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Rising Political Star Adopts Low-Key Strategy

A Rising Political Star Adopts a Low-Key Strategy

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008; A01

Early in 2005, Barack Obama met with half a dozen advisers in Washington to plot strategy. Some of those who participated remember that the group focused less on the details of Obama's new job as the junior senator from Illinois than on managing his overall political image. He wanted to run for governor, maybe even president, someday, and preparing required a risky choice between two approaches to Washington.

Obama arrived as a celebrity, a best-selling author whose keynote speech was the only moment Democrats wanted to remember from their 2004 convention. He could capitalize on that reputation by speaking out against the Iraq war, scheduling prime-time television interviews and seizing control of high-profile bills. He could, as one Chicago friend suggested, "go in, do your thing and take the place by storm."

Or, others advised, Obama could assume the typical role of a freshman senator, maneuvering with deference and humility. By endearing himself to Washington's elite, he could build the foundation for his future.

"I think it's important to take it slow," Obama told his advisers. "I want to be liked."

The result of those meetings was a kind of road map for the months ahead -- a document his advisers called the "strategic plan." Its creation testified to the focus and self-discipline that are part of Obama's nature. While designed to outline Obama's first 16 months in the U.S. Senate, its central tenets have delivered him to the brink of the presidency: Seek advice. Listen. Make cautious decisions. Strive for consensus.

But above all, the plan reminded Obama to manage his image and cultivate his political future. He came to the Senate with an inkling that he might seek the presidency, friends said, but his ambition and self-confidence compelled him to run much earlier than he had anticipated. By August 2006, a little more than 18 months after arriving in Washington, he began asking people he had barely met what they knew about New Hampshire and Iowa.

With an eye on his next goal, Obama treated the Senate as a bridge to be crossed -- a place to learn the conventions of Washington, win powerful friends and shape what advisers referred to as his "political brand." Despite meager legislative accomplishments, Obama built a reputation among many Democrats as a hard worker, a reformer, an eager learner, a smart politician.

And he did it while maintaining a cool air of detachment, colleagues said. He focused on his professional goals and showed little interest in personal connections not outlined in the plan. In a senatorial culture famous for its chumminess, Obama generally preferred to eat alone and go back to his apartment away from Capitol Hill.

The understated approach was a considerable gamble for Obama at a key juncture in his career, and some old friends from the Illinois legislature worried that he would waste his cachet and chart a path toward obscurity. When they brought their concerns to Obama, he responded simply, "Have faith." He had his plan, and he intended to stick by it. He would thrive in the Senate by fitting in and not by standing out, by winning over Washington without giving too much of himself.

* * *

Most senators move their families to Washington, and Obama expected to follow that convention. In the final months of 2004, he explored Chevy Chase and other Maryland suburbs with his wife, Michelle, browsing neighborhoods and looking at houses. The couple called school administrators to discuss placement for Malia and Sasha, their two young daughters.

For a few weeks early in 2005, the Obamas joked with friends in Chicago about the magnitude of their upcoming transition: from a 2,000-square-foot condo in the Hyde Park neighborhood to a big house outside Washington, with the girls in private school and a glamorous social calendar.

Obama called several friends and politicians to seek advice about his move, and a few counseled him on the benefits of bringing his family along. Michelle and their two daughters would not only provide comfort after a long workday, but would also anchor Obama to his new life by forcing him to invest in friends, a neighborhood and schools.

"I was a strong advocate of him moving the family there, and I think his initial thought was to do that," said Abner Mikva, a longtime Obama mentor who commuted from Illinois to Washington as a congressman in the 1970s. "He wanted to have his family nearby at the end of a long day. But, for a spouse, the positives of the move are very minimal. The kids are overwhelmed. You become the senator's wife. You forfeit your own life and career."

The more Michelle Obama mulled over the possibility of moving, friends said, the more she wanted to stay in Chicago -- to keep her job as an executive at University of Chicago Hospitals, to live within a five-minute drive of her mother, to maintain a steady childhood for her daughters outside what Barack described as the "hothouse environment of Washington." Her husband agreed it would be best to move to the capital alone, and he resigned himself to a solitary existence in a foreign city.

A staffer helped him lease a one-bedroom apartment on the fringe of Chinatown, where neighbors half his age returned from nearby bars late at night and disturbed him with their revelry. Obama spent his first few days there without a shower curtain, accidentally flooding the bathroom floor. He asked a senior staffer to help him buy a bed. He distracted himself from the sterility of the apartment by filling his schedule with working dinners, incessant trips to the gym and a contract to write his second book, "The Audacity of Hope."

With his family in Chicago, Obama decided to treat Washington less like a home than an oversize office. It was a place to work hard, study issues and build a professional network. A place to leave at the end of each workweek, as quickly as he could.

He stuck to a simple routine, flying into town Monday or even Tuesday morning if his schedule allowed. He spent long days in his Senate office and long nights toiling on his book, sometimes e-mailing chapters to friends for fact-checking at 3 or 4 a.m. On Thursday afternoons, with his typical week in Washington nearing its end, Obama instructed staff members to reserve him tickets on multiple United flights -- always in coach for image purposes, staffers said -- so he could land in Chicago before his daughters went to bed.

As the Senate finished its last legislative session of the week, Obama's driver often parked nearby, ready to leave for Reagan National Airport at a moment's notice. After the final votes were cast, other senators celebrated with an idle cigar or friendly conversation on the Capitol steps. Obama, his week finished, sometimes broke into a jog as he hurried past them, headed for home.

During his first few months in Washington, as the Senate's 99th-ranking member, Obama publicly described the most important job of his life as "sharpening pencils," or "cleaning bathrooms," or "learning how to work the phones." True to the "strategic plan," he portrayed himself with self-deprecation even as he set about building something ambitious.

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Re: Rising Political Star Adopts Low-Key Strategy

Obama assembled a talent-rich office led by Pete Rouse, who had been chief of staff for former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.). Rouse, a 34-year veteran of Capitol Hill, had planned to retire from the Senate in 2004, declining two other chief-of-staff offers. But Obama wooed him for several weeks, taking him to lunch at the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel and calling from Chicago to follow up.


Rouse initially declined the -------------, explaining that he had a long list of other responsibilities to keep him busy. Obama continued to press and eventually offered to let Rouse work for just one hour each day until he had time for more. As one of his first tasks, Rouse helped write the strategic plan along with Chicago political consultant David Axelrod, spokesman Robert Gibbs and others.


Obama "was persistent," Rouse said. "He told me, 'I know what I'm good at, and I know what I'm not so good at. I want a chief of staff that can help me navigate the Senate.' "


Obama's office received more than 300 speaking requests each week, and he turned down almost all of them. He waited two months before he held a news conference in Washington and seven more months before he made a notable public appearance outside Illinois. His assistant press secretary, Tommy Vietor, spent the first year refusing national media requests -- from CNN, NBC, Newsweek -- that most senators pursue. Some news outlets started calling Vietor "Mr. No."


Obama "wanted to earn a reputation as someone who took the nitty-gritty details of his job seriously," Vietor said. "He never wanted to come in and play that role of just being the big, out-of-town star."


Obama purposefully focused on issues that were unglamorous, waiting his turn to speak last on the Senate floor about ethanol, highway funding and Illinois dams. He looked for opportunities to work alongside Republicans and build his image as a reformer, working on a major ethics bill and writing government-transparency legislation with Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), one of the chamber's most conservative Republicans.


Meanwhile, Obama largely avoided major partisan debates such as those over judicial nominations and immigration. After making a strong stance against the Iraq war the centerpiece of his campaign, he waited 11 months into his term to give a speech about Iraq. His long-anticipated message hardly proved revolutionary: While some Democrats called for plans to withdraw troops, Obama asked for a troop reduction but not a concrete timetable for withdrawal.


He traveled to the far corners of Illinois 39 times in the first nine months of his term to host town hall meetings with constituents, spending his off days in backcountry libraries and cafeterias. While in Washington, Obama used his renown only when it helped the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee raise money.


Chris Lu, Obama's legislative director, advised his boss to stay at committee meetings "from gavel to gavel," even if every other senator tired of the proceedings and left. Obama sometimes complained of boredom in a Senate that moved at a "glacial pace," he said, but Lu insisted that he stick with the strategy. Late in one meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee, Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) scanned the room and found it empty except for Obama. "I'd like it noted for the record," he announced, "that Senator Obama is the only member still here."


That marked the beginning of one of Obama's most fruitful relationships in Washington. A 30-year veteran of the Senate and a one-time presidential candidate, Lugar mentored Obama across party lines. In 2005, he invited Obama on his annual trip to inspect weapons-destruction facilities in the former Soviet Union, and the two men returned with a proposal aimed at eliminating Cold War weapons stockpiles; it became one of Obama's most significant legislative accomplishments.


On the trip, his first major overseas journey while in national office, Obama relied on Lugar for everything -- including weaponry insights as well as etiquette tips before meeting British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "I feel very much like the novice and the pupil," Obama told a reporter on the trip.


Obama tried to re-create that type of relationship time and again in Washington. Every Thursday morning, he hosted a question-and-answer session for constituents with Sen. Richard J. Durbin, his fellow Democrat from Illinois. Most of the constituents came to see Obama, and they often directed their questions exclusively at him. Uncomfortable upstaging his senior colleague, he deferred to Durbin.


"He would always say that I knew more, so why not ask me?" Durbin said. "A lot of people would not have handled it so gracefully. He could have been the star, no question. But that would have bothered a few people, and he knew it. He was very careful to avoid making those kind of enemies."


In his first three months in office, Obama scheduled meetings with 14 senators -- including Democratic power brokers such as Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) -- to seek advice. He joked with each visitor about his typically meager first-term office -- "a whitewashed basement bunker," one staffer called it -- and then sought perspective on the history of the Senate, its leaders and traditions. He sent out early chapters of "The Audacity of Hope" to more than a dozen Washington colleagues, soliciting feedback.


By the summer of 2006, when Obama launched a national tour promoting the book and stopped regularly along the way to campaign for House and Senate Democrats, some of his colleagues began to wonder if the timetable they had imagined had been moved up. When Obama spoke late that summer at Sen. Tom Harkin's steak fry in Iowa, a gathering known as the jumping-off point for aspiring presidential candidates, his intentions -- if not his final decision -- seemed clear.


Obama's ambition could have alienated him in the Senate. But, having managed his reputation so skillfully, he found surprising encouragement.


"When he got here, some people were skeptical, and they took a wait-and-see attitude," Rouse said. "He had to do some work in terms of proving himself to his colleagues in the Washington establishment."


Said Daschle, who advised Obama during his transition and encouraged him to run for president: "He is a great listener. We share a common view about listening. The best way to persuade is with your ears. It has been a huge factor in his success."

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Re: Rising Political Star Adopts Low-Key Strategy

* * *


Listening, staff members said, also became Obama's primary strength as a decision maker. When an issue confounded him, he assembled what he called a "brainstorm group" to mull it over. He sometimes retreated to his office for hours at a time to call experts.


The access thrilled Obama, friends said. Once, as he was telling a friend about a recent policy conversation with Nelson Mandela, Obama abruptly started laughing. "I'm sorry," he said, shaking his head in disbelief at his own clout. "But -- Nelson Mandela!"


The access to top minds rarely yielded original legislative ideas or landmark accomplishments for Obama in the Senate, in part because Democrats were in the minority for his first two years and he began traveling as a presidential candidate after that. But he used the discussions to inform his votes and his policy stances, and to shape the political ideology he outlines in "The Audacity of Hope."


Several people who spoke to Obama about policy hung up the phone with the same impression: His curiosity extended beyond the issues of the day in the Senate. He was building a base of knowledge in preparation for a bigger job.


Obama encouraged two of his policy advisers, Michael Froman and Karen Kornbluh, to arrange casual meetings with Washington-area thinkers. They would assemble a conversation group -- six economic experts, say, or eight communications specialists -- and arrange a dinner. Obama opened the meetings by introducing himself, then spent most of the meal listening.


His Senate staff meetings followed a similar formula. On the eve of an important vote, Obama would clear his schedule and assemble key advisers in his office. Surrounded by Rouse and half a dozen policy experts, Obama stretched out on the couch in his office, sometimes resting his head on a pillow and closing his eyes. He asked everybody in the room to take turns sharing their advice, insisting on the participation of even his most quiet, junior staffers.


"He liked it when staffers disagreed among themselves about a particular issue," said Lu, Obama's legislative director. "He wanted us to argue it out in front of him, and he probed each side's arguments and asked hypotheticals, almost like a judge. He wanted to hear from everybody in the room."


Said Rouse: "I don't think, in the early years before he started running for president, that he ever fully embraced Washington in the sense that he really enjoyed the daily reality of being a freshman senator in the minority. But it was obvious that he loved thinking about these complex policy issues and talking them out. He was in his element doing that."


Obama's most frequent complaint about life in the Senate, friends said, was that the banalities of day-to-day legislating left him too little time for contemplation. To maximize his short weeks in Washington, his staff minced his days into 15- and 30-minute blocks -- an endless succession of meetings that often caused him to run late. Obama's itinerary sometimes included items such as: 9:57 to 10 a.m.: Walk to meeting. He began most workdays before 8 a.m. and stayed at his office until well after dinner.


About a year into his tenure in Washington, Obama told staffers that he needed more time to himself. He wanted 30 minutes in the mornings to run on a treadmill and let his brain sort through the clutter of a day. He wanted the freedom to eat lunch in his office, alone with a newspaper. He wanted an occasional 15-minute chunk of free time placed on his official schedule, so he could call home to Chicago or rest on his couch between meetings.


He had always guarded his space, once living in such seclusion as a student at Columbia University that when his mother visited his barren New York apartment, she chastised him for being "monklike." Similarly, in Washington, colleagues teased Obama for disappearing from view after work. He preferred takeout meals in his office to long, social dinners. He attended only one baseball game -- for a work-related function.


"He's not somebody who is necessarily going to move somewhere new and become a social butterfly, especially with Michelle and the girls not there," said Martin Nesbitt, a close friend of Obama's from Chicago. "He gets along well with everyone, but if it's not with a close friend or something work-related, he also likes some room to himself."


Obama went out for dinner occasionally with his staffers, but he always apologized, they said, for occupying their free time. He met Cassandra Butts, an old friend from Harvard Law School, for dinner about once a month.


Once, early in Obama's Washington tenure, Durbin invited him to a weekly dinner with his congressional friends. Obama fit in nicely, appeared to have fun and thanked Durbin at the end of the night for the invitation.


"I thought maybe he'd become a part of the group after that, but it never really happened," Durbin said. "His life was busy and getting even busier, and he had a lot of things drawing him into his own particular world. He never came again, and I think we all understood."



* * *


By March 11, 2006, Obama had made significant progress toward his goals. He had few legislative accomplishments but a long list of professional admirers. His invitation to speak at the Gridiron Club's annual dinner that night offered the latest evidence of his good standing with the Washington establishment.


Axelrod, one of the Obama advisers who had conceptualized the "strategic plan," helped write Obama's speech, which was typically on-message. Obama joked about his weak résumé and his unwarranted fame. He so endeared himself to the audience that, when President Bush spoke later, he said: "Senator Obama, I wanted to do a joke on you, but it's like doing a joke on the pope."


True to the Gridiron tradition, Obama wrote a parody and sang it before issuing a series of self-deprecating one-liners. "I've been very blessed," Obama told the crowd. "Keynote speaker at the Democratic convention. The cover of Newsweek. My book made the bestseller list. I just won a Grammy for reading it on tape. . . . Really, what else is there to do? Well, I guess I could pass a law or something."


"Most of all," he continued, addressing the reporters in the room, "I want to thank you for all the generous advance coverage you've given me in anticipation of a successful career. When I actually do something, we'll let you know."


Seven months later, on Oct. 22, Obama appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press." Moderator Tim Russert asked an obvious question -- was he going to run for president? -- but got a surprising reply.


"I don't want to be coy about this, given the responses that I've been getting over the last several months, I have thought about the possibility," Obama said, adding that he hadn't made up his mind.

"But it's fair to say you're thinking about running for president in 2008?" Russert asked.

"It's fair," Obama replied. "Yes."


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