Obama as a Leader

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    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    I'd say that by the time I met him in 1988 he clearly saw himself as a kind of bridge builder, that people who really disagreed with one another could talk to him even if they couldn't talk to each other, and that that was a good thing, because at the end of the day we weren't all going to agree on how to solve something. We were in law school. We weren't all going to agree on what should free speech doctrine be doing. We weren't all going to agree on affirmative action. But we could all agree that we should be talking to one another and that there were certain things we could agree on.

    And I think he very much saw himself as somebody who facilitated those kinds of conversations, and if you could facilitate those kinds of conversations, you could make the world a better place.

    Were there times he couldn't be the bridge? Were there issues it didn't work with? Were there kinds of people who didn't buy the Obama bridge builder?

    Yeah, I think that there were always people who didn't buy the bridge-builder idea. People who tended to be more extreme in their politics didn't buy it. It was something that appealed to people who at least had the potential to compromise or to want to talk to people who disagreed with them. But again, in the late '80s, Harvard Law School was a very polarized place. There were many people who thought that if you disagree with us, we are the side of good and you are the side of evil. And those kinds of people were not at all convinced and not at all sympathetic to Barack Obama. ...

    Did you ever push back from the table at Grendel's or wherever you were eating and say, "Future president of the United States"?

    No. I think I never said, "Future president of the United States," but I thought that he would at the very least be a United States senator from Illinois. You could see it. You could see the gravitas; you could see the charisma; you could see the effect that he had on the people around him. And he never talked about going into politics, but if you knew Barack, you could see that this is a guy who would be inexorably drawn into politics and would do really well at it. ...

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    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    Does he talk at the time about Harold Washington, [the first African American mayor of Chicago], about Chicago, about putting roots down in Chicago?

    Absolutely. He was very influenced by Harold Washington and what Harold Washington was able to accomplish in Chicago. If I had to say what were the two most influential experiences for him, that have informed his approach to campaigning, to politics since, I would say that it was his community-organizing experience, but it was also the experience of Harold Washington in his campaigns that he ran successfully to become mayor of Chicago.

    What Harold Washington was able to do was to pull together coalitions. He wasn't a machine candidate. And understanding Chicago politics, you understand the significance of that. He ran outside of the machine. And what Washington was able to do was to put together these coalitions. And the coalitions were essentially African Americans, Latinos and progressive whites. And he was able to pull that together and beat the machine.

    And that kind of coalition building was incredibly influential for Barack. And you can see it. You can see it in his efforts in his Senate campaign, his state Senate campaign, his failed effort in his run for the U.S. congressional seat in Chicago against Bobby Rush. And you certainly saw it in his U.S. Senate campaign.

    But this notion of bringing together different communities and coalition building, that inclusiveness that you've seen in the presidential campaign, was definitely informed by Harold Washington's experience and how much Barack looked up to that. ...

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    Cassandra Butts   Harvard Law classmate

    A close friend and former classmate at Harvard Law School, Butts served as deputy White House counsel in 2009. She discusses their long friendship and talks about how Obama's unusual background has informed his approach to politics and policy. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Michael Kirk on July 10, 2008 for The Choice 2008.

    Can I ask you something that's personal? The way you introduced him, when we first started talking about bumping into him and he's a little bit older and he's whatever, is there an equivalence in your relationship? Are you kind of equals and whatever, or has he always been and is he almost always with everybody, does he have a kind of extra gravitas that, even though you can be friends with someone, he's more equal?

    He's a first among equals.

    You know what I mean?

    I do. I do. And I have to say that I've never thought about it that way. He's certainly different than any other friend that I have. [Laughs.] The fact that he's running for the presidency is very different. But certainly he has a gravitas about him. But when you're hanging out with him, you don't get that gravitas. One of the things that we did in law school was we would go to movies. You don't get that sense that he is different, but clearly he is different.

    One of the things I think is interesting about Barack -- we were talking about kind of a transition from politicians like Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle to another generation of politicians like Barack. And the interesting thing about Barack is that he's of the age of his advisers, or maybe slightly older or slightly younger, and that he's able to relate to his advisers, and his advisers are able to relate to him, in ways that they haven't been able to relate to previous politicians that they've worked for. And that there's a generational understanding that he definitely appreciates. And when you're in a conversation with Barack about an issue, if it's a policy discussion or if it's a political discussion, he's not the father figure in the room, which I think that had been the previous experience with older generations of politics.

    He's not quite the peer, obviously, because he is the principal, but it's much more of a peer, colleague relationship and engagement, than it is the father and the kids and the followers and the leaders or the staff and the principal. He wants it to be more of a conversation than it is of staff relating to a principal.

    So I think that, back to your point, that he certainly has that gravitas, but it isn't something that he uses in a way that makes you think that he's a person apart; that he is that leader that is more exalted than you are.

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    Ken Mack   Obama's law school classmate

    (Text only) Harvard Law classmate Ken Mack recalls Obama's election to the Law Review, the Derrick Bell controversy, and the future president's love of basketball. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 13, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    You know, they talk about him as president that he's not, and as a senator and as a state senator, he was not a backslapping kind of politician. He was not a guy who said, "Come on, let's grab a beer and work this out"; that he is introverted, kind of shy, standoffish, wants to spend his time with Michelle and the kids and a few close friends, but is not a guy who is like Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton out there in your face, pumping your arm and rubbing your head or something, right?

    Yeah, I don't know if I would use the word "introverted." I think he has always loved to have a great conversation with people. He loved to talk to people. But I would say he's not somebody who wants to go out and work a crowd. When he talks to people, he wants to really have meaningful conversations. He's not one for a lot of small talk. And yeah, there are probably things that certain politicians do that he doesn't do so well. I mean, small talk isn't really his thing. Idle chitchat isn't really his thing.

    But he loves to meet people and he loves to talk to them. Somebody who comes from a really different walk of life, he very much enjoys that. ...

    Did he have close friends, you and a handful or you and a lot of other people, or was he one of those guys everybody kind of knew, but he didn't hang with a large group? It was a closer, smaller group?

    Yeah, I think there was a closer, smaller group. They were close, close friends who he still has who were not really people who were law students on campus, and then there were a bunch of us who he was pretty close to among the law school student body. And I think that was myself, Cassandra Butts, Robert Fisher. I think those would probably be the three.

    But yeah, he knew a lot of people, but he wasn't really close friends with a lot of people. I mean, there was maybe three or four of us among the law school student body who he was close friends with, and he had a few other really close friends who were not law students, and that was kind of it. ...

    Is he one of those guys who -- there are people like this, who they're like, they know you, you're really close friends, they move on, you're gone? Next. Is that the way he is? Is that the way he was with all of you guys, or did you stay tight? I mean, I know it's been a long time.

    Yeah. I mean, we stayed friends. We inevitably weren't as friendly. I mean, he was in Chicago, and I was on the East Coast. But I think Barack was a person where if you were close friends with him, that bond did endure. Even if he didn't see you in years, you were still friends. I remember one time I was in Chicago for a conference in 1999, and I hadn't seen him at that point for three years or four years or something like that. I called him up, and he drove downtown, and we hung out for a couple hours, and it was like we had never missed a beat. We were still friends. And I think that's kind of how he was.

    You didn't keep up the same way you did when you saw each other in class every day, but when you saw one another, there was still that bond of friendship that was there. ...

    Have you seen him since he's president?

    Yeah, I've seen him from time to time.

    And how does it go?

    Pretty good. I think he loves seeing his old friends. He might be president of the United States, and that's a crazy job, but he still loves his connections to the past, the things that keep him grounded. And you see him now, and he may only have a few minutes, because he is president of the United States, but ask about the kids and you see something there that's really genuine. It's not just a politician. It's just Barack. It's just kind of incredible, because he's president of the United States. ...

    To some extent, he is seen as a polarizing figure at this point.

    Yes. I think almost the oddest thing about Barack Obama as president is that the narrative of his opponents is that he is a polarizing figure, and of course that's not the narrative of his entire life. His entire life, his entire professional life prior to becoming president was that he was this figure who was different and who got the respect of people in different camps. And it's very incongruous that somehow his opponents see him as this person who has had this radical agenda when that's basically not who he is.

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    Ben Rhodes   Deputy national security adviser

    As deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes is one of Obama's top foreign policy advisers and was involved in the discussions that led to his decision to send U.S. troops into Pakistan to pursue Osama bin Laden. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on Aug. 24, 2012.

    Tell us about this president. Some people say he's a risk taker. Some people say he's cautious. Some people say he's too cautious. Some people say he's too much of a risk taker. When you went through this with the president, what did you see, and what does it say about his leadership?

    Well, a few things. First of all, I think you can lose sight of the fact that he had always said that he would do this. As someone who had worked for him for several years, I remembered the arguments that were had in the campaign, when he said he would go into Pakistan, on our own if we had to, to get bin Laden. That was a hugely controversial statement.

    And he had laid his credibility on the line that, if he had this type of shot, that he would take it. So one, I think it demonstrates that he does what he says he's going to do. And that evening, when we were working on the speech, we left the Situation Room and went up to the chief of staff's office to talk through what would go in the remarks. We had very little time. And I looked at him, and I said, "I couldn't help but think of when you said in the campaign, in that speech, that you would do this," and he said that thought had crossed his mind as well. But I think, in the first instance, it shows that he'll do what he says he's going to do.

    Secondly, he is willing to take big risks for big rewards, but only if he feels like things have been completely worked to the ground. So, in other words, we were going to understand this compound as best as we possibly could. We were going to make sure that this raid was as well developed as possible.

    So he was willing to take the risk, but only if he knew that essentially we had done everything we possibly could to set it up as best we could. And then he would, again, take that risk knowing, of course, that the biggest risk is on the people carrying out the raid.

    And then the third thing I think it says about him is he has extraordinary confidence in these special operators, and that's something he's gained as president. He said to us something that he said publicly, which is that it's a 50/50 call on bin Laden being there, but he had 100 percent confidence in these special operators. And that came from experience. It came from dealing with piracy and a risky operation early in his presidency to rescue an American hostage. It came from getting to know, day in and day out, what these people do on the ground in Afghanistan to keep us safe.

    The president knew Bill McRaven well. He had met with some of these special operators. So I think, when you stack it up, he did what he said he was going to do. He worked it as best he could with his national security team. And ultimately, he, as commander in chief, has developed great confidence in our special operations community and the ability of the U.S. military to get something done if there is a well-thought-out plan and a clear goal.

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    David Axelrod   Senior strategist, Obama 2012 campaign

    (Text only) He was a senior White House political adviser until 2011, when he left to serve as a senior strategist on Obama's re-election campaign. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on July 26, 2012.

    Read the full interview »

    ... We interviewed [Washington Post reporter Dan Balz] for this, and one of the things he says is that Obama sort of sees himself more as a guide, as Lincoln was, compared to a back-slapper and an arm-twister like LBJ.

    I think everybody has their own style and character. Lyndon Johnson was a lifelong legislative politician and came out of the leadership of the Congress, and so his strength was twisting arms and using all those points of leverage, many of which don't exactly exist anymore. I mean, we're talking about 50 years ago.

    President Obama believes that the greatest tool that he has is the tool of public opinion, and that ultimately what's going to move members of Congress is not sort of the inside game but the outside game, and their interest in reflecting the will of their constituents.

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    Rahm Emanuel   White House chief of staff (2009-2010)

    He was Obama's chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 before he left the White House to run for Chicago mayor. Here, Emanuel discusses why the president ran into trouble in his attempts to create "a post-partisan environment and more productive Washington." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 26, 2012.

    Can you describe a little bit of what it was like in those rooms at the White House? You started to talk about that, that there's a debate that goes on. He listens to all sides. What's it like to be in that room? He's debating within himself; he's listening to people. How does it work?

    You know, first of all, he'll read the brief the night before. I mean, he usually starts with, "Here's what I think the main argument is; here's what I think the premise of your argument," because usually meetings don't start without having gotten material the night before to read and study. And he's read it, and he's got the assumption of every argument. He may start asking the principal policy person: "What does this mean? Why is it like this? What is the consequence? Why do you think that this is as many people we can insure, this is what's going to happen?" He'll want to know that.

    He'll want to know the politics around something. You're in a political environment. He's more of a prober on questions. He wants a debate to happen. He's not scared to have staff that have different views. He doesn't want a lot of yes-people around.

    And there are a lot -- sure, there's tense moments. First of all, there's not a right and a wrong. You don't need somebody's judgment for right and wrong. That's not hard. Nothing in front of you is right and wrong. Nothing.

    You need somebody with judgment, somebody with ability to ask questions, somebody that can learn, doesn't come in and know all the answers beforehand, and somebody that can weigh all the equities against each other. And that's how he runs a process, he runs the White House, and how he leads.

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    Rahm Emanuel   White House chief of staff (2009-2010)

    He was Obama's chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 before he left the White House to run for Chicago mayor. Here, Emanuel discusses why the president ran into trouble in his attempts to create "a post-partisan environment and more productive Washington." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted by producer Jim Gilmore on July 26, 2012.

    So one of the issues you said was the time issue was one of the risks. The process --

    Can I say one thing? I want to go off my point. A lot of people look for leadership today, OK? What is leadership?

    On the Race to the Top, the president of the United States took on a very powerful constituency of his own party to see through an education goal for the country. I say that because Bill Gates said to me, he says, when I was speaking at something, he applauded when I talked about Race to the Top only because he says that's where he thought the president most put nation above party. Name me one thing a Republican nominee has ever spoken against the base of their party. One. Gay marriage. Gun control. Taxes. I mean, 100 percent correct on everything.

    OK, two. The president's own party was against what he said on Afghanistan. Showed leadership.

    Third, auto industry. A lot of people advocated bankruptcy. A lot of people advocated Chrysler. He picked a different course and then stuck to it.

    Health care, even though I advocated different, he doubled down, even when the chips were down, to get something that had been elusive to other presidents for 80 years.

    In the financial area, people were advocating nationalizing banks. People were advocating breaking up banks. Picked a different course.

    Leadership is about willing to put the chips down and lead a country even though [there are] adverse political consequences. And time and again he has shown that. That's what leadership is.

    And I say it's in direct contrast many times with people in the Republican Party who have yet to in one area, find fault or difference with parts of their own party. And there can't be one party absolutely right 100 percent of the time. Not possible.

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