Rouse became Barack Obama's chief of staff in 2005, after serving in the same role for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. A Congressional staffer since 1971, Rouse's power has led to him being called "the 101st senator." He is co-chair of Obama's transition team and has been named White House senior adviser. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted July 11, 2008.
“You could tell that this guy was important to the future of the Democratic Party ... You can tell he had the magic.”
- Highlights from this interview
- The plan for Obama's first years in the Senate
- Deciding to run for the White House
- Obama's run-in with Sen. McCain over ethics reform
- What the campaign has revealed about Obama
- Related Link
- The Outsider's Insider
This August 2007 Washington Post profile of Rouse also touches on Sen. Obama's plans upon arriving in the Senate.
Obama is coming to Washington. He wins the Senate race, and you get a phone call from [Obama adviser] Cassandra [Butts]. What was that phone call? And how did you get involved?
I knew Barack a little bit during the previous year, because he was running for the Senate. I was working for [then-Sen] Tom Daschle [D-S.D.], who's a Democratic leader, and we had interaction with him, particularly early. Then as we went on, he had a couple of breaks in the election and was the odds-on winner early. And he was calling in periodically to ask if he could direct some money to some of our Senate candidates, trying to develop a relationship with Daschle, presumably to try to get decent committee assignments.
And after the election, when Daschle lost in 2004, I had 30 years in the federal retirement system, so I figured this was a time to go. And he called me up out of the blue and initially asked if I would come and meet with him at the Mandarin Oriental during his orientation, ostensibly to give him some guidance about how to approach entering the Senate. ...
We talked for the first hour about how he should approach getting organized and getting established and getting set up. And in the second hour, I think he asked me, would I be interested in being his chief of staff and helping him? And at that point I said I really couldn't, because Daschle had lost. We hadn't expected it. We had to wind down the Senate office [after a] 26-year career in Congress. We had to help our folks get jobs who weren't anticipating it.
And he said: "Well, why don't you just think about it? I'll keep on looking, and I'll get back to you." So that's sort of how it started. ...
... You didn't say no the second time. Why? What did you see [as] the potential here? What about this guy made you, personally, decide, "I'm going along on this ride"?
First of all, remember, when I sign up, there's no indication that he's running for president, and he's not thinking of running for president. And I may be the one person in politics who has never seen the speech at the [2004 Democratic National] Convention. ... I've never seen it. Never even read it, for that matter, which I probably shouldn't admit to.
But you could tell that this guy was important to the future of the Democratic Party, in part because he's African American, but the major reason was because he had such intelligence, insights, spark. He had the magic; you can tell he had the magic.
And what he said to me when we started, ... he says: "I know what I'm good at. I know what I'm not good at. I know what I know, and I know what I don't know. ... I can give a good speech." And I said: "Oh yes you can. We all agree with that." He says: "I know policy. I know retail politics in Illinois. I don't have any idea what it's like to come into the Senate and get established in the Senate. ... I want to get established and work with my colleagues and develop a reputation as a good senator, and we'll see what happens." So I was impressed by his approach to this.
I did think that he was important to the future of the Democratic Party. Ten years in the leadership with Daschle, 19 years in the Senate, I was well aware that we could use an injection of fresh blood and talent in the Senate. I sat in the Democratic Caucus lunch every day for 10 years, and I'm looking at this guy and saying, this guy has got as much potential as anybody. I'm not disparaging anybody in that room, but as much potential, long-term potential, as anybody in the caucus that I've seen over 10 years.
So my view was, since he's not running for president in 2008, to get him started: to set up his operation; get a good team in place; get a good strategic plan in place; get a good structure. ... I'll lay that foundation, and we'll see what happens. I'll be in my rocking chair when he runs in 2016 or whatever.
... What was the thought early on about where he was going in the Senate?
... Early in the first year, I think in February-March, we put together a plan that had basically three parts. The first was demonstrating that he was serious about being a senator for Illinois and delivering for Illinois. And I'll give two examples of that. The first is that we took no out-of-state speaking engagements in the first nine months, other than the Martin Luther King birthday in Atlanta and the NAACP annual meeting, which were really base politics for him. And we turned down everything else. We didn't do any Sunday shows.
And he was focused on Illinois. I think we did 39 town hall meetings in the first nine months in Illinois; 31 of them were in downstate Illinois, which is an area traditionally you wouldn't expect a Chicago politician to really worry about that much. But he wanted to establish downstate that he was serious; that he came asking for their vote before the election, and he was still serious about representing them. ... The legislative activities he did were primarily geared toward Illinois: the highway bill and environmental public works, ethanol for downstate Illinois and alternative energy. Very focused on those issues.
One issue that's come up that he's been criticized for [is], why didn't he speak out on Iraq earlier? And I think part of that was that he was getting into the Senate. He wanted to get established, really understand all sides of this issue. But the other [part] was he didn't want to get out there, and in his first three months, six months, expose himself to being attacked for being a media hound, or somebody who was more interested in getting headlines and press than really doing his homework. ...
The second was to fit into the Senate and to rise in the Senate, to show that he was a team player; that he was not a headline hunter; that he deserved better committee assignments; that he could help the leadership. ... Now, he didn't want to come as a freshman and just, one year after another, move incrementally. He had bigger plans than that. But he was very aware of the importance of being a team player and not raising people's hackles.
And the third element, talking about his vision for the future -- I think that was to start to raise his profile; get people looking at him, maybe the elites and the press, as somebody who did have ideas, did have something different to say; was a progressive, but he had a different take on things. And that was just seeding the ground for whatever happened in the future. ...
... Did he raise a lot of money for the Democrats?
Not so much at the first year. This was part of the plan was to go out and, I guess crassly say "build IOUs" by campaigning. But also this is good for the leadership because you're electing Democrats. And again, the ultimate thing down the road was, "Can I get better committee assignments for this by going out and making the case that I was willing to raise money for my colleagues and for challengers? I was instrumental in helping build a caucus." ...
It's been said by some people that [Hurricane] Katrina changed that a bit; he came out more publicly. Why? What was going on there?
Well, two things happened. He went to Russia and the Ukraine, I believe, with Sen. Richard Lugar [R-Ind.] in August, and Katrina hit while they were overseas, I believe. He came back, and he was really devastated by what happened there, by the images and the pictures. And there was a lot of pressure on him -- he was the only African American senator -- to say something, because so many African Americans were affected by this.
I remember at the time when he came back, he said, "This is about class, not race." And then he did one or two shows. He felt he had to get out there and speak on this issue. And what happened, interestingly enough, is when he did that, he found that he didn't get any backlash from Illinois, no real backlash in the Senate for being higher profile. ... And it seemed at that point that maybe our timetable could be moved up. ...
As you said, he came back with that comment: "It's not about race; it's about class." There are a lot of people like [Rev.] Jesse Jackson who were making a very different case.
The differences here, I think, are the differences we've seen even recently between the old civil rights community -- people that have grown up in the civil rights movement and were icons of that movement and were more confrontational, and understandably so -- and Barack and others, [Rep.] Jesse Jackson Jr., [D-Ill.] who are more willing to debate, I think, and to try to persuade, as opposed to argue and fight over things. I think it's the nature of historical frame of reference, in part.
And I think what he was talking about at Katrina was clearly this: The people that were suffering the most [were] largely African Americans, but there were lower-income white people as well, and that all of that class of people, that group of people, were hurt by this and were being neglected in this. That's what he was talking about.
... Why was this an important moment, the message that he was sending? What does it say about him?
I think it's how he sees things. His rhetoric comes from what he believes and what he sees. I just think he sees things differently than one might expect from somebody with his background and his profile. I think it's as simple as that. It wasn't a calculated comment; it was a comment that this is how he saw the effect of Katrina, and who was affected by it and how. ...
... When he comes to the Senate being, historically, a black senator, does that add an extra burden? How does he relate to the [Congressional] Black Caucus?
He told me, actually, at the beginning, ... "I don't want to be a black senator; I want to be a senator who happens to be black." So for some members of the Black Caucus, is that a problem? I don't know; you'd have to ask them. But I think his issues with constituency politics and colleagues are more to do with the fact that he didn't spend a lot of time building relationships. He wasn't here very long in order to do it, and he was off in Chicago most of the time because of his family. ...
Then by the time he got to the third year, he was traveling around the country, became the biggest fund-raiser and surrogate for House and Senate candidates. He has his book tour, and then all of a sudden he's running for president. So he really only had two years to build those relationships, and it's not much time when you're living in Chicago and that's not your natural inclination. ...
... There's also a view out there that when he came to the Senate, he wasn't really too serious about it; that the way the Senate worked was not to his liking, not the way he operated; that he was looking toward the presidency almost immediately. ... What does that say about him? Do you encounter this attitude that this guy was up and coming and trying to move too quickly?
I think you've got two different issues there, because people can believe me or not, but I can testify to the fact that he never seriously considered, at least with me and others around him, running for president until, I'd say, if you want to take the most liberal definition of running, maybe you start thinking about maybe it's a long-shot possibility in the summer of 2006. And he clearly didn't seriously entertain it until after the [2006 midterm] election, when we started having meetings about it. ...
Now, whether or not he would be comfortable in the Senate, I think the jury was out on that. Any freshman in an organization like that, any freshman with talent, is going to be frustrated looking for an opportunity to move forward. You'll have things where you'll have an energy idea, and someone will say, "You can't do that because Sen. So-and-so has been doing it for 20 years." ... There's a lot of that, and any freshman is going to be frustrated with it. And he might have even been frustrated more than others.
And there was some talk, particularly internally among staff people: "Well, maybe you should run for governor in six years. That would be a better platform for a possible national ambition." But I don't think it ever got to the point where that was anything more than talk. ... And it was tough. His family was in Chicago. He was flying in here on Monday night, flying back on Thursday afternoon, and then immediately heading downstate Illinois to do town hall meetings. ...
I don't think he would have been a long-term senator. He's not on the path to being in the leadership, to stay three, four terms. But I think it was a little early to make the determination that he was not going to like the Senate. I think he just had the freshman blues. ...
... One of the benefits of running when he ran is not having too long a record. Daschle told him, "There's an open window here, and maybe it's not a bad thing not to have a long record." Explain your point of view on that.
I think that's right. ... As you say, he didn't have 20 years of votes to go back and people to pick up. They're doing a good job claiming he's a flip-flopper now, and he was only there for a couple of years. Imagine what you can do with a record, what they're doing to McCain on the tax cuts and so forth and so on. ... It's not the reason to run, and it doesn't mean, obviously, that you can't run with a record. But the Senate, half those votes are calculated to put people on the spot, to give them trouble running for re-election, never mind higher office.
The Harvard [Law Review] experience: ... We've talked to [members of the conservative Federalist Society] that were there at the same time and were very supportive of him because he had this bipartisan attitude about how to get things done. Can you see that in the way he operates?
Yes, definitely. ... I believe that his rhetoric or his pitch about working together to solve big problems and building consensus, that's how he thinks; that's what he's always done. It goes back to his days as a community organizer. That's what he brought to the Senate; that's what he brings to the White House.
But that doesn't mean -- and I don't want to be disparaging here, but criticism of the DLC [the centrist Democratic Leadership Council] is find the lowest common denominator and pass it. That's not what he's talking about here. I think he's talking about moving forward with a progressive agenda. Clearly it's not going to be 100 percent of what you want, but we can do better. And we can get 65 to 70 percent, 75 percent, whatever it is, if we work together and are honest about it and, obviously, build popular support for it.
And maybe this is part of going back to the previous comment about the traditional black leadership. It's a different approach to trying to make progress and move forward. It's not necessarily better, not necessarily worse, but it's different. And when something's different, not what people expect, sometimes you get skepticism or resistance. ...
Bottom line is it's putting the ball forward. It's moving ahead.
Moving forward. And the question is, where? Because I think you have to have a bottom line. And if you say health [care] reform or education reform or FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], whatever the case may be, I think going in you have to know what your bottom line is, and you're not going below your bottom line. ...
... One of the big issues that [Sen.] Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] brought up ... about Obama as senator is that he had a problem, as you know, with the immigration bill. ... What happened from the point of view of Obama there, and your reaction to Lindsey Graham's problems with the way Obama reacted?
Ironically, Lindsey Graham was one of the people that he worked pretty well with the first two years, and that changed afterward. So I think some of this has to be on Lindsey Graham for his supporting McCain and his politics on this.
I don't remember all the details about this, but I think this is exactly what we're talking about. Immigration reform is a tough issue. You have to have a bottom line for what you can accept and what you can't accept. You've got to look down the road and see where this is headed.
We don't think what we were asking for was unreasonable. We were still in line with Sen. [Ted] Kennedy [D-Mass.]; he was, after all, the principal sponsor with this. We were talking to him all the time. And I hardly think that it's fair to lay the collapse of immigration reform on Barack Obama, freshman senator, playing politics on it. I think this is just generally politics. ...
So the direction that Obama wanted it to go, the reasons that he made the decisions he made on immigration are what?
I think, again, the decisions he made were based on his views of what is acceptable immigration reform and what's doable. And again, I would go back to the comment I made about the DLC, just using them as an example. We're not looking for the lowest common denominator just to pass something. We're looking to pass something that may not be the bill we would write if we were sitting alone in the Harvard library writing it, but it's one that we think significantly moves the ball forward. It's not just passing it to pass it. You're passing it because it's making things better.
He is defined as the change candidate. How do we see this in the Senate, in what he was doing, the directions he was taking? ...
First of all, there's not much you can change in the Senate, so looking to your Senate record as an indication of change probably isn't the most productive thing. But if you look at ethics reform, [that] is probably the major place to look at it. But I think where you really want to look for change is in the speeches he started making late in 2005, these bigger speeches on energy, on education, on technology, things like that, sort of signaling where he would go in the bigger picture down the road. In terms of the Senate, I think it's probably a fair observation that he voted as a traditionally progressive Democrat on most issues. That's probably right. ...
We had the first serious meeting about this the day after the [2006 midterm] election, and I believe it was a fairly small group of people. Michelle [Obama] was there; [adviser and political science professor] Valerie Martinez[-Ebers]; two of his closest friends, [communications director] Robert Gibbs, [campaign strategist David] Axelrod; plus myself. [Deputy campaign manager Steve] Hildebrand ... might have been there. ...
He said, "Well, I think it's highly unlikely that I'm going to do this, but we should go and do due diligence on this." And we did a game plan for what we needed to do over the next month to try to get information upon which to make a decision. ...
We had another meeting, I believe, in the first week of December where he came back and said: "I'm still inclined not to do this. But I've talked to Michelle about it, and if we're going to do this at some point, this may be the best time. I'm worried about my daughters, how this will affect them." ... Then he started to talk a little further about it.
At that point, ... I recall that the majority of staff people were inclined against it, thought it was not a good idea. A lot of people thought that he really didn't fully appreciate what he was getting into: two years of this, the toll it would take on him and his family, the invasion of his privacy; that he intellectually may understand it, but he really didn't understand what it would actually be like. ... Nobody said, "We think you shouldn't do it," but I think people kept raising issues about, "You'd better think about this; you'd better think about that," so forth and so on.
He came back in the middle of December and he said: ... "I think that I may want to do this, but I need to go to Hawaii and lie on the beach for a week and a half and think about it. But why don't you start putting together a general plan for how we do this, because I think I've moved past the 50/50 mark." ...
Comes back on January whatever it was, 4th, and says, ... "Well, I've decided to do it, but I want to go home just this one last weekend to make sure I don't have buyer's remorse." So then he came back the next week, and it was a go-ahead.
You'd have to talk to him, obviously, and others, but I think the reason was ... talking about the kind of country he wanted his daughters to grow up in. And once he passed the threshold with Michelle and his daughters being willing to do it, I think he was probably actually more aware than we had given him credit for about what lay ahead.
But he thought this was the time, that he may never have another opportunity to do this. And he's a self-confident guy. He thought he had better answers than anybody else, to do it better than anybody else, given that it's an impossible job.
How did you view [Sen.] Hillary Clinton [D-N.Y.] and the campaign that she would probably be putting forward?
... We clearly knew she'd likely run and would be a formidable candidate, but I think we did not buy the argument that it's her turn. I think we had a vision of how we would run this race, of how we would frame it. We didn't know if people would respond to it the way they did, but we were willing to take a shot. Clearly we were the underdog. ...
The way he runs an organization, the people that he puts around him, how does that define how an administration under Obama might operate? ...
Let me just [go] back to the Senate, which I think is obviously a lot different than putting together an administration. ... What he said to me was that what he wanted was some people in from D.C. who had experience and knew the Senate, but he just didn't want insiders. He also wanted outsiders who were bright and eager and might bring different perspectives into the mix. And he said he wanted to have a diverse staff. ...
We'd bring in three or four people for the senior positions, and he'd interview them. We'd have staff people in the room, talk it through and, hopefully, come to a mutual decision. ... And we ended up, I believe, with 61 people at the height in the Senate, I think -- it's just over half of people of color. Ten out of the top 15 salaries are people of color; 62 percent of senior staff are people of color. ...
I think as you go ahead now ... Barack plays out his vision of what he wants in an administration, and I think it's similar. He just doesn't want all the usual suspects, but you have to have some people who know what they're doing and have been through it. We're going to bring people from the outside. And you have to have a structure that allows those people to work together well. You could have the brightest person in the world, but if they can't get along with people or refuse to accept where they are in lines of authority, so forth and so on, it's not going to work. ...
Does this feel like the passing of the baton to the next generation? Does this seem to be an answer to something that the Democratic Party has been yearning for?
... Having been on the inside, I don't think it feels as much of that to me as it may to be people on the outside. A lot of people my generation feel that they haven't had a candidate like this [going] back to [Sen.] Bobby Kennedy or President [John F.] Kennedy, but on the inside it doesn't necessarily feel that way. It started to feel a little bit that way at the beginning, before we started, but on the inside it feels like a presidential campaign. The issues we're dealing with here are more real than inspirational, I think. ...
I want to take you to McCain and use a little bit of your expertise to understand McCain a little bit. ... Give me an understanding of who this guy is and how he's viewed.
I don't know Sen. McCain very well, so I can't speak to his motivation or what he's like personally. But I think that he deserves some credit for sticking out some independent positions over the years. I think that certainly you can look at some of these positions he's taken, and some of them, to me, are calculated.
Look at the public financing issue here. He's attacking us now for opting out of the [public financing] system. In the primaries this year, when he was down, as I understand it, he got a loan by using public financing as collateral to get the loan, and then didn't go into the system himself when he came back. So he's as political as the next person.
Editor's Note: In August 2008, the Federal Election Commission ruled that McCain's loan and subsequent opting out of public financing for the primaries did not violate campaign finance law. McCain has accepted public financing for the general election.
But I think he does deserve credit for staking out a lot of positions that aren't traditionally Republican positions. Climate change is a big case in point, but then again, if you get into politics on this, ... when this bill came up here recently, when Sen. [Barbara] Boxer [D-Calif.] brought it up, all of a sudden he was talking about how he was backing off his position a little bit when it got down to the specifics. So it's the political season, and he's trying to be elected, too.
Do you see in the disarray of his staff, the problems with the message, problems with people leaving, bringing new people on -- do you see that as defining in any way what he'd bring to the White House?
I think you'd have to be concerned about that. I would expect that you have the same kind of management issues if he came to the White House. I think how people [are] running their campaign and how their campaign goes is a reflection of what you can expect when you get to the next level. ...
Post-2000 election, McCain comes back to the Senate a very different guy in a lot of ways. ... How does he become a real go-to guy, a guy who's no longer just a "maverick"?
Again, I don't know that he is. I was in the Senate leadership until 2004, and certainly since 2006 I haven't paid a whole lot attention [to] what's going on in the Senate day to day. But he's always been a fairly controversial figure in the Senate in the sense that I don't think he's perceived to be particularly effective. As you know, his temper is legendary. ...
In , when [Sen. Jim] Jeffords [I-Vt.] came over, McCain was talking to us about coming over. And I don't know this for a fact, but I understand [Sen. John] Kerry [D-Mass.] and McCain were very close in 2004 and talked about that relationship, whether he would be on the ticket or be in administration. So I think he's ambitious like everybody else. I've never seen him as one of the more effective senators.
When he was talking to you guys about coming over, ... what [are] your memories of what was taking place at that point and what it means?
My recollection of this, to be fair to Sen. McCain, I think he was frustrated with some of the things that were going on in his own party. Maybe there was some spillover with his relationship with Bush. ... But I never got the feeing that he was actually going to do it.
... [Some people feel] it was sort of a smart move to motivate the Republicans, to show how important he was. Do you believe that? ...
Well, when one person can switch the balance here in a high-stakes environment like that, it's a sign that you can't take him for granted; that he's sort of a key swing player here, sort of like the role [Sen. Joe] Lieberman [I-Conn.] played -- and overplayed his hand here, I think, a little bit. And again, I can't get inside McCain's head. I don't know what he was doing. I'm sure he enjoyed the notoriety. He invited Daschle and [his wife] Linda out to his place in Sedona, [Ariz.,] for a weekend with him and Cindy at quite the height of this, which got everybody buzzing. But it never really came to anything. ...
It must have pissed off the Republican leadership.
Yeah, although he had enough profile and stature that, again, it's hard for them to do anything with him. And he was with them most of the time on most issues.
The anger issue, which you talked about, what is that all about? Were you ever in the midst of seeing it in person?
I've never seen it in person. I've heard stories about it. I've heard cloakroom stories about it all the time. I've heard it from journalists, actually.
And from cloakroom discussions? What's the worry? ...
I think it's temperament, if you had to make very significant decisions in the White House. In the Senate, you're one senator. [Sen.] Ted Stevens [R-Alaska] has made a career of using his temper to advance his agenda, but I think that's a little more calculated. What I hear from this is it's just a little more spontaneous. … It's ... just not the right temperament when you're in the White House dealing with that kind of pressure and those kinds of issues. ...
He seems to become more and more of an insider. He then works with the president; he has a famous meeting with [former campaign chief strategist John] Weaver and [Bush adviser Karl] Rove. ... Do you have any thoughts on any of that?
Well, again, no. I could speculate. And I could speculate that he's looking ahead to 2008 and that he wanted to repair some of the damage that was done with the base Republicans. But, you know, I don't know what's inside his head. I barely know what's inside Obama's head half the time.
Does it change the way he operates in the Senate?
I don't think it has. I think he's been basically the same, for good or for bad. ... We had that one incident on ethics, where he sent the letter to Obama. The letter was odd enough that one speculates that he actually wrote it himself. Again, I think that's the kind of thing that worries me a little bit, that kind of reaction.
[McCain aide Mark] Salter said, "I wrote that letter, and maybe I went too far." What was that episode?
I think that letter was written and released to the press at 4:00 on a Friday and not sent to us. We found out about it from the press right before the Friday news deadline, so it was clearly a calculated effort here. I think it surprised us because we thought it was unwarranted.
What had happened here was, as I recall, that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid [D-Nev.] had asked Obama to be the point person on the ethics reform issue. McCain had his group with Lieberman that was trying to find a third-way proposal to move things forward. They asked Barack to come. Barack, because he was a leadership person, went to Reid and said, "Do you have any objection to me going?" And Reid's staff, actually, a lot of them didn't want him to go, but Reid said it was fine with him, as long as you say to McCain that we want to follow the regular order and that [any proposal would be] coming through a committee. And I think there was one other thing that seemed reasonable. So Obama made those points in the session that they had that afternoon.
And then the leadership staff called us up and said, "Would you write a letter to McCain reiterating that?" Barack was out of town; he went to Coretta Scott King's funeral, I think. And they sent us a letter, and it was way too hot. And we dumbed it down, as I recall, to something that was relatively innocuous, just reiterating those points, and then sent them to McCain. And then McCain, Salter, whoever it was, went crazy with that letter.
Now, what was that letter? I think what they were doing is it was a calculated effort to come back at us on this and try to make it look like we were just carrying water for the Democrats, and this third group was the real reformers' kind of thing. But who knows why they did it? Actually, that's the better explanation, because the other explanation is they just went crazy.
But a calculated move against Obama or against the Democratic leadership?
I think it was directed to Obama, which is why I wonder if Salter actually wrote it. It struck me as sort of an overreaction, a snarky, unsenatorial letter. And Obama and McCain had always gotten along fine before, so either it was a calculated political effort at Obama, or somebody popped a cork. I don't know. ...
One last thing about McCain. As you see it, is he this authentic maverick that people talk about? Is he Mr. Outsider, or ... has he actually been Mr. Insider for actually quite a while?
I think it's a combination. ... I'm not going to sit here and say that he doesn't believe anything he's saying here, this maverick stuff. I think a lot of it is conviction. It's like most of these people; it's a combination of personal conviction [and] political-advantage calculus.
The Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright issue that comes up: When you heard about it, how did you view it? How big a problem did you think it was? What's the internal debate over how we deal with this?
We always knew that he had said some incendiary things from the pulpit. I don't think we had anticipated it would blow up the way it did. And part of that, I think, is it seemed like it was on loop on the cable for days at a time. It was a tough one for Barack because [Wright] was his pastor. He is the person that engaged his faith and his views on faith. And it's also the black church, and how is a black church versus other churches? ... And then you have the balance between, if you repudiate him too quickly, what is your base constituency going to think? So it was tough. ...
I think that the first breaking point was the race speech. He wrote that himself, and I thought it was a fabulous speech, but it didn't seem to do much to defuse the Rev. Wright controversy. And we were struggling with this until [Rev. Wright] went to the [National] Press Club. And when Rev. Wright went to the Press Club, his remarks were one thing, but the Q-and-A is what I think just did him in here, put him over the top and made him not credible, and got Barack to the point where he had that press conference in Pennsylvania, where he did what he had to do. ...
It was also the opportunity to talk on race. Was it something that you guys always knew, or that he always knew he wanted to do it?
He always wanted to do it. I think our folks were a little bit -- they would always say, "Yeah, we should do that later." And I don't know if later would ever come. But he was the one that drove the timing of that speech and the nature of that speech, the context of that speech. ...
But how important is race in this campaign, to his candidacy? Is it something that has always been thought about? Is it something that he can transcend?
He believes he can transcend it; we believe we can transcend it. And that's why [there] tends to be some frustration expressed from the campaign when Newsweek puts race on the cover two or three times, or whatever they've done. The media keeps putting it back out there, and maybe they shouldn't. I'm not in the mind of the media. Maybe this is what they do professionally.
If he didn't think he could transcend this, I don't think he would be running. He is African American, and he's proud that he's African American. But he wants to be president of the country here, and you have to transcend race to do that.
The other issue, of course, is ... the white working-class issue. How did that issue get dealt with in the campaign? And how is it viewed now as an issue, as a problem, as something which can be transcended?
... Fifty-four percent of the electorate is going to be women this time, 52 to 54 percent, and we need to do very well with women, who are probably the ones that could take us over the top here. Not the core constituency but the demographic could take us over the top. Clearly we have to work with the working-class blue-collar vote, and we have a lot of outreach/media plans that I'm not even intimately aware of to do that.
But I think we view the general election as different than the primary. We were appealing to better-educated, younger voters. Obviously we had trouble with seniors; we still have trouble with seniors, which I think we have to work on, women over 50. Actually, I don't think we did that badly with younger blue-collar workers. It's almost an age thing as much as anything else.
But the bottom line is there's just certain groups of people that are going to be awfully difficult for him, a black guy running even in 2008. Is the bottom line that race is still an issue?
I remember we had conversations when we were at the beginning of this about whether or not he should run. And some of the most skeptical people about making this race were some of his very accomplished, successful African American friends. And I remember one person saying, "I just don't think America's ready to elect an African American."
I remember Barack's immediate reaction was: "I don't agree with that. I think they are ready. But if they're not, they're not going to be ready in my lifetime, so I'm willing to challenge that assumption." I think that's still his same view.
... As a guy who knows him pretty well, what do you think this process has revealed about him?
... I've been very impressed with how steady and calm he is, and even-keeled. When things don't go well, I've never seen him lose his temper or blame someone other than himself for circumstances. He's very focused on: "OK, that didn't go well. Let's figure out why and move forward." And I think that reflects well on how he'll be as president: very calm under pressure, very insightful as to where we go, soliciting opinions, thinking it through. That's the first thing.
The second thing is, throughout this campaign, I think his instincts, both on politics and even on issues, have been the strongest of anybody in the operation -- not always right, not always 100 percent on target, but consistently his instincts have been very good, and I think that bodes well for how he'll be as president.
And the third thing is, ... some of us wondered at the beginning, how hard was he going to work at this? ... But he has worked his tail off. He's been very disciplined and very focused. So I think it's really his instincts, his competence under pressure and his work ethic that have impressed me in this.
Is he experienced enough?
Who is experienced enough? Was Bill Clinton experienced enough when he came in? Was George Bush experienced enough? I think if you start from the assumption that nobody's ever really ready for this job and you're defined by the job and whether you can handle it and grow into it, I have confidence. Again, having seen a lot of people in this town for a long time, there's no perfect answers to this, but I'm confident he's the right person at this time. ...