Why History Can’t Wait

David Von Drehle, Time, December 16, 2008

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{snip} It’s unlikely that you were surprised to see Obama’s face on the cover. He has come to dominate the public sphere so completely that it beggars belief to recall that half the people in America had never heard of him two years ago—that even his campaign manager, at the outset, wasn’t sure Obama had what it would take to win the election. He hit the American scene like a thunderclap, upended our politics, shattered decades of conventional wisdom and overcame centuries of the social pecking order. Understandably, you may be thinking Obama is on the cover for these big and flashy reasons: for ushering the country across a momentous symbolic line, for infusing our democracy with a new intensity of participation, for showing the world and ourselves that our most cherished myth—the one about boundless opportunity—has plenty of juice left in it.

But crisis has a way of ushering even great events into the past. As Obama has moved with unprecedented speed to build an Administration that would bolster the confidence of a shaken world, his flash and dazzle have faded into the background. In the waning days of his extraordinary year and on the cusp of his presidency, what now seems most salient about Obama is the opposite of flashy, the antithesis of rhetoric: he gets things done. He is a man about his business—a Mr. Fix It going to Washington. {snip}

The real story of Obama’s year is the steady march of seemingly impossible accomplishments: beating the Clinton machine, organizing previously marginal voters, harnessing the new technologies of democratic engagement, shattering fundraising records, turning previously red states blue—and then waking up the day after his victory to reinvent the presidential-transition process in the face of a potentially dangerous vacuum of leadership. “We always did our best up on the high wire,” says his campaign manager, David Plouffe.

Obama’s competence fills him with a genuine self-confidence. “I’ve got a pretty healthy ego,” he allows. That’s clear when he offers a checklist for voters to use in judging his performance two years from now. It’s quite an agenda. Listen: “Have we helped this economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the road that assure this kind of crisis doesn’t occur again? Have we created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves? Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care and expanding coverage? Have we begun what will probably be a decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? Have we begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our public-school systems?”

There’s more: “Have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution? Have we rebuilt alliances around the world effectively? Have I drawn down U.S. troops out of Iraq, and have we strengthened our approach in Afghanistan—not just militarily but also diplomatically and in terms of development? And have we been able to reinvigorate international institutions to deal with transnational threats, like climate change, that we can’t solve on our own?”

And: “Outside of specific policy measures, two years from now, I want the American people to be able to say, ‘Government’s not perfect; there are some things Obama does that get on my nerves. But you know what? I feel like the government’s working for me. I feel like it’s accountable. I feel like it’s transparent. I feel that I am well informed about what government actions are being taken. I feel that this is a President and an Administration that admits when it makes mistakes and adapts itself to new information.’”

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I. Simple Competence

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After Katrina, demand collapsed for the very qualities that Obama lacked as a candidate: empty boasts, finger-pointing, backstabbing and years of experience inside a government that couldn’t deliver bottled water to the stranded citizens of a major U.S. city. Spare us the dead-or-alive bravado, the gates-of-hell bluster, the melodrama of the 3 a.m. phone call. A door swung open for a candidate who would merely stand and deliver. Simple competence—although there’s nothing simple about it, not in today’s intricate, interdependent, interwoven, intensely dangerous world.

His official theme was change, but a specific kind of change: the nuts-and-bolts kind you can see and measure. Voters were invited to believe because Obama kept delivering the goods. Certainly he made mistakes and gave up on some ideas while doubling back on others—his promise to stick to the existing campaign-finance system, for example. On the whole, though, he was a doer. Obama told people that a black man could win white votes. In Iowa he proved it. He said a broad-gauge campaign could win in GOP strongholds; along came Indiana and Virginia and North Carolina. He declared that a new approach to politics would topple the old Clinton-Bush seesaw, and topple it he did. He sank the three-pointer with the cameras rolling. Made a speech in a football stadium feel intimate. Some might say these are not exactly Churchillian achievements, but in the land of the hapless, the competent man is king. In the end, his campaign e-mail list numbered some 13 million people, of whom more than 3.5 million put actual skin in the game—money, volunteer hours or both. Obama’s most formidable opponent, Hillary Clinton, tried to convince voters that he was all talk and no action, a vessel empty but for intoxicating fumes. Yet he was the one whose campaign ran like clockwork, while hers was a fratricidal mess. And by Nov. 4, the strongest party in the U.S. was no longer the Republican Party or the Democratic Party; it was the Obama Party.

II. Filling the Vacuum

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Keep in mind that Obama, as Rudy Giuliani put it at the Republican Convention in September, had “never led anything, nothing, nada”—certainly not a sprawling organization spread from coast to coast. But he did have a philosophy of leadership, which he explains like this: “I don’t think there’s some magic trick here. I think I’ve got a good nose for talent, so I hire really good people. And I’ve got a pretty healthy ego, so I’m not scared of hiring the smartest people, even when they’re smarter than me. And I have a low tolerance of nonsense and turf battles and game-playing, and I send that message very clearly. And so over time, I think, people start trusting each other, and they stay focused on mission, as opposed to personal ambition or grievance. If you’ve got really smart people who are all focused on the same mission, then usually you can get some things done.”

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Obama is a businesslike boss. He prefers briefing papers tightly written and shows up for meetings fully prepared. He expects people to challenge him when they think he is wrong and to back up their ideas with facts. He’s not a shouter—”Hollering at people isn’t usually that effective,” he explains—but if he thinks you’ve let him down, you’ll know it. “What was always effective with me as a kid—and Michelle and I find it effective with our kids—is just making people feel really guilty,” he says. “Like ‘Boy, I am disappointed in you. I expected so much more.’ And I think people generally want to do the right thing, and if you’re clear to them about what that right thing is, and if they see you doing the right thing, then that gives you some leverage.”

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Yes, Obama could talk—like nobody’s business—but talk didn’t win the election. According to the daily tracking polls, the tumblers clicked into place precisely at the moment the financial hurricane hit, when the wizards of Wall Street proved as incompetent as Oz and neither the President nor the leaders of Congress nor the Treasury boss nor Senator McCain could deliver a rescue package. When this group failure provoked a stock-market crash in early October, Americans asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” Astounding as it would have seemed scant months before, their gaze fell on the one fixed point in the widening gyre: a guy named Barack Hussein Obama.

III. Fear Itself

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Long before Election Day, Obama decided that an ordinary transition wouldn’t do. Given the shaky economy and two wars, he knew that the winner of the election—whoever it turned out to be—would face instant and daunting challenges. He wanted to be ready. “What I was absolutely convinced of was that, whether it was me or John McCain, the next President-elect was going to have to move swiftly,” Obama recalls. He deployed Podesta in midsummer to lead an unusually elaborate preparation for a possible Obama presidency. McCain accused him of overconfidence and vanity, of measuring the Oval Office drapes. To Obama, it was simply a matter of prudence.

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Obama had been pondering whether he should step to center stage or wait in the wings as the turbulent last months of the Bush Administration played out. His aides were all over the map. Some advised him to go quietly about his business in Chicago and insist that America has just one President at a time. For Obama to succeed, they argued, the country needed to see his Inauguration as a clean break, a new sunrise. Others floated the idea of immediately starting the First Hundred Days, perhaps asking George W. Bush to appoint Obama’s choices to key offices so that they could get to work by late November.

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Within two days, however, events forced his hand. On Friday, Nov. 7, Obama convened a meeting of his economic advisers in Chicago, and the tone of their comments was chilling. The stock market was plunging; credit remained tight; fresh unemployment numbers were shocking. {snip}

Obama opened the meeting by reflecting on his dilemma: act now or wait until January? By the end of the session, he had concluded that, like it or not, he must “accelerate all of our timetables,” as he put it, “in appointments not just on the Cabinet but also our White House team, in structuring economic plans so that we can start getting them to Congress and hopefully begin work—even before I’m sworn in—on some of our key priorities around the economy, on laying the groundwork for a national-security team that can take the baton in a wartime transition.” There was no time for the “traditional postelection holiday.” Vacations would have to wait until Christmas.

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He could not have predicted when he set out to become President that he would face such circumstances. The distance from the birth of his campaign to these first days of his fledgling presidency could be counted in months but measured in light-years. When he announced his candidacy on a frigid morning in Springfield, Ill., in 2007, Iraq was a disaster, and the Dow was still headed upward past 14,000. So this moment was a test not only of his speed but also of his flexibility. Obama proved lithe, indeed, persuading Robert Gates, Bush’s Secretary of Defense, to remain in his post and asking Clinton, a constant critic of Obama’s foreign policy views during their primary battle, to be his Secretary of State. Priority 1 was the economic team, however. There his task was to find a mix of people familiar enough to signal stability but fresh enough to promise change, and to design a stimulus strategy dramatic enough to inspire markets to swallow their panic.

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IV. Into the Breach

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The events of the past autumn produced the sharpest drop in consumer confidence ever recorded, and a similar wave of fear cratered credit markets. Obama notes the very real structural flaws in the economy, but he is also aware of the role that fear plays. “Nobody trusts other people’s books anymore. And people decide, ‘Well, I’m just going to hold on to my cash for a while,’” he explains. “And that compounds the crisis. And all that results in a contraction in lending, in consumer spending, which then has a real impact on Main Street. And so what starts off as psychological is now very real.”

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Obama has begun to turn his thoughts to his Inaugural Address. According to strategist Axelrod, he is looking for the right mixture of bracing and boost in a speech that will be “both sober and hopeful.” He may signal a new day by announcing a plan to stem the foreclosure crisis, which aides say is in the works. As the gray Chicago sky frowns outside his conference-room window, Obama rehearses his message. Americans “should anticipate that 2009 is going to be a tough year,” he says. Then he adds, “If we make some good choices, I’m confident that we can limit some of the damage in 2009. And that in 2010 we can start seeing an upward trajectory on the economy.”

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