Obama was a brilliant delegator, and he only stepped in to take direct control of his campaign at the moment of its greatest crisis—when Jeremiah Wright’s ravings suddenly dominated every news cycle for a whole weekend. Newsweek’s description of this episode is one of the strongest passages in the piece:
There was no great internal debate within Obama’s staff, in part because no one really knew what to do. But Obama did…For several months, he had been thinking about giving a broader speech on the subject of race, and now the moment had arrived. Obama had his own sense of timing and purpose. He knew that Wright’s remarks could stir racial fears that could become a cancer on the campaign unless some steps were taken to cut it out, and that he was the only one skillful enough to attempt the operation…His half-hour address was a tour de force, the sort of speech that only Barack Obama could give… He had the ability to empathize with both sides— to summon the fear and resentment felt by blacks for years of oppression, but also to talk about how whites (including his grandmother) could fear young black men on the street, and how whites might resent racial preferences for blacks in jobs and schools. He ended with a moving scene, a story of reconciliation between an older black man and a young white woman. When he walked backstage at the Constitution museum, he found everyone in tears—his wife, his friends and his hardened campaign aides. Only Obama seemed cool and detached. The speech was ‘solid,’ he said, as his entourage, tough guys like Axelrod and former deputy attorney general Eric Holder, choked up.
But then comes another one of Thomas’s odd judgements:
Nonetheless, a close reading of the speech suggests more than a hint of personal grandiosity. Obama was giving the voters a choice: they could stay ‘stuck’ in a ‘racial stalemate.’ Or they could get beyond it—by, well, voting for him. ‘We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day, and talk about them from now until the election … We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will flock to John McCain … We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And then nothing will change.’
That passage had nothing to do with personal grandiosity: it was actually just pure political genius.
As Hendrik Hertzberg explains in this week’s New Yorker, “what made that speech special, what enabled it to save his candidacy, was its analytic power. It was not defensive. It did not overcompensate. In its combination of objectivity and empathy, it persuaded Americans of all colors that he understood them. In return, they have voted to make him their President.”
Although Thomas isn’t particularly good at conveying the historic sweep of Obama’s achievement, he does include plenty of fascinating details about the nuts and bolts that distinguished this campaign from preceding Democratic efforts:
- The Obama operation doubled the turnout at the Iowa caucuses, raised twice as much money as any other campaign in history, and organized volunteers by the millions. (In Florida alone: sixty-five offices, paid staff of 350, active e-mail list of 650,000, 25,000 volunteers on any weekend day.)
- It had volunteers knock on every door of every likely voter in Philadelphia, three times—on Saturday, Monday, and Election Day.
- In the battleground state of Ohio, instead of volunteers assembling at 200 parking lots at union halls, it had 1,400 neighborhood teams that the campaign had spent six months recruiting and training and managing.