There is only one truly satisfying aspect of Richard Wolffe’s new book on the Obama campaign, Renegade: The Making of a President (Crown, 2009). It wipes the smirk about community organizing off the GOP’s face. The 2008 Republican Convention in St. Paul presented variations on a sneer: “I guess a small town mayor is sort of like a community organizer – only with actual responsibilities,” Alaska Governor and vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin said in her acceptance speech. Rudolph Giuliani – a former big city mayor who surely knew better – also feigned snide uncertainty as to what it is that community organizers actually do. It turns out that community organizers learn how to successfully mount a campaign for President. They are particularly effective against snarky opponents who underestimate the experiential value of political organizing early in one’s career.
Barack Obama was not the one who actually organized Iowa and other states. He hired people to do that. Yet Obama’s experience as an organizer gave him the confidence to stick with a strategy through early months when phenomenal money got raised and spent without much movement in the polls, sewing doubt and criticism. Even more interesting is that while his expensive, hyper-organized strategy aimed to run the table with Iowa momentum, effectively securing the nomination with a big follow-up win in New Hampshire, the approach still managed to be ready with the money and organization for a long delegate-driven campaign.
Renegade – drawing its title from Obama’s Secret Service code name yet also advancing a characterization of the candidate and his campaign – focuses on a question central to understanding the ultimate success of the candidate. How does a first term senator with only two years in Washington run an “outsider” campaign with the skill and precision of a seasoned and connected insider? To address this question, Wolffe clearly details the constituent elements of success for the Obama campaign: an early and deep organizing strategy, open spigots of cash, pragmatism, and the cool demeanor that came to characterize his public persona. I resist the portrait of Obama as an “outsider” or “insurgent.” Sitting U.S. Senators are by definition on the inside, with the rare exception of someone like the late Paul Wellstone. Further, there was nothing in Obama’s history of doing political business that suggested he was anything but pragmatic. That’s why he succeeded in presenting himself as, in Richard Wolffe’s phrase, “different but not scary.” That’s also why he won. Obama’s experience had taught him that if he concentrated on organization, financed his army, and stayed calm, the competence itself would carry the day. Far from being a renegade – which Wolffe seems to define as a very famous and popular politician who chooses to enter a race as something other than the frontrunner – Obama often seemed to be the only grown-up in the room.
The book is problematic in ways that emerge directly from the core of its strength, the author’s extraordinary access to the candidate from beginning to end. Indeed, the whole idea for a behind-the-scenes look at the campaign was suggested to Wolffe by the candidate himself. What are we to make of a candidate who wants to regularly reflect with a reporter for a book length account of the relationship between his inner world and his presidential campaign? Even if you can’t figure out why Obama would maintain an on-the-record therapy session -- most candidates would be content to stay on message and remember what city they are in – it is safe to assume that Obama only entered that relationship with a journalist whose sympathies he trusted. That fact has raised questions about Wolffe’s willingness to blur professional boundaries for this book.
Wolffe’s closeness to Obama certainly skewed his coverage of the race. On MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann, for example, Wolffe’s commentary became a megaphone for the campaign and its strategies; on some days he almost seemed to be spinning issues and events. I did not read Wolffe’s coverage in Newsweek during the campaign. I did see many of his segments on television and, in fairness, it was clear that Wolffe operated on television during the campaign as more of a commentator than a reporter. At any rate, what he was learning from Obama personally, and from his access to campaign insiders, was primary source information offered almost in real time to Countdown’s audience, and it was accurate and insightful. What else do you want from a commentator? Seriously, if you are that worried about objectivity, then cull your information from a variety of sources, listen for the ring of truth, and make up your own mind. That’s what citizens do when they care about an election.
The deeper weakness is rooted in the author’s ambition to explain Obama’s political success in 2008 with biography and psychology. Wolffe attempts to connect Obama’s experiences as a child and young man with the skills, temperament, perceptions and insights he would need to win a particular kind of race in a particular historical moment. Wolffe relies on the formation of identity and personal narrative to frame his larger political narrative, and here I think he overplays his hand. All candidates are shaped by early experiences in ways that impact their campaigns later in life. Wolffe’s emphasis on the biography of identity tends to underestimate the strategic and pragmatic elements of success that I found more illuminating. I don’t think Wolffe is wrong to consider this angle. I just think that the success of the campaign itself was determined far more by the decisions made in the campaign context. They had a good plan, a lot of money, and they managed the inevitable crises like Jeremiah Wright with a revealing serenity.
The bottom line is that Obama succeeded because he stayed patient with a strategy built for a quick victory that happened to be the right strategy for a long campaign as well. The early decisions were right. Even with that I wonder how useful the lessons of Obama’s success will be to future campaigns. Beyond the obvious – don’t ignore the caucus states because they have delegates too, outspend your opponent – the reality is that Obama was a gifted and disciplined candidate, skillfully catching the wave of a political moment, and doing so only because he had the moxie to break all the rules telling him to wait his turn. He figured out what many candidates simply don’t have the guts to admit: this WAS his turn, but stepping up was going to be difficult and there was a good chance he would still lose. That knowledge liberated him from the daily pressures of second-guessing. Clinton and McCain always appeared desperate; Obama always looked like he was working the plan. Still, the best advice anyone gave him was from former Senator Tom Daschle, who told Obama to go for it just because the moment itself passes, and the moment has as much to do with success as strategy and resources.
Yet Obama could afford to remain patient, stay cool. No matter what he did he was going to be at least the VP on the ticket in a year when Democrats were incredibly well positioned to win the general election. It was win-win because he was not going to lose his Senate seat even if he joined a ticket that lost the general election with Hillary as the presidential nominee. In that event no one would have pinned the loss on Obama, because the mother of all lightening rods would be at the top, making her own bid for history. And the attacks on her would have been far meaner and more destructive than anything Obama faced. In defeat, he would have been the 2012 frontrunner.
Instead of waiting, he ran and won. We are now living though the answer to a more important question: can Barack Obama translate the lessons of his “insurgent” strategy into governing strategies that will deliver on the promise of his improbable rise to power? He has already disappointed the left and drawn the outrage of the right, which to me means that he is a serious leader. If it all sours, he won’t be the first serious leader to find himself under a wave instead of riding it. The post-Watergate moment created the opportunity for Jimmy Carter to go from one term in Georgia to the White House, where he stayed for one term.
Obama’s own words to Richard Wolffe, just before his inauguration, suggest that his code name is now defunct, if it was ever appropriate in the first place.
“I think that we learned an awful lot about what it takes to put an effective organization together during the campaign. I mean, running a huge, multi-billion dollar bureaucracy is obviously different than running a political campaign. On the other hand, the campaign itself was big enough that I had a sense of what worked and what didn’t in executing, on the one hand, but also messaging on the other.
“And I think that if you think of the presidency just as a bureaucratic job, then you will not be effective. If you think of it only as a rhetorical, political job, you will not be effective. And I think that our goal has been to say, how do we function as a good managers and good stewards of government and reform it and clean it up and make it work and make it tight? But let’s not lose sight of the fact that we also have to persuade the American people as to where the country needs to go. And those two things have to work in concert, in tandem, to be effective.”
An organizer’s word. Personally, I prefer it to “change” and “hope.”