TOPICS > Politics

Obama Meets Setbacks With Mix of Resilience, Caution

September 25, 2008 at 6:30 PM EST
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In the final report in a series focusing on the presidential candidates' governing styles, advisers and colleagues of Sen. Barack Obama detail how he has managed to overcome adversity during his life and career.
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MARGARET WARNER: It was the most public humiliation of Barack Obama’s young political life. In the Chicago Democratic primary in the spring of 2000, as an ambitious first-term state senator, Obama tried to snatch Congressman Bobby Rush’s seat away from him and lost by 31 points.

Obama biographer David Mendell.

DAVID MENDELL, Obama Biographer: He just thought, by the power of his persona, the power of his message, the power of who he is that he could unseat this well-thought-of congressman on the South Side. And it just wasn’t his turn. It wasn’t his time.

FORMER REP. ABNER MIKVA (D), Illinois: He allowed himself to believe certain things that were not believable, one of which he thought that he would get Mayor Daley’s support.

MARGARET WARNER: Retired congressman and federal judge Abner Mikva, a mentor to Obama, says naivete blinded his young friend to the realities of the way Chicago politics worked.

He recalls Obama describing his pre-election meeting with Mayor Richie Daley, son of the legendary Chicago boss Richard J. Daley.

ABNER MIKVA: And what he told me is, at the end, that the mayor stood up and said, “Well, good luck to you.” And Barack said, “Well, I read that that maybe he’s open.” And I said, “No, it’s closed, because that’s what the old man used to say, ‘Good luck to you, fella,’ and that meant that you were on your own.”

And that’s what happened. Mayor Daley basically supported Rush, and Barack lost badly.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama, by his own account, was devastated. As he later wrote in “The Audacity of Hope,” “It’s impossible not to feel at some level as if you’ve been personally repudiated by the entire community, that you don’t quite have what it takes, and that everywhere you go the word ‘loser’ is flashing through people’s minds.”

DAVID MENDELL: That was probably the low point in his life. He went to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles and didn’t have enough money on his credit card to rent a car.

And this was not the vision he saw for himself. He thought he was going to be a major politician with grand influence, and he had made that attempt and failed miserably at it.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama’s dejection didn’t last long. He made a cool assessment of what he’d done wrong and set about to fix it. He courted wealthy donors, cultivated political mentors, and repaired frayed relations with the Chicago machine wing of his party.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I’m looking forward to working with each and every one of you.

Experience taught Obama resilience

Dick Durbin
Illinois Senator
And he said, "You know what? It's the best thing that could have happened to us." He said, "The expectations were so unrealistic that I was going to somehow run the table on Hillary Clinton. That was never going to happen."

MARGARET WARNER: He worked harder in the State Senate and tried to contain the damage done by what some insiders saw as his arrogance in taking on Rush.

DAVID MENDELL: You will find very few enemies of Barack Obama throughout his history. He's gone through life and seemed to charm a lot of people, made a lot of people like him.

MARGARET WARNER: Valerie Jarrett is a close friend and adviser.

VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Campaign Adviser: He learned a great deal from the experience. And I think what it says about Barack is that he isn't afraid of failure. You know, he's willing to try. He's willing to give something his all.

And if, in the end, he doesn't win, well, he just brushes himself off. And you could say in a sense say that race was quite a political success, because he came back and ran for U.S. Senate, and now look where he is today.

MARGARET WARNER: Resilience has been a hallmark of Obama's life. His African father abandoned him when he was young. His American-born mother was absent for much of his teenage years, and he was raised by grandparents who struggled financially. He got mediocre grades and experimented with drugs, yet ultimately he righted himself.

His friend and fellow Illinois senator, Dick Durbin, sees this difficult childhood as the root of Obama's ability to learn from setbacks and to bounce back.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: This is a person who has been through disappointments many times in his life, starting with the departure of his father, and some of the tough times he went through, and picked himself up against the odds and got back into the fight.

MARGARET WARNER: That resilience, and the lack of a serious Republican rival, propelled Obama into the U.S. Senate just four years after losing to Rush, and it's kept him going through the ups and downs of this presidential campaign.

Durbin says he first saw this quality up close the night Obama lost to Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.

SEN. DICK DURBIN: I didn't know what to expect. And there were Barack and Michelle, and I went up to him and said, "Hang in there, buddy. Tomorrow's another day."

And he said, "You know what? It's the best thing that could have happened to us." He said, "The expectations were so unrealistic that I was going to somehow run the table on Hillary Clinton. That was never going to happen."

He says, "Now we're going to be better at this. We're going to be more focused and grounded, and we're going to run a better campaign as a result of it."

MARGARET WARNER: Chief campaign strategist David Axelrod says Obama has reacted with equanimity to every campaign setback so far.

DAVID AXELROD, Obama Campaign Chief Strategist: When we were most challenged, he was his calmest and he was at his best.

MARGARET WARNER: In March, after a 12-state winning streak, Obama lost the Ohio and Texas primaries to Hillary Clinton, giving her flagging campaign new life. Obama convened his high command in Chicago.

DAVID AXELROD: He started off by saying, "I can think of a dozen things that I did wrong in these last couple of weeks. And I'm sure each of you can think of things that you would have done differently. I don't want to review that. I want to think about what we've learned from this and how it affects what we do moving forward."

And we came out with an action plan for how to move forward. And he got up, as he was walking out of the room, he turned and said, "I'm not yelling at you guys. I want you to understand that."

And he started walking again, and he turned around one more time, and he said, "After blowing $20 million in a couple of weeks, I could yell at you," he says, "but I'm not yelling at you." And he walked out the door, kind of smiling, but his point was made.

Wright uproar hit Obama deep

David Axelrod
Obama Adviser
He doesn't walk around with an enemies list in his pocket. I think he finds that unproductive, because I think he knows -- and I think we've seen -- today's opponent can be tomorrow's ally.

MARGARET WARNER: The biggest setback came later that month, and it was personal, as well as political. Jeremiah Wright was Obama's longtime minister, friend and mentor. But in March, videos of some of Wright's most inflammatory sermons hit the Internet.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT, Former Head of Trinity United Church of Christ: No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama disavowed Wright's statements, but not Wright himself. Then, as the firestorm and potential political costs grew, Obama wrote a speech trying to put the pastor and his remarks in the context of race relations in America.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away, nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.

ABNER MIKVA: Barack did something which was very painful for him, and that is he made the speech in Philadelphia, which separated himself from Jeremiah Wright, but he still didn't go -- you know, didn't make a complete separation. He talked about not throwing him under the bus.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet the next month, in a long rant about black theology at the National Press Club, Wright struck back at Obama.

REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: I do what pastors do. He does what politicians do.

MARGARET WARNER: Stung, a visibly angry Obama made the break complete.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: His comments were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.

MARGARET WARNER: In dealing with political opponents, advisers say, Obama maintains a certain detachment. He doesn't personalize the conflict.

DAVID AXELROD: He doesn't walk around with an enemies list in his pocket. I think he finds that unproductive, because I think he knows -- and I think we've seen -- today's opponent can be tomorrow's ally.

MARGARET WARNER: His former Illinois State Senate colleague, Donne Trotter, says there's calculation behind Obama's outward ease.

DONNE TROTTER (D), Illinois State Senator: You would look at him and say, "Oh, he's pretty relaxed kind of guy. You know, he's easy to get along with." But if you take a hard look at him, you'll see that there's an intensity in his eyes. He doesn't like to lose. So, in that intensity, he's looking at your weaknesses.

MARGARET WARNER: Old friend Jerry Kellman says adversaries can pay a price with him if he decides they've crossed the line.

JERRY KELLMAN, Community Organizer: He doesn't like name calling. He doesn't like character assassination. He's turned off by those kinds of things.

He was willing to challenge anybody, and enter into a debate with anybody, and be very tough in that kind of debate, but he is deeply uncomfortable with it. And if you force him into it, when it's all over, he will think much less of you because of it, and that'll be hard to heal.

Keeping his cool under attack

Norman Ornstein
American Enterprise Institute
The real question about Obama's temperament, I think, is not whether he can keep from panic mode or keep from going from one extreme to the other, but how much toughness is there, there when the real crunch point comes?

MARGARET WARNER: Obama's unflappability has been tested recently. In early September, alarmed by John McCain's new crowds and poll ratings after choosing Sarah Palin, Obama supporters began peppering Obama with advice.

At first, there was little visible change from him on the stump.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN, American Enterprise Institute: There is an almost eerie calm about him when things are not going particularly well.

MARGARET WARNER: Longtime political observer Norman Ornstein wondered at the evenness the Obama campaign displayed as his slim pre-convention lead in the polls seemed to evaporate.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: Outside the campaign, Democrats have been tearing their hair out. With the Obama campaign, you get a sense of how he views the world. There has been no public, nor private, so far as I can tell, panic or unease about the closeness of this race.

MARGARET WARNER: After a week of post-convention attacks from the McCain campaign, a frustrated voter in New Hampshire confronted Obama.

VOTER: When and how are you going to start fighting back against attack ads and the smear campaigns?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I know there are a lot of Democrats, and some independents, and some Republicans who really want change who start getting nervous because they've seen this movie before, every four years.

We have been hitting hard, but we're hitting back on the issues that matter to families. We're hitting back -- you know, I'm not going to start making up lies about John McCain.

MARGARET WARNER: Then last week came a true presidential-level crisis, the meltdown in the financial markets. Early on, McCain issued his blueprint for a bailout. Obama said he'd withhold his detailed prescriptions until the administration's plan came out.

Then yesterday, McCain upstaged Obama with his call to suspend their campaigns, return to Washington for bailout talks, and delay tomorrow's debate. Obama's tone was cool as he rebuffed the challenge, saying it was more important than ever for Americans to hear the candidates.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time.

MARGARET WARNER: Obama's coolness and caution would be a two-edged sword if he became president, says Norm Ornstein.

NORMAN ORNSTEIN: The real question about Obama's temperament, I think, is not whether he can keep from panic mode or keep from going from one extreme to the other, but how much toughness is there, there when the real crunch point comes?

MARGARET WARNER: No campaign for the White House, no matter how tough, can provide an answer to that.