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CHAPTER 4

RARELY DOES A WEEK GO by when I don’t run into somebody—a friend, a supporter, an acquaintance, or a total stranger—who insists that from the first time they met me or heard me speak on TV, they knew I’d be president. They tell me this with affection, conviction, and a certain amount of pride in their political acumen, talent spotting, or soothsaying. Sometimes they will cloak it in religious terms. God had a plan for you, they’ll tell me. I’ll smile and say that I wish they had told me this back when I was thinking about running; it would have saved me a lot of stress and self-doubt.

The truth is, I’ve never been a big believer in destiny. I worry that it encourages resignation in the down-and-out and complacency among the powerful. I suspect that God’s plan, whatever it is, works on a scale too large to admit our mortal tribulations; that in a single lifetime, accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit; and that the best we can do is to try to align ourselves with what we feel is right and construct some meaning out of our confusion, and with grace and nerve play at each moment the hand that we’re dealt.

I know that by the spring of 2006, the idea of me running for president in the next election, while still unlikely, no longer felt outside the realm of possibility. Each day, our Senate office was inundated with media requests. We were getting twice as much mail as other senators. Every state party and candidate for the November midterm elections wanted me to headline their events. And our rote denials that I was planning to run seemed only to fuel speculation.

One afternoon, Pete Rouse walked into my office and closed the door behind him.

“I want to ask you something,” he said.

I looked up from the constituent letters I’d been signing. “Shoot.”

“Have your plans changed for 2008?”

“I don’t know. Should they?”

Pete shrugged. “I think the original plan to stay out of the limelight and focus on Illinois made sense. But your profile’s not going down. If there’s even a remote chance you’re considering it, I’d like to write a memo outlining what we need to do to keep your options open. You all right with that?” I leaned back in my chair and stared at the ceiling, knowing the implications of my answer. “Makes sense,” I finally said.

“Okay?” Pete asked.

“Okay.” I nodded, returning to my paperwork.

“The Memo Master” is how some on the staff referred to Pete. In his hands, the lowly memorandum approached an art form, each one efficient and oddly inspiring. A few days later, he distributed a revised road map for the remainder of the year for my senior team to consider. It called for an expanded travel schedule to support more Democratic candidates in the midterms, meetings with influential party officials and donors, and a retooled stump speech.

For months to come, I followed this plan, putting myself and my ideas before new audiences, lending my support to Democrats in swing states and swing districts, and traveling to parts of the country I’d never been to before. From the West Virginia Jefferson-Jackson Dinner to the Nebraska Morrison Exon Dinner, we hit them all, packing the house and rallying the troops. Anytime someone asked if I was going to run for president, though, I continued to demur. “Right now, I’m just focused on getting Ben Nelson back to the Senate, where we need him,” I’d say.

Was I fooling them? Was I fooling myself? It’s hard to say. I was testing, I suppose, probing, trying to square what I was seeing and feeling as I traveled around the country with the absurdity of my launching a national campaign. I knew that a viable presidential candidacy wasn’t something you just fell into. Done right, it was a deeply strategic endeavor, built slowly and quietly over time, requiring not only confidence and conviction but also piles of money and enough commitment and goodwill from others to carry you through all fifty states and two straight years of primaries and caucuses.

Already, a number of my fellow Democratic senators—Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Evan Bayh, and, of course, Hillary Clinton—had laid the groundwork for a possible run. Some had run before; all had been preparing for years and had a seasoned cadre of staff, donors, and local officials lined up to help. Unlike me, most could point to a record of meaningful legislative accomplishments. And I liked them. They had treated me well, broadly shared my views on the issues, and were more than capable of running an effective campaign and, beyond that, an effective White House. If I was becoming convinced that I could excite voters in ways that they couldn’t—if I suspected that only a wider coalition than they could build, a different language than they used, could shake up Washington and give hope to those in need—I also understood that my favored status was partly an illusion, the result of friendly media coverage and an over-stoked appetite for anything new. The infatuation could reverse itself in an instant, I knew, the rising star transformed into the callow youth, presumptuous enough to think he could run the country less than halfway through his first term.

Better to hold off, I told myself. Pay dues, collect chits, wait my turn.

On a bright spring afternoon, Harry Reid asked me to stop by his office. I trudged up the wide marble stairs from the Senate chamber to the second floor, the unsmiling, dark-eyed portraits of long-dead men staring down upon me with each step. Harry greeted me in the reception area and led me into his office, a big, high-ceilinged room with the same intricate moldings, tile work, and spectacular views that other senior senators enjoyed, but short on memorabilia or photos of handshakes with the famous that adorned other offices.

“Let me get to the point,” Harry said, as if he were known for small talk. “We’ve got a lot of people in our caucus planning to run for president. I can hardly count them all. And they’re good people, Barack, so I can’t be out there publicly, taking sides…” “Listen, Harry, just so you know, I’m not—”

“But,” he said, cutting me off, “I think you need to consider running this cycle. I know you’ve said you wouldn’t do it. And sure, a lot of people will say you need more experience. But let me tell you something. Ten more years in the Senate won’t make you a better president. You get people motivated, especially young people, minorities, even middle-of-the-road white people. That’s different, you see. People are looking for something different. Sure, it will be hard, but I think you can win. Schumer thinks so too.” He stood up and headed toward the door, making it clear the meeting was over. “Well, that’s all I wanted to tell you. So think about it, okay?” I left his office stunned. As good a relationship as I’d developed with Harry, I knew him to be the most practical of politicians. Walking down the stairs, I wondered if there was some angle to what he had said, some sophisticated game he was playing that I was too dim to recognize. But when I later talked to Chuck Schumer, and then to Dick Durbin, they delivered the same message: The country was desperate for a new voice. I would never be in a better position to run than I was now, and with my connection with young voters, minorities, and independents, I might broaden the map in a way that could help other Democrats down the ballot.

I didn’t share these conversations beyond my senior staff and closest friends, feeling as if I had stepped into a minefield and shouldn’t make any sudden moves. As I mulled it all over with Pete, he suggested I have one more conversation before I considered taking a more serious look at what a race would entail.

“You need to talk to Kennedy,” he said. “He knows all the players. He’s run himself. He’ll give you some perspective. And at the very least, he’ll tell you if he plans to support anyone else.” Heir to the most famous name in American politics, Ted Kennedy was by then the closest thing Washington had to a living legend. During more than four decades in the Senate, he’d been at the forefront of every major progressive cause, from civil rights to the minimum wage to healthcare. With his great bulk, huge head, and mane of white hair, he filled every room he walked into, and was the rare senator who commanded attention whenever he gingerly rose from his seat in the chamber, searching his suit pocket for his glasses or his notes, that iconic Boston baritone launching each speech with “Thank you, Madam President.” The argument would unspool—the face reddening, the voice rising—building to a crescendo like a revivalist sermon, no matter how mundane the issue at hand. And then the speech would end, the curtain would come down, and he would become the old, avuncular Teddy again, wandering down the aisle to check on the roll call or sit next to a colleague, his hand on their shoulder or forearm, whispering in their ear or breaking into a hearty laugh—the kind that made you not care that he was probably softening you up for some future vote he might need.

Teddy’s office on the third floor of the Russell Senate Office Building was a reflection of the man—charming and full of history, its walls cluttered with photographs of Camelot and models of sailboats and paintings of Cape Cod. One painting in particular caught my attention, of dark, jagged rocks curving against a choppy, white-capped sea.

“Took me a long time to get that one right,” Teddy said, coming up beside me. “Three or four tries.”

“It was worth the effort,” I said.

We sat down in his inner sanctum, with the shades drawn and a soft light, and he began telling stories—about sailing, his children, and various fights he’d lived through on the Senate floor. Ribald stories, funny stories. Occasionally he drifted along some unrelated current before tacking back to his original course, sometimes uttering just a fragment of a thought, all the while both of us knowing that this was a performance—that we were just circling the real purpose of my visit.

“So…” he finally said, “I hear there’s talk of you running for president.”

I told him it was unlikely, but that I nevertheless wanted his counsel.

“Yes, well, who was it who said there are one hundred senators who look in the mirror and see a president?” Teddy chuckled to himself. “They ask, ‘Do I have what it takes?’ Jack, Bobby, me too, long ago. It didn’t go as planned, but things work out in their own way, I suppose…” He trailed off, lost in his thoughts. Watching him, I wondered how he took the measure of his own life, and his brothers’ lives, the terrible price each one of them had paid in pursuit of a dream. Then, just as suddenly, he was back, his deep blue eyes fixed on mine, all business.

“I won’t be wading in early,” Teddy said. “Too many friends. But I can tell you this, Barack. The power to inspire is rare. Moments like this are rare. You think you may not be ready, that you’ll do it at a more convenient time. But you don’t choose the time. The time chooses you. Either you seize what may turn out to be the only chance you have, or you decide you’re willing to live with the knowledge that the chance has passed you by.” —

MICHELLE WAS HARDLY oblivious to what was happening. At first she simply ignored the fuss. She stopped watching political news shows and waved off all the overeager questions from friends and co-workers about whether I planned to run. When one evening at home I mentioned the conversation I’d had with Harry, she just shrugged, and I did not press the issue.

As the summer wore on, though, the chatter began to seep through the cracks and crevices of our home life. Our evenings and weekends appeared normal so long as Malia and Sasha were swirling about, but I felt the tension whenever Michelle and I were alone. Finally, one night after the girls were asleep, I came into the den where she was watching TV and muted the sound.

“You know I didn’t plan any of this,” I said, sitting down next to her on the couch.

Michelle stared at the silent screen. “I know,” she said.

“I realize we’ve barely had time to catch our breath. And until a few months ago, the idea of me running seemed crazy.”

“Yep.”

“But given everything that’s happened, I feel like we have to give the idea a serious look. I’ve asked the team to put together a presentation. What a campaign schedule would look like. Whether we could win. How it might affect the family. I mean, if we were ever going to do this—” Michelle cut me off, her voice choked with emotion.

“Did you say we?” she said. “You mean you, Barack. Not we. This is your thing. I’ve supported you the whole time, because I believe in you, even though I hate politics. I hate the way it exposes our family. You know that. And now, finally, we have some stability…even if it’s still not normal, not the way I’d choose for us to live…and now you tell me you’re going to run for president?” I reached for her hand. “I didn’t say I am running, honey. I just said we can’t dismiss the possibility. But I can only consider it if you’re on board.” I paused, seeing that none of her anger was dissipating. “If you don’t think we should, then we won’t. Simple as that. You get the final say.” Michelle lifted her eyebrows as if to suggest she didn’t believe me. “If that’s really true, then the answer is no,” she said. “I don’t want you to run for president, at least not now.” She gave me a hard look and got up from the couch. “God, Barack…When is it going to be enough?” Before I could answer, she’d gone into the bedroom and closed the door.

How could I blame her for feeling this way? By even suggesting the possibility of a run, by involving my staff before I’d asked for her blessing, I had put her in an impossible spot. For years now, I’d asked Michelle for fortitude and forbearance when it came to my political endeavors, and she’d given it—reluctantly but with love. And then each time I’d come back again, asking for more.

Why would I put her through this? Was it just vanity? Or perhaps something darker—a raw hunger, a blind ambition wrapped in the gauzy language of service? Or was I still trying to prove myself worthy to a father who had abandoned me, live up to my mother’s starry-eyed expectations of her only son, and resolve whatever self-doubt remained from being born a child of mixed race? “It’s like you have a hole to fill,” Michelle had told me early in our marriage, after a stretch in which she’d watched me work myself to near exhaustion. “That’s why you can’t slow down.” In truth, I thought I’d resolved those issues long ago, finding affirmation in my work, security and love in my family. But I wondered now if I could ever really escape whatever it was in me that needed healing, whatever kept me reaching for more.

Maybe it was impossible to disentangle one’s motives. I recalled a sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called “The Drum Major Instinct.” In it, he talks about how, deep down, we all want to be first, celebrated for our greatness; we all want “to lead the parade.” He goes on to point out that such selfish impulses can be reconciled by aligning that quest for greatness with more selfless aims. You can strive to be first in service, first in love. For me, it seemed a satisfying way to square the circle when it came to one’s baser and higher instincts. Except now I was also confronting the obvious fact that the sacrifices were never mine alone. Family got dragged along for the ride, put in the line of fire. Dr. King’s cause, and his gifts, might have justified such sacrifice. But could mine?

I didn’t know. Whatever the nature of my faith, I couldn’t take refuge in the notion of God calling me to run for president. I couldn’t pretend to be simply responding to some invisible pull of the universe. I couldn’t claim I was indispensable to the cause of freedom and justice, or deny responsibility for the burden I’d be placing on my family.

Circumstances may have opened the door to a presidential race, but nothing during these months had prevented me from closing it. I could easily close the door still. And the fact that I hadn’t, that instead I had allowed the door to open wider, was all Michelle needed to know. If one of the qualifications of running for the most powerful office in the world was megalomania, it appeared I was passing the test.

SUCH THOUGHTS COLORED my mood as I left in August for a seventeen-day tour through Africa. In South Africa, I took the boat ride out to Robben Island and stood in the tiny cell where Nelson Mandela had passed most of his twenty-seven years in prison, keeping his faith that change would come. I met with members of the South African Supreme Court, spoke with doctors at an HIV/AIDS clinic, and spent time with Bishop Desmond Tutu, whose joyful spirit I had gotten to know during his visits to Washington.

“So is it true, Barack,” he said with an impish smile, “that you are going to be our first African president of the United States? Ah, that would make us all verrry proud!” From South Africa, I flew to Nairobi, where Michelle and the girls—accompanied by our friend Anita Blanchard and her children—joined me. Abetted by wall-to-wall coverage in the local press, the Kenyan response to our presence was over the top. A visit to Kibera, one of Africa’s largest shantytowns, drew thousands who packed themselves along the winding paths of red dirt, chanting my name. My half sister Auma had thoughtfully organized a family trip to Nyanza Province, so we could introduce Sasha and Malia to our father’s ancestral home in the western region of the country. Traveling there, we were surprised to see people lined up and waving alongside miles of highway. And when Michelle and I stopped at a mobile health clinic to publicly take an HIV test as a means of demonstrating its safety, a crowd of thousands showed up, swamping our vehicle and giving the diplomatic security team a real scare. Only when we went on safari, parked among the lions and wildebeests, did we escape the commotion.

“I swear, Barack, these folks think you’re already president!” Anita joked one evening. “Just reserve me a seat on Air Force One, okay?”

Neither Michelle nor I laughed.

While the family headed back to Chicago, I continued on, traveling to the Kenya-Somalia border to get briefed on U.S.-Kenyan cooperation against the terrorist group al-Shabaab; taking a helicopter from Djibouti into Ethiopia, where U.S. military personnel were assisting flood relief efforts; and finally flying into Chad to visit refugees from Darfur. At each stop, I saw men and women engaged in heroic work, in impossible circumstances. At each stop, I was told how much more America could be doing to help relieve the suffering.

And at each stop, I was asked if I was running for president.

Just days after my return to the States, I flew to Iowa to give the keynote speech at Senator Tom Harkin’s Annual Steak Fry, a ritual that took on added importance in the run-up to presidential elections, given that Iowa was always the first state to vote in the primary process. I’d accepted the invitation months earlier—Tom had asked me to speak precisely to avoid having to choose between all the presidential aspirants who coveted the slot—but now my appearance only fueled speculation. As we were leaving the fairgrounds following my speech, I was pulled aside by Steve Hildebrand, a former political director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and an old Iowa hand who’d been enlisted by Pete to show me around.

“That’s the hottest reception I’ve ever seen here,” Steve said. “You can win Iowa, Barack. I can feel it. And if you win Iowa, you can win the nomination.” It felt sometimes as if I’d been caught in a tide, carried along by the current of other people’s expectations before I’d clearly defined my own. The temperature rose even higher when, a month later, just a few weeks before the midterm elections, my second book was released. I’d labored on it all year, in the evenings in my D.C. apartment and on weekends after Michelle and the girls had gone to sleep; even in Djibouti, where I’d scrambled for several hours trying to fax corrected page proofs to my editor. I had never intended the book to serve as a campaign manifesto; I just wanted to present my ideas about the current state of American politics in an interesting way and sell enough copies to justify my sizable advance.

But that wasn’t how it was received, by the political press or the public. Promoting it meant I was on television and radio practically nonstop, and combined with my very visible barnstorming on behalf of congressional candidates, I looked more and more like a candidate myself.

On a drive down from Philly to D.C., where I was scheduled to appear the next morning on Meet the Press, Gibbs and Axe, along with Axe’s business partner, David Plouffe, asked me what I planned to say when the show’s host, Tim Russert, inevitably grilled me about my plans.

“He’s going to run back the old tape,” Axe explained. “The one where you say unequivocally you will not run for president in 2008.”

I listened for a few minutes as the three of them began hashing out various ways to sidestep the question before I interrupted.

“Why don’t I just tell the truth? Can’t I just say that I had no intention of running two years ago, but circumstances have changed and so has my thinking, and I plan to give it serious thought after the midterms are over?” They liked the idea, admitting that it said something about the strangeness of politics that such a straightforward answer would be considered novel. Gibbs also advised that I give Michelle a heads-up, predicting that a direct suggestion that I might run would cause the media frenzy to immediately intensify.

Which is exactly what happened. My admission on Meet the Press made headlines and the evening news. On the internet, a “Draft Obama” petition took off, gathering thousands of signatures. National columnists, including several conservative ones, penned op-eds urging me to run, and Time magazine published a cover story titled “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.” Apparently, though, not everyone was sold on my prospects. Gibbs reported that when he stopped at a kiosk on Michigan Avenue to get a copy of Time, the Indian American vendor looked down at my picture and offered a two-word response: “Fuuuuck that.” We had a good laugh over this. And as the speculation about my candidacy grew, Gibbs and I would repeat the phrase like an incantation, one that helped maintain our grasp on reality and ward off the growing sense that events were moving beyond our control. The crowd at my final stop before the midterm elections, an evening rally in Iowa City in support of the Democratic candidate for governor, was especially raucous. Standing on the stage and looking out at the thousands of people gathered there, their breath rising like mist through the klieg lights, their faces turned up in expectation, their cheers drowning out my haggard voice, I felt as if I were watching a scene in a movie, the figure onstage not my own.

When I got home late that night, the house was dark and Michelle was already asleep. After taking a shower and going through a stack of mail, I slipped under the covers and began drifting off. In that liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, I imagined myself stepping toward a portal of some sort, a bright and cold and airless place, uninhabited and severed from the world. And behind me, out of the darkness, I heard a voice, sharp and clear, as if someone were right next to me, uttering the same word again and again.

No. No. No.

I jolted out of bed, my heart racing, and went downstairs to pour myself a drink. I sat alone in the dark, sipping vodka, my nerves jangled, my brain in sudden overdrive. My deepest fear, it turned out, was no longer of irrelevance, or being stuck in the Senate, or even losing a presidential race.

The fear came from the realization that I could win.

RIDING A WAVE of antipathy toward the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, Democrats swept just about every important contest in November, winning control of both the House and the Senate. As hard as we’d worked to help achieve these results, my team and I had no time to celebrate. Instead, starting the day after the election, we began charting a possible path to the White House.

Our pollster, Paul Harstad, went through the numbers and found me already among the first tier of candidates. We discussed the primary and caucus calendar, understanding that for an upstart campaign like mine, everything would depend on winning the early states, especially Iowa. We ran through what a realistic budget might look like, and how we’d go about raising the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take just to win the Democratic nomination. Pete and Alyssa presented plans for juggling my Senate duties with campaign travel. Axelrod wrote a memo outlining the themes of a potential campaign, and how—given voters’ utter contempt for Washington—my message of change could compensate for my obvious lack of experience.

Despite how little time they’d had, everyone had carried out their assignments with thoroughness and care. I was especially impressed by David Plouffe. In his late thirties, slight and intense, with sharp features and a crisp yet informal manner, he had dropped out of college to work on a series of Democratic campaigns and also ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee before joining Axelrod’s consulting firm. I sat listening one day as he mapped out how we might power a grassroots state-by-state organizing effort using both our volunteer base and the internet, and later I told Pete that if we did this, Plouffe seemed like the clear choice for campaign manager.

“He’s excellent,” Pete said. “It might take some convincing, though. He’s got a young family.”

This was one of the more striking things about our discussions that month: The entire team displayed an ambivalence that matched my own. It wasn’t just that my candidacy remained a long shot; both Plouffe and Axelrod were blunt in saying that for me to beat Hillary Clinton, a “national brand,” we would have to pitch close to a perfect game. No, what gave them more pause was the fact that, unlike me, they had seen presidential campaigns up close. They knew all too well the grueling nature of the enterprise. They understood the toll it would take not just on me and my family but on them and their families as well.

We’d be on the road constantly. The press would be merciless in its scrutiny—“a nonstop colonoscopy” I believe Gibbs called it. I’d see very little of Michelle or the kids for a year at least—two years if we were lucky enough to win the primary.

“I’ll be honest, Barack,” Axe told me after one meeting. “The process can be exhilarating, but it’s mostly misery. It’s like a stress test, an EKG on the soul. And for all your talent, I don’t know how you’ll respond. Neither do you. The whole thing is so crazy, so undignified and brutal, that you have to be a little pathological to do what it takes to win. And I just don’t know if you’ve got that hunger in you. I don’t think you’ll be unhappy if you never become president.” “That’s true,” I said.

“I know it is,” Axe said. “And as a person, that’s a strength. But for a candidate, it’s a weakness. You may be a little too normal, too well-adjusted, to run for president. And though the political consultant in me thinks it would be a thrill to see you do this, the part of me that’s your friend kind of hopes you don’t.” Michelle, meanwhile, was also sorting out her feelings. She listened quietly during meetings, occasionally asking questions about the campaign calendar, what would be expected of her, and what it might mean for the girls. Gradually her resistance to the idea of me running had subsided. Perhaps it helped to hear the unvarnished truth of what a campaign entailed, her worst fears rendered concrete and specific and therefore more manageable. Maybe it was the conversations she’d had with Valerie and Marty, two of our most loyal friends, people whose judgment she implicitly trusted. Or the nudge she got from her brother, Craig—someone who had pursued his own unlikely dreams, first to play professional basketball and later to become a coach, even though it meant giving up a lucrative career in banking.

“She’s just scared,” he had told me over a beer one afternoon. He’d gone on to describe how Michelle and her mother used to watch his high school basketball games, but if the score got even a little close, they’d leave and go wait in the tunnel, the two of them too tense to stay in their seats. “They didn’t want to see me lose,” Craig said. “They didn’t want to see me hurt or disappointed. I had to explain that it’s part of competition.” He was in favor of me taking my shot at the presidency and said he planned to talk it over with his sister. “I want her to see the bigger picture,” he said. “The chance to compete at this level isn’t something you can pass up.” One day in December, just ahead of our holiday trip to Hawaii, our team held what was to be the final meeting before I decided whether to move forward or not. Michelle patiently endured an hour-long discussion on staffing and the logistics of a potential announcement before cutting in with an essential question.

“You’ve said there are a lot of other Democrats who are capable of winning an election and being president. You’ve told me the only reason for you to run is if you could provide something that the others can’t. Otherwise it’s not worth it. Right?” I nodded.

“So my question is why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?”

We looked at each other across the table. For a moment, it was as if we were alone in the room. My mind flipped back to the moment seventeen years earlier when we first met, me arriving late to her office, a little damp from the rain, Michelle rising up from her desk, so lovely and self-possessed in a lawyerly blouse and skirt, and the easy banter that followed. I had seen in those round, dark eyes of hers a vulnerability that I knew she rarely let show. I knew even then that she was special, that I would need to know her, that this was a woman I could love. How lucky I had been, I thought.

“Barack?”

I shook myself out of the reverie. “Right,” I said. “Why me?” I mentioned several of the reasons we’d talked about before. That I might be able to spark a new kind of politics, or get a new generation to participate, or bridge the divisions in the country better than other candidates could.

“But who knows?” I said, looking around the table. “There’s no guarantee we can pull it off. Here’s one thing I know for sure, though. I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country—Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in—they’ll see themselves differently, too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone…that would be worth it.” The room was quiet. Marty smiled. Valerie was tearing up. I could see different members of the team conjuring it in their minds, the swearing in of the first African American president of the United States.

Michelle stared at me for what felt like an eternity. “Well, honey,” she said finally, “that was a pretty good answer.”

Everyone laughed, and the meeting moved on to other business. In years to come, those who’d been in the room would sometimes make reference to that meeting, understanding that my answer to Michelle’s question had been an impromptu articulation of a shared faith, the thing that had launched us all on what would be a long, rough, and improbable journey. They would remember it when they saw a little boy touch my hair in the Oval Office, or when a teacher reported that the kids in her inner-city class had started studying harder after I was elected.

And it’s true: In answering Michelle’s question, I was anticipating the ways in which I hoped that even a credible campaign might shake loose some vestiges of America’s racial past. But privately I knew that getting there also meant something more personal.

If we won, I thought, it would mean that my U.S. Senate campaign hadn’t just been dumb luck.

If we won, it would mean that what had led me into politics wasn’t just a pipe dream, that the America I believed in was possible, that the democracy I believed in was within reach.

If we won, it would mean that I wasn’t alone in believing that the world didn’t have to be a cold, unforgiving place, where the strong preyed on the weak and we inevitably fell back into clans and tribes, lashing out against the unknown and huddling against the darkness.

If these beliefs were made manifest, then my own life made sense, and I could then pass on that promise, that version of the world, to my children.

I had made a bet a long time ago, and this was the point of reckoning. I was about to step over some invisible line, one that would inexorably change my life, in ways I couldn’t yet imagine and in ways I might not like. But to stop now, to turn back now, to lose my nerve now—that was unacceptable.

I had to see how this whole thing played out.

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