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
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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.

One of the mysteries of this presidential cycle is how the Clinton operation, with its vaunted foresight, failed to see Obama coming. Politically, the Clinton presidential team did very little early on, aside from holding a series of meetings among a very small group of advisers: Penn, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle, communications adviser Howard Wolfson, media strategist Mandy Grunwald, and occasionally the veteran Democratic operative Harold Ickes and a few other confidants. In the spring of 2006, they were still eyeing John Edwards. After Edwards took a far more aggressive policy approach than Team Clinton had anticipated, Hillary Clinton responded by delivering a series of policy speeches, now largely forgotten. (Aides insisted she was not responding to Edwards, but many Clinton insiders say otherwise.) Barack Obama barely registered. Penn had not yet included him in his occasional surreptitious polls of the primary electorate.

A few Clinton advisers did detect danger. On September 17, 2006, when Obama gave the keynote address at Senator Tom Harkin’s annual steak fry in Iowa, Steve Hildebrand was spotted shepherding Obama through the crowd. The next day, Solis Doyle e-mailed Hildebrand to make clear that she knew he had been there.

One Clinton adviser admitted to me that it wasn’t until late January of this year when, in a short period of time, Obama got fund-raising pledges from four of the party’s top fund-raisers—Orin Kramer, a New York hedge-fund manager; Alan Solomont, a Boston venture capitalist; Mark Gorenberg, who was one of John Kerry’s top bundlers; and Steve Westly, the former California controller—that Clinton’s inner circle finally understood the threat Obama posed.

Obama’s rise was particularly worrisome for two reasons. First, money is the mechanism by which the Clintons exert leverage over the party. Some Clinton supporters believed the couple’s sway over the party’s money machinery is even more important than their popularity with the Democratic base. So the defection of major fund-raisers was a serious blow.

Second, part of the grand strategy for Hillary Clinton’s run at the White House was to build a movement around her gender and the possibility of electing the first female president. Penn, the campaign’s visionary, believed that presenting Clinton’s candidacy as a historic occasion would reinspire voters badly disillusioned after eight years of George W. Bush. But Obama, the first credible black candidate, assumed the symbolic role that Clinton’s team had in mind for her. His reception by voters and the media was rapturous. Obama’s potential appeal had occurred to Clinton’s advisers, but as several of them later admitted, they failed to anticipate the intensity with which the Democratic Party and the national media would embrace him.

In April, after Obama announced his record fund-raising total for the primaries, the Clinton campaign began to panic. Basic strategy was called into question. Senior advisers began to fight with each other. In an extraordinary interview with Time, Terry McAuliffe, Clinton’s campaign chairman, seemed to blame Clinton herself for not working hard enough. Obama, McAuliffe said, “works the phones like a dog. He probably did three to four times the number of events she did” since the start of the campaign. “No matter who I call, he has already called them three or four times.”

On behalf of the Clinton camp, James Carville continued to try to tamp down excitement over Obama by saying publicly that he expected Al Gore to get in the race. Worried advisers to Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to oust Solis Doyle, who had never run a campaign. A Clinton staffer told me that going to work was like stepping into a snake pit.

Then came a pivot point—the moment when Clinton’s campaign felt the idealized view of Obama suddenly snap into alignment with the reality, and in doing so realign the contours of the race to emphasize precisely the asset Clinton had cultivated: her immediate readiness to become commander in chief. The moment came at the first Democratic debate, in South Carolina. The moderator, Brian Williams of NBC, asked the candidates to respond to a scenario in which two American cities were hit by terrorists and the responsible parties were identified. “The first thing we’d have to do,” Obama answered, “is make sure that we’ve got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans. And I think that we have to review how we operate in the event of not only a natural disaster, but also a terrorist attack.” Only after that did Obama suggest that he might “take potentially some action to dismantle that network.” Clinton spotted her opening, and pounced. “I think a president must move as swiftly as is prudent to retaliate,” she declared. “If we are attacked, and we can determine who is behind that attack, and if there are nations that supported or gave material aid to those who attacked us, I believe we should quickly respond.” Obama immediately recognized his error, and circled back a few moments later: “But one thing that I do have to go back on, on this issue of terrorism: We have genuine enemies out there that have to be hunted down, networks [that] have to be dismantled.”

But Williams’s trap—the question designed to draw out contrasts between the candidates—had already snared Obama. Later, Obama concluded that Clinton had weathered enough Republican attacks to understand where the minefields lay. “So if the question comes up on terrorism,” he told me, putting himself in her mind, “your goal is to look tough, and the first thing out of the box is retaliate.”

“What happened,” Axelrod told me, “was that he got asked the question, and I think he started answering it based on ‘What would you do if there were a terrorist attack?’ without focusing on the second half of the question, which was to change our military strategy.” Axelrod insisted that voters accepted Obama’s answer. But he conceded that for Clinton and the press, “it was pivotal, and helped fuel a story line that they ran with. I give the Clinton people credit: They did a great job of spinning it, hard, and I think they may have gotten some benefit out of it.”

As the race settled into a summer lull, this cycle would repeat itself, the Clinton campaign exploiting anything it believed was a gaffe—such as when Obama answered a question in another debate by saying he would meet with morally dubious world leaders in the first year of his presidency without preconditions. The media’s willingness to accept each campaign’s preferred narrative—Clinton’s “experience” versus Obama’s “judgment”—helps explain why Obama’s answer was considered to be faulty. “That’s sort of the pitfalls of the sound bite. He fell into that,” Obama’s friend Marty Nesbitt told me.

Here, Obama’s novelty worked against him. The national press corps places tremendous importance on consistency with an established narrative. Lacking a basis to judge Obama’s neophyte foreign-policy views, reporters were much more willing than they otherwise might have been to accept the Clinton campaign’s charge that Obama’s answer was naive. They weren’t nearly as willing to accept the countercharge from the Obama campaign that Clinton herself had flip-flopped in answering the question (earlier in the year, while criticizing Bush’s recalcitrance about meeting with rogue leaders, she had expressed practically the same sentiment as Obama), because such a slip-up didn’t track with the emerging campaign narrative of Clinton as disciplined and savvy. Nor could Obama’s campaign deploy, as Clinton’s did, an army of surrogates to flood the airwaves and drive home a point. In August, Obama told a reporter that under no circumstances would he use a nuclear weapon to destroy terrorist bunkers in Afghanistan or Pakistan. The Clinton campaign again pressed charges of inexperience. A year earlier, as it turned out, Clinton had said essentially the same thing as Obama in response to Bush administration posturing about nuclear weapons. But reporters largely ignored this fact, because it wasn’t in character for Clinton to mess up.

Perhaps the ultimate example of hard-won experience is the relationship that developed last year, brokered by an outside ally, between the Clinton campaign and a man who was once a sworn enemy: Matt Drudge, the Internet pioneer. (News of the Monica Lewinsky scandal first broke on the Drudge Report.) In a Democratic primary, news that the Clinton campaign is funneling information to Drudge is potentially explosive—few figures inspire more liberal wrath than Drudge. (When I confronted the mole, she confirmed the connection to Drudge, but first asked for anonymity.) Still, Drudge has proved a useful tool for the campaign in framing media coverage. When it became clear that Obama had raised more first-quarter money for the primary race than Clinton had, the Clinton campaign minimized the damage by preemptively leaking its own numbers to Drudge. “Clinton Blows the Field Away” was the headline on an exclusive Drudge story claiming she had raised $36 million. Only later, with much less fanfare, did it become clear that only $19 million would count toward the Democratic primary.

The Clinton campaign has also used Drudge to go on offense. In one example, an aide confirmed that the campaign sent Drudge a link to a story in which Michelle Obama seemed to take a swipe at Hillary Clinton over Bill’s infidelity. The story was presented—from Clinton to Drudge to the public—in a manner that was badly out of context, with a link to an exclusive videotape of Michelle Obama’s comment. But it nevertheless dominated the news cycle for 24 hours.

The major problem with a process-oriented campaign, as Democrats from Gary Hart to Bill Bradley have discovered, is that it tends to appeal to elites, who vote aspirationally, rather than to the much broader pool of primary voters, who tend to focus on tangibles, such as health-care benefits and tax credits. Clinton has won support with policies targeted at older voters, women, and those without a college degree—what political analysts term “downscale voters,” who also happen to dominate the Democratic electorate in places like Iowa, which holds the first presidential caucus.

Another tension in process campaigns is behavioral. Practitioners can become handcuffed by their own idealism. Having pledged to run “a different kind of campaign” that wouldn’t traffic in the mudslinging and personal attacks so common to politics today, Obama boxed himself in. “The campaigns shouldn’t be about making each other look bad,” he declared in his brief appearance at the DNC winter meeting. “They should be about figuring out how we can all do some good for this precious country of ours. That’s our mission. And in this mission, our rivals won’t be one another, and I would assert it won’t even be the other party. It’s going to be cynicism that we’re fighting against.” This kind of sentiment is a large part of Obama’s appeal. But it’s also a good illustration of why process-oriented campaigns often run into trouble. Committing himself to a higher standard of conduct meant that either Obama would refrain from doing much of what campaigns do to jockey for position or he would endure criticism for failing to live up to his own standard. In a campaign staffed by talented, though conventional, operatives, this would prove problematic.

In June, Obama’s staff slipped reporters a memorandum about the Clintons’ financial ties to Indian American entrepreneurs who benefited from job outsourcing—an act well within the norm of political conduct, though the memo did have a rather tasteless title (“Hillary Clinton, D-Punjab”). A Clinton aide caught wind of it and, no doubt inspired by Obama’s call for better conduct, persuaded a reporter for a Capitol Hill newspaper to disclose its source. Obama was forced to apologize.

But he pointedly did not pledge to refrain from disseminating such information about his opponent. Belatedly, his campaign has learned to fight back. In August, Obama’s team scored a significant hit by helping to place a story in several newspapers revealing that Norman Hsu, a major Clinton donor, had skipped town after having pleaded no contest to a charge of grand theft 15 years earlier and still faced an outstanding warrant. Hsu fled once more (he was captured in Colorado in September) and ignited a costly media frenzy for Clinton, who decided to return $850,000 in donations that he had arranged for her. (Hsu had also contributed to Obama.)

But Obama seemed to recoil from many of the tasks that have come to be expected of someone serious about running for president. Cerebral and loquacious, given to lengthy disquisitions, Obama chafed at the sound-bite culture of politics and disliked criticizing opponents by name. One day in New Hampshire, caught up in the moment, he called Hillary “Bush-Cheney lite”—a phrase he never again repeated. Occasionally, Obama behaved as if conventional expectations were beneath him and an insult to voters’ intelligence. “The one thing I am absolutely certain of,” Obama told me, “is that if all I’m offering is the same Democratic narrative that has been offered for the last 20 years, then there’s really no point in my running, because Senator Clinton is going to be very adept at delivering that message. What makes it worthwhile for me to run is the belief that we can actually change the narrative and create a working majority that we haven’t seen in a very long time—and that, frankly, the Clintons never put together.” Though he dislikes cattle-call interest-group forums, he prepared diligently for a June forum on black issues at Howard University in Washington, D.C., understanding that, by dint of his race and life experience, he had a chance to shine. Obama believed he’d excelled during the debate, and was stunned when press coverage focused on a single applause line—from Hillary Clinton. “If HIV/AIDS were the leading cause [of] the death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country,” she had declared. Obama, by contrast, was chided for his long-winded answers. “He was very, very frustrated,” one of his friends recalls.

Two weeks later, at an NAACP forum in Philadelphia, Obama, according to The New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, “played to the crowd.” The press rewarded him. A friend e-mailed him a note of congratulations. “Well, but all I did was throw sound bites back at them,” Obama wrote back.

His campaign staffers, too, have become frustrated by the focus of the media’s attention, specifically that the press has not covered Clinton in the way they expected it would. During an interview this summer, Obama’s friend Valerie Jarrett said to me, unbidden, “He is a man who is devoted to his wife. There aren’t going to be any skeletons in his closet in terms of his personal life at all. Period.” And at a campaign event in Iowa, one of Obama’s aides plopped down next to me and spoke even more bluntly. He wanted to know when reporters would begin to look into Bill Clinton’s postpresidential sex life.

Before Obama decided to run, his advisers spent little time debating strategy and focused instead on how their candidate would maintain his sense of self—his “authenticity,” as one of them put it to me. This helps to explain why they regarded so many of his early stumbles as insignificant instances of simply failing to conform to the standard way of running for president. But as the race for the nomination heads into the final stretch, many of the things they thought would unfold have so far failed to materialize.

Early on, Obama’s aides sneered at the Clinton campaign for subordinating strategy to tactics and boasted that Obama had explicitly rejected the day-to-day combat that consumed Clinton’s team. “It was a deliberate choice we made,” one of Obama’s closest advisers told me. “And I think it was a mistake.” This adviser added that many of the assumptions about Hillary Clinton were flawed, too. In particular, Obama and his aides assumed that Democrats would judge Clinton to be too polarizing to win; so far the polls do not bear that out.

Axelrod won’t concede that the campaign misread Clinton. “If we underestimated anything,” he said, “it was the degree to which people would assign credit to her for the years of the Clinton administration—that that was sort of quasi-executive experience, whether warranted or not warranted. The name itself implied a certain mastery; she gets bonus points for that, to a degree that I think was surprising. I think those come with challenges, but she gets them.”

One great surprise to the Obama team was Clinton’s remarkable transformation on the one issue where Obama indisputably trumped her in the eyes of the party’s electorate: the Iraq War. By summer’s end, Obama’s advisers believed that Clinton had largely neutralized their attacks. Clinton’s advisers cite two reasons for their success: first, that her congressional voting record on Iraq was virtually identical to his; and second, that Clinton deftly exploited the vicissitudes of congressional debate, which focused almost exclusively on how and when to withdraw troops. Reasoning, correctly, that Democratic voters were as interested in what should be done now as in who voted for the war then, she used clear, forward-looking language: “If George Bush doesn’t end this war before he leaves office, when I’m president, I will.” It worked.

Last February, I asked Hillary Clinton to describe how she has changed since leaving the White House. At the time, her answer struck me as typical Clinton boilerplate: She brought to the presidential race a “unique combination of experience both from my life prior to the White House and the eight years in the White House and now my full term in the Senate, where I’ve learned even more about how to get things done in the Senate, about how to build coalitions.”

Looking back now, on the eve of the Democratic primaries, her answer seems a lot more credible. Clinton spent six years in a nonexecutive role. She gained firsthand experience working with her enemies. She spent four years as the chair of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, ordinarily a thankless bureaucratic post that requires fielding complaints from every conceivable corner of the party, but in Clinton’s case an invaluable opportunity to listen and connect. And when the chance arrived, in 2004, to cut short her apprenticeship and seek the White House, she passed.

“I always felt that it was a good thing that she spent all those years in the Senate, and maybe didn’t meet with as many fund-raisers as she could have,” a high-level Clinton campaign official told me. “At the end of the day, this created a texture—a knowledge—that really comes out.”

Most surprising, Clinton has even managed to repair her relationship with the press, a change that seems to have made her more secure in her political identity than she’s generally given credit for being. For all the criticism she’s endured as being calculating and politically opportunistic, Clinton has steadfastly ignored entreaties from some advisers and criticism from the press, and refused to apologize for her 2002 vote in favor of the Iraq War. Her private refrain, say insiders, is the same as her public one: “I’ve done nothing wrong, so I have nothing to apologize for.”

In the weeks ahead, Obama is likely to argue that Democrats cannot trust Clinton to create the change they’re longing for, while Clinton will embrace the role of nominee-apparent. Obama’s advisers believe Edwards will fade before the Iowa caucuses and—assuming those who don’t yet support Clinton probably don’t want to—that his support will naturally flow to Obama. And they’re convinced that the Democratic Party’s decision to invalidate Florida’s delegates as punishment for holding an early primary provides a great benefit for Obama by giving him a pretext to bypass an expensive early state. Axelrod maintains that doubts about Clinton will grow as the primaries draw nearer, and that Obama’s cautious campaign will ultimately prevail. One important advantage Obama has over insurgent-idealists who preceded him (like Hart and Bradley) is that he has the money to keep pace with the front-runner.

In the end, though, Hillary Clinton may be the candidate who best understood the Democratic electorate—she certainly understood and accepted the demands placed upon anyone serious about winning. A primary that Obama hoped would be a referendum on how politics is practiced may be decided not over questions of protocol and process, but instead over something more basic. After eight long years in the wilderness, Clinton senses that what Democrats want most is victory.

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic associate editor.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

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