Of all the adversaries Barack Obama faced in his two-year quest for the White House, two stand out above all others: Hillary Clinton and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Both threatened to end his presidential dreams on their own. Both were big enough threats that Obama felt compelled to confront them face-to-face.
Yet the full story of those confrontations has never been told until now.
The exchanges were case studies in political psy-ops, Obama-style. He emerged with something less than success, and something more than failure. They were critical tests on his path to the presidency, and extraordinary examples of the personal strategies that are key to any president.
“How could someone I knew, someone I trusted, do this to me?” Obama said.
The first face-off came in late 2007 with Hillary Clinton, less than a month before the Iowa caucuses. As I recount the story in Renegade: The Making of a President:
He was traveling to Des Moines for yet another debate and was getting ready to board his plane at the same time as Clinton was boarding hers, at Reagan National Airport. Clinton asked to talk to Obama and she apologized to him for comments by her New Hampshire co-chairman. Billy Shaheen had suggested that Republicans would exploit Obama’s self-confessed drug use if he won the nomination. Such comments had no place in her campaign, Clinton assured Obama, and Shaheen would resign. But Obama was not satisfied: he felt it was part of a pattern, which included an email forwarded by a Clinton volunteer in Iowa, suggesting that he was Muslim. Clinton grew agitated, waving her arms and poking her finger at him, as she hurled his own negativity back at him. Wasn’t he the one who just called her disingenuous for saying she couldn’t release her own White House papers? Wasn’t it his donor, David Geffen, who accused her and her husband of lying with ease? Instead of responding with anger, Obama tried to chill his rival, placing a hand on her arm. Clinton recoiled from the gesture, which seemed either patronizing or restraining, or both. Obama boarded his plane with a new sense of wonder. “I never saw that look of concern in her eyes before,” he told his senior aides. “I think we can we can win this one.”
The second head-to-head came the following spring of 2008, just before the late-stage primaries in Indiana and North Carolina.
Jeremiah Wright was threatening to dominate the news in the brief two-week campaign period that followed Obama’s nine-point defeat in Pennsylvania.
Obama’s aides feared the worst from Wright’s return, and knew there would be only a week to recover from whatever damage he wrought before voting started in the next round of primaries.
That was when candidate Obama stepped in, as I recount in Renegade:
It was time to talk directly to Wright. Over the next week, Obama’s friends at Trinity tried to talk their pastor out of his comeback tour. But by now the church was deeply divided between Obama supporters and Wright supporters, and the conversation was going nowhere. So the candidate decided to go see Wright himself in secret, in Chicago. First came the dance over where to meet: one intermediary suggested a neutral location, but Obama said he was happy to go wherever Wright wanted. They ended up talking at Wright’s home, and Obama tried to adopt the tone of a concerned friend giving advice. He did not want to tell his former pastor what to do, but he did want to nudge him in the right direction by making him aware of what was about to happen. Wright wasn’t heading for vindication; he was heading for vilification.
“Look, you’re a pastor, you have your own role to play,” Obama said. “But I can tell you how politics in the cable and blog age works. Here’s what you need to anticipate: that it’s going to be a media circus. But obviously, you need to do what you need to do.”
Wright felt embattled and wanted to tell his side of the story to the rest of the world. He thanked Obama for his opinion, but looked and sounded like the aggrieved party.
After Wright’s disastrous appearance at the National Press Club in Washington, and Obama’s swift decision to sever all ties with his former pastor, the campaign’s polling numbers showed a steep decline in Indiana.
On the night before Indiana’s primary, Obama’s senior aides were convinced they were headed for outright defeat. “How could someone I knew, someone I trusted, do this to me?” Obama said.
Obama and his aides were proved wrong. They won North Carolina by fifteen points, lost Indiana by just one point, and beat Reverend Wright once and for all.
Richard Wolffe is an award-winning journalist, political analyst for MSNBC, and senior strategist at Public Strategies. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President , will be published by Crown in June.