Election day starts, in the small hours, where the candidate has spent most of his last 626 days: on a plane. Stuck to the gray plastic walls of the pressurized cabin are snapshots of his odyssey across cities and fields, mountains and deserts, continents and oceans. A snowstorm in Iowa, a press conference in Downing Street. Camera crews dozing onboard, Secret Service agents sharing a joke. The candidate signing books, reporters holding audio recorders close to his face. Now, between the empty candy wrappers and the drained beer bottles, he walks back one last time from his spacious first-class section, through his staffers’ business class seats, to the coach class of the press. “You know, whatever happens, it’s extraordinary you guys have shared this process with us, and I just want to say thank you and I appreciate you,” he says, shaking everyone’s hand. One reporter asks how he’s feeling, but he insists that he won’t answer questions. Even obvious ones. He thanks the young TV producers who have trailed his every move from the start, admires the photos on the overhead bins, then pokes fun at a magazine reporter who was parodied on “Saturday Night Live.” He gives a birthday kiss to a young photographer, shakes hands with every member of the aircrew, and finishes with a simple farewell: “OK, guys, let’s go home.”
The last twenty-four hours felt like the longest day of the long campaign. It began with the news that the last living person to raise Barack Obama through childhood, his grandmother Toot, had lost her struggle against cancer. At his penultimate stop in Charlotte, North Carolina, it rains so hard, and for so long, that it’s hard to see the streaks running down both his cheeks. They don’t come obviously or immediately. Hardened by two years of campaigning and many more years of self-control, his voice never breaks as he announces the news. “Some of you heard that my grandmother who helped raise me passed away early this morning,” he says calmly. “Look, she has gone home. And she died peacefully in her sleep, with my sister at her side. So there’s great joy as well as tears. I’m not going to talk about it too long, because it’s hard a little to talk about.” His face remains composed as he talks about the “bittersweet” sensation of losing his grandmother while his campaign draws to a close. He betrays little emotion as he describes her as “a quiet hero” and sketches out her life story. But when he starts to read his stump speech from his teleprompter, when he talks about the broken politics in Washington, he surreptitiously strokes one cheek with his thumb. He condemns eight years of failed Bush policies, and casually strokes the other cheek. Two minutes later, as the crowd chants “Yes We Can,” he finally takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes his face down. It is one of the rarest moments of the entire election: a display of raw emotion from a candidate whose mask almost never slips before the dozens of cameras that trail him every day. Even then, at his most vulnerable point, he defers the moment and dissipates its impact.
The cracks in his self-control spread to those closest to him. Standing at the back of a leaking tent in a parched yellow field is the candidate’s friend and strategist David Axelrod. “He’s at peace with what happened. It wasn’t unexpected. He just wishes he had some time to deal with it in his own way,” Axelrod says. “But I’m finding this hard right now. The enormity of it all is almost overwhelming. I love him; he’s my friend. This election is ridiculously long and there are many stupid things about it. But you really have to earn the presidency. And he’s been tested. You can’t hide it or fake it.”
Yet the candidate has partly passed the test by hiding himself away. By the time he reaches the final campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia, he has regained full control. Close to the site of two Confederate victories in the Civil War, the nation’s first major African American nominee — a Democrat, no less — speaks to some 100,000 people at Prince William Fairgrounds. As a community organizer two decades earlier, Obama often feared that no one would show up to his meetings. Now there are so many people the traffic is snarled for hours and miles around. These crowds, he says, have enriched him, moved him, and lifted him up when he was down. Now he’s so inspired he tells his signature story from Greenwood, South Carolina. The tale of a little woman who lifted his spirits, on a dismal day early in the campaign, with a simple chant: “Fired Up! Ready to Go!” “It shows you what one voice can do,” he concludes. “One voice can change a room. And if a voice can change a room, it can change a city! And if it can change a city, it can change a state! And if it can change a state, it can change a nation! And if it can change a nation, it can change the world!”
Yet at the start of this historic election day, in the early hours of the morning, the candidate seems weighed down. Determined and spirited perhaps, but also crushed with exhaustion and emotion. The gray wisps on his head are now visible from a distance, like the lines scored close to his eyes and across his cheeks. He sounds fired up, but looks ready to drop.
It is one in the morning when he lands at Chicago’s Midway airport. The polls have already closed in the small New Hampshire town of Dixville Notch, which has not voted for a Democratic president since 1968, but favors Obama by fifteen votes to six. The candidate walks down the stairs from his plane and steps into his armored SUV to a flash of cameras. Behind him is a new addition to his motorcade: another SUV filled with a black-clad, heavily armed Counter Assault Team.
Obama liked to describe his journey from freshman senator to presidential front-runner as an improbable one. It was also preposterous and quixotic, at least in the judgment of the greatest political minds in the nation’s capital. In February 2007, as Obama was readying the formal launch of his campaign, President Bush cast his expert eye across the contenders who wanted to succeed him. Sitting in the yellow oval room of the White House, on the second-floor residence of the executive mansion, the president conceded he had no idea who would win the GOP nomination. But he was clear about the other side. “I think Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee,” he said with his feet propped on a glass coffee table. “I’ll tell you why. I think she will because I think she has staying power, star power, and money power. She brings a big organization that is well funded right off the bat, and one of the lessons I learned is you have to be able to play the long ball.” As for Obama, who was on the verge of announcing his candidacy, Bush was deeply doubtful. “Certainly a phenom and very attractive. The guy is very smart,” he said before realizing he sounded like Joe Biden, who had just stepped into the racial minefield for calling Obama “articulate and bright and clean.” Bush was so taken aback with the public criticism of Biden that he called in his African American secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Condi, what’s going on?” Rice told him what everyone else had said: that white people don’t call each other articulate. No matter. Only the tough and battle-scarred could survive, and Obama wasn’t one of them. “This primary election process is rough,” Bush said, popping an endless stream of peanuts into his mouth. “It’s really tough and rightly so. It exacerbates your flaws and tests your character. And I don’t think he’s been around long enough to stand it. I may be wrong. The process may forge a steel that I didn’t anticipate.” In some ways the forty-third president was correct: Obama was untested, unforged. Not even his closest aides and friends knew whether he could really survive the trial by fire of a presidential election. There was only one way to find out. Winston Churchill once said, “No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections.” Well, the education of Barack Obama was protracted and often painful. He was a political upstart, the candidate named Renegade by the Secret Service, and he repeatedly broke the rules. He did not wait his turn to run, and had no resources in the bank when he set out. He sunk his money into lowly fieldwork, and rejected public finance. He took his campaign overseas, and staged his acceptance speech in a football stadium. He kept his tone mostly positive, and spent millions on a prime-time TV show. His middle name was Hussein, and he wasn’t even conventionally African American. No, he didn’t look like the presidents on the dollar bills, as he once quipped. For that matter, he didn’t look or sound like other candidates for president. But he was highly disciplined and driven, supremely self-confident, and he possessed the rare ability to act both as a team player and a star athlete. Although he was a renegade, he was also a cautious and pragmatic one, who played by the rules when he needed them to win. On the surface, his performance was as steady as his resting heart rate of just sixty beats a minute. But his private moods were far more variable: he could be cocky and grumpy, impatient and withdrawn. He was often an inscrutable character. Yet he struck a rare emotional connection with those around him, no matter the size of the crowd or the ego of the person he was wooing.
There was a nagging question that cropped up at the beginning and the end of the election. It was posed at the start of his presidency and will likely be posed as his term finishes as America’s commander in chief: who is Barack Obama? The mystery of Obama may seem simplistic but is nonetheless hard to unwrap. Simple questions about a president can still be stubborn and enduring ones: there remains plenty of debate about President Bush’s intellect. But while there is a long Bush record to study for clues, there is relatively little that is public about the private Obama. In fact, the best evidence lies in the extraordinary presidential campaign of 2008, in which the candidate exposed himself to intense examination. He wrote one memoir and one highly personal political treatise, both of which were minutely dissected through the course of the election. He debated two dozen times and delivered hundreds of speeches. Yet something remained hidden about his character, suppressed about his moods, deep-rooted about his thoughts. And something remained unsettling for many pundits and voters who couldn’t quite pin him down, as a black leader or pop celebrity, as a fiery preacher or closet radical.
In one way at least, his critics were surely correct: Obama lacked Washington experience. But the voters seemed to find reassurance in the way he campaigned, the way he built from scratch the most formidable election machine in history, the way he endured twenty-one months of public examination and private stress. They may not have all the answers about Obama, but the ones they heard and watched seemed satisfying. The 2008 election was by far the biggest undertaking of Obama’s life, the only real executive experience on his résumé, and the biggest clue to his future performance as president. It changed America’s view of itself, the world’s view of America, his friends’ view of Obama, and Obama’s view of himself. It was a drama of political biography performed on the biggest stage in the world: an outlandish, extraordinary spectacle that veered from inspiration to exasperation, from the mundane to the faintly insane.
This is the making of a president, witnessed from a front-row seat, as it unfolded from its first day to its last. With the help of more than a dozen one-on-one interviews with the candidate and then president — as well as scores of sessions with his trusted aides, friends, and family — this account is an attempt to translate the enigma of Barack Obama, to answer the questions of who he is and what lay behind his rise from freshman senator to forty-fourth president of the United States of America.
Excerpted with permission from “Renegade: The Making of a President” by Richard Wolffe.