Teacher and Apprentice

Hillary Clinton tried to teach Barack Obama about power, but then he got ideas of his own. A story of nasty surprises, dueling war rooms, and the Drudge Report

A few weeks after he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama told his staff he wanted to meet with Hillary Clinton. In her years as a senator, Clinton had deftly navigated many of the challenges that now confronted Obama. She had come to the Senate as a national figure whose celebrity eclipsed (and therefore imperiled) her status as a freshman senator. She had a broad but shallow base of support among the voters she represented. And she, like Obama, held national political ambitions that depended heavily on how well she performed in the Senate.

On February 1, 2005, the two talked for an hour in Clinton’s cheerful, canary-yellow Senate office. Obama developed a good sense of the Clinton algorithm for success: Don’t be a showboat. Keep your head down. Choose the right committees, the ones that will allow you to deliver tangible benefits to your state. Go to hearings, stay the whole time, wait to speak, follow the lead of the chair or the ranking member, and remain quiet and humble at press conferences.

“I hadn’t known her well prior to joining the Senate,” Obama told me in New Hampshire this fall. “We had a similarity in that we both came in with a celebrity that outstripped our actual power, although I think it was much more pronounced for her than it was for me.”

The senators’ staffs soon paired off. Obama’s aides drew on Clinton’s example to face the barrage of questions aimed at the new senator. These ranged from those that confront all senators—how should they tend to the interests of downstate constituents?—to those that confront only a few. “We had people who wanted, for different causes, to auction off signed copies of the senator’s books,” an Obama aide recalls. “How do you deal with that? Who do you say yes to? Who do you say no to? We asked ourselves, ‘Who else would know how to deal with it?’ The Clinton folks.”

Clinton’s staff was collegial. Obama’s overture was viewed by some as genuflection to the party’s natural leader, its likely presidential nominee; Obama himself was thought of as a possible apprentice and, perhaps one day, an heir. Clinton’s own decision to run for president had a whiff of destiny about it—she’d been preparing for years, had served four years as a senator, and had developed a nuanced political strategy. Some of her top advisers exuded a sense of entitlement: Clinton deserved to be president; it was her turn. They did not perceive any threat until it was almost too late.

During Obama’s first year in the Senate, nothing suggested that the Clinton assessment was wrong. Even inside Obama’s world, “the Plan,” as his top advisers dubbed their long-term strategy, largely conformed to the road map Clinton had laid out.

The Plan didn’t call for sacrificing Obama’s political fame so much as allowing it to attenuate and bringing his ego into line with his role as a senator in the minority party. The hope was that questions like the one posed by a journalist during Obama’s first week in the Senate—“What is your place in history?”—would dissipate, allowing him to focus on the interests of Illinois and build toward bigger things. Nothing foreclosed larger ambitions. “Would I tell you that it never came up in any discussion, anytime, anywhere—that sometime in the future, Barack Obama would run for national office?” Obama’s chief adviser, David Axelrod, asked me. “If I told you that, you’d turn your tape recorder off, and we’d end this conversation, because you’d think everything I told you was a lie.” But in early 2005, the context of those discussions was at least 10 years in the future.

Initially, Obama did try to avoid publicity, turning down repeated requests to appear on national television, as well as invitations to speak before Democratic groups. “We wanted to be mindful of our place,” Robert Gibbs, his spokesman, told me. Even on the issue of Iraq, which dominated 2005, Obama, an opponent of the invasion from the beginning, passed up the chance to speak out. “He could have been the moral voice, the moral authority on Iraq,” one of Obama’s closest advisers told me. “But he was just a freshman senator. It would have been presumptuous of him to take that lead.” In January of 2006, appearing on Meet the Press, Obama reiterated his intention to serve a full six-year term.

But something changed—and fairly rapidly. Obama diverged from the Clinton path and decided to challenge the former first lady for the presidency.

Clinton, focused at the time on the challenge posed by John Edwards, was blindsided. She, too, could have run for president shortly after winning a Senate seat. In 2003, Bill Clinton suggested that his most discreet pollster, Mark Penn, measure how his wife would fare against the Democrats then running for president—and confirmed that she would handily defeat them all. But Clinton herself was not ready. Even after the 2004 election, both Clintons feared that if New Yorkers caught wind of her presidential preparations, they would conclude that the ever-ambitious Hillary Clinton was using New York as a stepping-stone. Nothing was more important to Clinton’s presidential prospects, they calculated, than establishing her own political identity. So, while maintaining her popularity with the Democratic base, she spent six productive, if unglamorous, years in the Senate.

From the archives:

"Clintonism RIP" (May 2005)
How triangulation became strangulation. By Chuck Todd

Obama’s starkly different choice had several immediate effects. It forced Democrats to think anew about Clintonism, not in comparison to a Republican alternative, as would have been the case, but to a Democratic one whose chief attributes—freshness, vigor, reform—put Clintonism in a harsh light. More broadly, it threatened to upend the way politicians have traditionally pursued the presidency: through years of careful preparation and positioning. But first he would have to get past the woman whose advice he solicited, then spurned.

What caused Obama to suddenly decide to run? The conventional explanation is that Democrats implored him to. “It was the closest thing to a draft that I’ve seen in my years of participating in politics,” Axelrod told me. Obama, having invested considerable time and effort studying the traditional path to the presidency, seems to have concluded that his unique biography perfectly suited the historical moment. (Obama’s friends speak of this process as his “calling.”)

Many Obama friends and advisers believe that the realization he actually could be president first hit Obama on December 1, 2006, which happened to be World AIDS Day. Obama appeared at the megachurch in Orange County, California, run by Rick Warren, the best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life and an emerging force in national politics. Sam Brownback, the Republican senator from Kansas, spoke first. “Welcome to my house,” he said to Obama, as the crowd laughed. When Obama rose to speak, he replied, “There is one thing I’ve got to say, Sam: This is my house, too. This is God’s house.” Before an audience of socially conservative evangelical Christians, Obama then called for “realism” and advocated the use of condoms to control the spread of AIDS. As the next day’s Orange County Register described it, Obama received a “hearty standing ovation.” Could any other Democrat, Obama wondered, talk to evangelicals about condoms in Africa?

Another theory, held by longtime advisers like Dan Shomon, who was Obama’s chief of staff in the Illinois state senate, is that an ambitious, action-oriented politician was propelled toward the presidential race by the Senate’s sluggish pace and partisan provincialism. Obama told me that he did not find the Senate boring. But in more jocular moods, such as when he appeared on The Daily Show, he has admitted that the Senate “is paralyzing, and it’s designed for you to take bad votes.” He confessed to Illinois’ other senator, Dick Durbin, “It’s hard for me to believe that it’s a lot harder to get something done here than [as a state senator] in Springfield.”

In the spring of 2006, the presidency was clearly on Obama’s mind when he told his friend Martha Minow that his wife would have to give her assent to a run. “Michelle was the boss, and he said he couldn’t do it unless she agreed,” Minow told me. At the time, one of Michelle Obama’s friends told me that she worried her husband would be targeted by white supremacists and wind up a martyr like Robert F. Kennedy. She also worried that his advisers were pushing him too hard to consider a run and, knowing her husband’s healthy ego, that he wasn’t in the proper frame of mind to think seriously about it.

When Obama went on tour in the fall of 2006 to promote his second book, The Audacity of Hope, some of his friends encouraged him to be open about his presidential ruminations. The result was a sustained wave of national publicity. Time put Obama on the cover with the headline “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.” The public responded, too. An appearance in Seattle sold out in two hours, leaving scalpers to profit from Obama’s popularity. Appearing on Meet the Press in October, when Tim Russert played a clip from the January 2006 show in which Obama had said he wouldn’t run, Obama simply responded that he had begun to think seriously about it.

On November 8, the day after Democrats took control of Congress, Obama, his wife, and his brain trust crowded into a fourth-floor conference room in the brick building in Chicago’s Loop that houses Axelrod’s consulting firm. “I want you to show me how you’re going to do this,” Michelle Obama said, according to an aide. “You need to show me that this is not going to be a bullshit fly-by-night campaign.” A month later, at an all-day meeting in Chicago billed as “the Summit,” the would-be campaign manager, David Plouffe, returned with a budget, an outline of early strategy, and a list of tasks to be accomplished before any campaign could begin. The conversation in the second meeting “had an existential quality to it,” according to a participant. “Why do you want to do this? What does this mean for us? What’s our motivation? What will get us through the hard times?”

The group gave surprisingly little thought to other candidates, especially Edwards, who was positioning himself as the alternative to Clinton. Axelrod had worked for Edwards in the 2004 campaign until he left over strategic differences. Others in the campaign considered Edwards—a multimillionaire trial lawyer—an obvious phony, and assumed voters would see him that way, too. This left Obama as the purist’s choice, the natural home for what they expected to be a large anti-Hillary vote. There was ample evidence to support this supposition: When word spread that the Obama aide Steve Hildebrand had been put in charge of hiring staff for the early-primary states, Obama’s office was flooded with more than 1,000 résumés.

Donors, too, lined up in support. A month before the midterm election, Mark Warner, the former Virginia governor and a top-tier hopeful, suddenly decided not to run for president. Warner had occupied the same political space that Obama would inhabit: fresh face, new ideas, the “change” candidate. Warner’s fund-raising operation expected to raise $50 million in the first half of 2007. (Obama’s would eventually raise $56 million for the primaries in that period.) Many of his major donors had rejected, privately and in some cases formally, overtures from the Clinton campaign, and thus they gravitated naturally toward Obama.

Obama didn’t immediately take to fund-raising, and he pressured his schedulers to limit the time he spent soliciting donations, but he nonetheless succeeded spectacularly. “He worked much harder at this than I thought he would as a first-timer,” William Daley, the former commerce secretary and an adviser to Obama, told me. “He was very good about calling people and asking for money, asking for big dollars. Other politicians have trouble with that. John McCain hates that. Still hates it. Barack didn’t have a problem with that.”

In mid-December, after a successful trip to New Hampshire and a surprise appearance on Monday Night Football, Obama met former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, once a presidential hopeful himself, for dinner at Tosca, one of Daschle’s favorite Washington restaurants, and had what Daschle describes as a four-hour “heart-to-heart.” Daschle’s message was clear: “Don’t think that you’re going to have another opportunity in 2012 and 2016,” he told Obama. “You might. But—like me—you might not.”

Throughout this period, Obama was meeting with the major interest groups in the party establishment, and he often made a point of doing so on his own terms. One meeting stands out as characteristic of the aloof way in which Obama has dealt with the groups that compose the party’s foundation: a dinner Obama had with some of the Democrats’ most powerful African American women, who jokingly refer to themselves as “the Colored Girls”—political veterans, some of whom had struggled for decades to achieve stature in an arena dominated by white men. Several, such as Minyon Moore, the former political director of the DNC, had already committed to Clinton.

Obama swept in “as if he owned the table,” an aide admitted later; he brushed aside questions about his preparedness to run and declared—offending some in the room—that race would not be a big factor, because he did not anticipate making it a large part of his campaign. To an audience well versed in the subjects of race and politics, Obama’s naïveté, and his apparent desire to simply wave away the question of establishment dues-paying, didn’t sit well. Obama, however, seems to have drawn a kind of sustenance from the dinner.

“A lot of those women are good friends; they’d all be supporters of mine if I just stayed in the U.S. Senate,” he told me. “Talking with them about potentially running for president caused some conflicts, because a sizable number of them are very close to Senator Clinton. I think there’s no doubt that it would be easier for a lot of people in Washington if I had decided that I was going to take a pass and wait my appropriate turn, which might be, from their perspective, 10 years from now, or at least once the Clintons had exhausted all possibilities of running any further.”

Obama clearly felt that the Clintons had already exhausted their possibilities as leaders. They “have been the dominant political force in the Democratic Party for 20 years,” he said. “A sizable number of prominent Democrats in Washington, the sort of government-in-waiting, all came in with the Clintons. There’s enormous loyalty there, as there should be. What’s interesting is that they all came in as outsiders; most of them came in as outsiders running against Washington. They’re now Washington, and I don’t think there’s any denying that Washington established a set of rules that people get comfortable with about how you play the game.”

Indeed, candidate Obama has ignored the old rules. To an audience of Detroit auto executives, for example, he proposed tough new fuel-economy standards. Before black pastors, he spoke about eradicating homophobia from black churches. To the National Education Association, he used a phrase—merit pay—that’s practically an epithet. Unlike Clinton, who was solicitous of every conceivable interest group, Obama was selective. He stiffed firefighters in New Hampshire and the AARP in Iowa. He nearly skipped the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee, which would have been a very big deal (the campaign didn’t want to waste money hosting parties for DNC members); in the end, Obama appeared before the jubilantly partisan crowd just long enough to deliver a broadside against partisanship, and left.

This approach to the Democratic establishment and the Clintons, which would ultimately become the core of Obama’s campaign message, is what Washington insiders refer to as “process-oriented”—it is concerned less with specific policies and positions than with broad themes related to politics itself, such as the party’s architecture, its larger purpose, and the roles that various political actors play.

In late December, Obama went with his family to his native Hawaii. He took long walks, ate lots of food, and spent a good deal of time with his family as he inched closer to a decision. On Tuesday, January 2, he spent four hours with Axelrod in his Chicago office. On Sunday, Obama called Daschle at home and broke the news: He was going to run.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic associate editor.

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