican State Senator Steve Rauschenberger was Appropriations Committee chairman. He said his party had high hopes for this political newcomer.

STEVE RAUSCHENBERGER (R), Former Illinois State Senator: We were looking for a Democrat that we could work with and that maybe this was the crossover person that we could get and really make some progress on welfare reform.

MARGARET WARNER: And?

STEVE RAUSCHENBERGER: Most of us were pretty disappointed.

MARGARET WARNER: Rauschenberger also saw political caution in the numerous times Obama side-stepped an up-or-down vote on controversial issues like abortion.

STEVE RAUSCHENBERGER: Well, you know, if you take a look at his record, he has a very large number of "present" votes, which in the Illinois General Assembly are votes which are neither yes or no votes, although they are effectively no votes.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning what?

STEVE RAUSCHENBERGER: Anybody would be foolish not to recognize him as calculating.

MARGARET WARNER: Biographer Mendell says Obama's present votes and his legislative compromises reflect his clear-eyed view of what's possible and what isn't.

DAVID MENDELL: So he has been willing to compromise and make some compromises in his political career, as well.

DICK CHENEY, Vice President of the United States: Please raise your right hand. Do you solemnly swear...

MARGARET WARNER: Obama brought the same style to the U.S. Senate in January of 2005. Already a celebrity from his 2004 Democratic convention speech, he took pains not to upstage more senior Democratic senators.

And he sought Republican allies on narrowly tailored issues, like Senator Chuck Hagel, Senator Dick Lugar, and social conservatives Tom Coburn and Sam Brownback.

DAVID AXELROD: His hallmark, his style of leadership is to try and bring people together. His attitude is, "We may disagree on 90 percent of what we - of issues, but on those 10 percent, how do we work together and move things forward?"

MARGARET WARNER: Yet he was no maverick, voting with his own party more than 95 percent of the time.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: The bill would end all lobbyist-funded gifts, meals, and travel, and strengthen the...

MARGARET WARNER: One issue where he did risk incurring his fellow Democrats' wrath was on ethics reform, says party Whip Dick Durbin, the senior Democrat from Illinois.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: When he started talking about going after lobbyists and the way they bundled campaign contributions, and particularly when he went after that sacred cow of the corporate chartered jets and said, "We as senators should pay the full fare, not some special fare," it ruffled a few feathers.

I can tell you, a lot of veteran senators on both sides of the aisle said, "Who is this guy? You know, he's gone too far."

Confidence in his own skills

Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
There is a much greater level of practicality and pragmatism than either his own public persona would suggest or than the stereotype of him as an ardent liberal ideologue would.

MARGARET WARNER: In the end, Obama prevailed on both lobbyist disclosure and corporate jets. But the bill wasn't as tough as public interest groups had hoped.

Ornstein says that reflects Obama's willingness to take an incremental solution over none at all.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: There is a much greater level of practicality and pragmatism than either his own public persona would suggest or than the stereotype of him as an ardent liberal ideologue would.

MARGARET WARNER: And Ornstein thinks he's going to need that if he's elected.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: He's going to have to abandon some of the deepest desires of his own party's liberal wing and build relationships with and make compromises with conservative Republicans. Does Obama have the backbone to stand up to and defy some of his strongest supporters through this process and the left?

MARGARET WARNER: Durbin says he does and recalls the day Obama first looked at the draft of a bipartisan energy bill. It had provisions to expand drilling that Democrats fiercely opposed, but it also included new steps on renewable fuels.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: He said, "I think I'd better endorse this and so it will move forward. This could be the beginning of a good bipartisan solution." That to me reflected Barack Obama as an executive, looking for reality, looking for that compromise that still holds to the same basic principles.

MARGARET WARNER: That could make some of his liberal supporters disappointed or even angry?

SEN. DICK DURBIN: Yes, of course. And I understand that, when you start talking about the reality of governing, there are those on both ends of the political spectrum who will be upset. They want purity.

MARGARET WARNER: Those who know him say Obama has supreme confidence and that he could bring Republicans and Democrats around to support a new style of governing.

DAVID MENDELL: That's just how confident he is of his own skills, his own power of words, and his own message, and his own persona, and vision. He just believes that he can win over anybody.

MARGARET WARNER: The gridlock of Washington would present the ultimate test of that confidence.