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IN 1993, MICHELLE AND I purchased our first home, in a Hyde Park condominium complex called East View Park. It was a lovely location, across from Promontory Point and Lake Michigan, with dogwood trees in the ample courtyard that bloomed a bright pink every spring. The three-bedroom apartment, laid out like a railcar from front to back, wasn’t large, but it had hardwood floors and decent light, and a proper dining room with walnut cabinets. Compared to the second floor of my mother-in-law’s house, where we’d been living to save money, it felt absolutely lavish, and we furnished it as our budget allowed, with a combination of Crate & Barrel couches, Ace Hardware lamps, and yard-sale tables.
Next to the kitchen, there was a small study where I worked in the evenings. Michelle called it “the Hole” because of the way it was always filled with stacks of books, magazines, newspapers, legal briefs I was writing, and exams I was grading. Every month or so, prompted by my inability to find something I needed, I’d clean the Hole in an hour-long frenzy, and I would feel very proud of myself for the three days or so it would take for the books and papers and other clutter to spring back like weeds. The Hole was also the only room in the apartment where I smoked, although once the girls were born, I took my foul habit outside to the slightly rickety back porch, where I’d sometimes interrupt families of raccoons foraging through our trash cans.
Kids reshaped our home in all sorts of ways. Foam childproofing pads appeared on the table corners. The dining room slowly became less about dining and more a repository for the playpens and brightly colored mats and toys that I found myself stepping on at least once a day. But instead of feeling cramped, the apartment’s modest size only amplified the joy and noise of our young family: splashy bath times and squeal-filled birthday parties and the sound of Motown or salsa coming from a boom box on the mantel as I spun the girls around in my arms. And while we noticed friends our age buying bigger houses in more well-off neighborhoods, the only time the idea of us moving came up was the summer when either one mouse or two (we couldn’t be sure) repeatedly scampered down the long hallway. I would fix the problem with repairs to a kitchen floorboard, but only after—with remarkable foolishness and a wiseass grin on my face—I had disputed the notion that two mice really qualified as an “infestation,” and Michelle in response had threatened to leave with the girls.
We paid $277,500 for the condo, with 40 percent down (thanks to some help from Toot) and a thirty-year fixed mortgage. On paper, our income should have comfortably supported our monthly payments. But as Malia and Sasha got older, the costs of childcare, school fees, and summer camps kept rising, while the principal on our college and law school loans never seemed to decrease. Money was perpetually tight; our credit card balances grew; we had little in the way of savings. So when Marty suggested we consider refinancing our mortgage to take advantage of lower interest rates, I made a call the next day to a neighborhood mortgage broker.
The broker, an energetic young man with a buzz cut, confirmed that he could save us a hundred bucks or so a month by refinancing. But with home prices going through the roof, he asked if we had considered also using a portion of our equity to get some cash out of the transaction. It was routine, he said, just a matter of working with his appraiser. I was skeptical at first, hearing Toot’s sensible voice ringing in my ears, but when I ran the numbers and considered what we’d save by paying off our credit card debt, the broker’s logic was hard to dispute. With neither the appraiser nor the broker ever bothering to inspect our house, with me providing only three months of pay stubs and a handful of bank statements, I signed a few papers and walked out of the broker’s office with a $40,000 check and the vague feeling that I’d just gotten away with something.
THAT’S HOW IT was in the early 2000s, a real estate gold rush. In Chicago, new developments seemed to pop up overnight. With home prices climbing at an unprecedented pace, with interest rates low and some lenders requiring just 10 or 5 percent—or even no money—down for a purchase, why pass up the extra bedroom, the granite countertops, and the finished basement that magazines and television shows insisted were standard measures of a middle-class life? It was a great investment, a sure thing—and once purchased, that same home could serve as your personal ATM, covering the right window treatments, that long-desired Cancún vacation, or making up for the fact that you didn’t get a raise last year. Eager to get in on the action, friends, cabdrivers, and schoolteachers told me they’d started flipping houses, everyone suddenly fluent in the language of balloon payments, adjustable-rate mortgages, and the Case-Shiller Index. If I cautioned them gently—real estate can be unpredictable, you don’t want to get in too deep—they’d assure me they had talked to their cousin or uncle who had made a killing, in a tone of mild amusement that implied I didn’t know the score.
After I was elected to the U.S. Senate, we sold our East View Park condo at a price high enough to cover our mortgage and home equity loan and make a small profit. But I noticed, driving home one night, that my mortgage broker’s storefront was now empty, with a big FOR SALE OR LEASE sign in the window. All those new condos in River North and the South Loop appeared unoccupied, even with developers offering buyers deeper and deeper discounts. A former staffer who’d left government to get her real estate license asked if I knew of any job openings—the new gig wasn’t panning out as she’d hoped.
I was neither surprised nor alarmed by any of this, figuring it was just the cyclical ebb and flow of the market. But back in D.C., I happened to mention the softening Chicago real estate market to a friend of mine, George Haywood, while we were eating sandwiches in a park near the Capitol. George had dropped out of Harvard Law to play professional blackjack, parlayed his skill with numbers and tolerance for risk into a job as a Wall Street bond trader, and had ultimately made a mint on personal investments. Being ahead of the curve was his business.
“This is just the start,” he told me.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the entire housing market,” George said. “The entire financial system. It’s all a house of cards waiting to topple.”
As we sat in the afternoon sun, he gave me a quick tutorial on the burgeoning subprime mortgage market. Whereas banks had once typically held the mortgage loans they made in their own portfolios, a huge percentage of mortgages were now bundled and sold as securities on Wall Street. Since banks could now off-load their risk that any particular borrower might default on their loan, this “securitization” of mortgages had led banks to steadily loosen their lending standards. Credit rating agencies, paid by the issuers, had stamped these securities as “AAA,” or least risky, without adequately analyzing the default risk on the underlying mortgages. Global investors, awash in cash and eager for higher returns, rushed in to buy these products, pumping more and more money into housing finance. Meanwhile, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giant companies that Congress had authorized to purchase qualified mortgages to encourage homeownership—and which, by virtue of their quasi-governmental status, could borrow money much more cheaply than other companies—were knee-deep in the subprime market, with their shareholders making money hand over fist as the housing market swelled.
All of this had contributed to a classic bubble, George said. So long as housing prices kept going up, everybody was happy: the family who could suddenly buy their dream house with no money down; the developers that couldn’t build houses fast enough to satisfy all these new customers; the banks that sold increasingly complex financial instruments at handsome profits; the hedge funds and investment banks that were placing bigger and bigger bets on these financial instruments with borrowed money; not to mention furniture retailers, carpet manufacturers, trade unions, and newspaper advertising departments, all of which had every incentive to keep the party going.
But with so many unqualified buyers propping up the market, George was convinced the party would eventually end. What I was noticing in Chicago was just a tremor, he told me. Once the earthquake came, the impact would be far worse in places like Florida, Arizona, and Nevada, where subprime lending had been most active. As soon as large numbers of homeowners started defaulting, investors would realize that a lot of mortgage-backed securities weren’t so AAA after all. They’d likely rush for the exits, dumping the securities as fast as they could. Banks that held these securities would be vulnerable to runs, and would probably pull back on lending to cover losses or maintain capital requirements, making it hard for even qualified families to get a mortgage, which in turn would depress the housing market even further.
It would be a vicious cycle, likely to trigger a market panic, and because of the sheer amount of money involved, the result could be an economic crisis the likes of which we hadn’t seen in our lifetimes.
I listened to all this with growing incredulity. George was not prone to exaggeration, especially when it came to money. He told me he had taken a hefty “short” position himself, essentially betting that the price of mortgage-backed securities would go way down in the future. I asked him why it was that if the risk of a full-blown crisis was so high, no one—not the Federal Reserve, or bank regulators, or the financial press—seemed to be talking about it.
George shrugged. “You tell me.”
When I got back to my Senate office, I asked some of my staff to check with their counterparts on the Banking Committee to see if anyone saw any danger in the spiking of the subprime mortgage market. The reports came back negative: The Federal Reserve chairman had indicated that the housing market was a bit overheated and due for an eventual correction, but that given historical trends, he saw no major threat to the financial system or the broader economy. With all the other issues on my plate, including the start of the midterm campaigns, George’s warning receded from my mind. In fact, when I saw him a couple of months later, in early 2007, both the financial and housing markets had continued to soften, but it didn’t seem to be anything serious. George told me that he had been forced to abandon his “short” position after taking heavy losses.
“I just don’t have enough cash to stay with the bet,” he said calmly enough, adding, “Apparently I’ve underestimated how willing people are to maintain a charade.”
I didn’t ask George how much money he’d lost, and we moved on to other topics. We parted ways that day not knowing that the charade wouldn’t last very much longer—or that its terrible fallout would, just a year and a half later, play a critical role in electing me president.
“SENATOR OBAMA. This is Hank Paulson.”
It was a week and a half after the Republican National Convention, eleven days before my first scheduled debate with John McCain. It was clear why the U.S. Treasury secretary had requested the call.
The financial system was in a meltdown and taking the American economy with it.
Although Iraq had been the biggest issue at the start of our campaign, I had always made the need for more progressive economic policies a central part of my argument for change. As I saw it, the combination of globalization and revolutionary new technologies had been fundamentally altering the American economy for at least two decades. U.S. manufacturers had shifted production overseas, taking advantage of low-cost labor and shipping back cheap goods to be sold by big-box retailers against which small businesses couldn’t hope to compete. More recently, the internet had wiped out entire categories of office work and, in some cases, whole industries.
In this new, winner-take-all economy, those controlling capital or possessing specialized, high-demand skills—whether tech entrepreneurs, hedge fund managers, LeBron James, or Jerry Seinfeld—could leverage their assets, market globally, and amass more wealth than any group in human history. But for ordinary workers, capital mobility and automation meant an ever-weakening bargaining position. Manufacturing towns lost their lifeblood. Low inflation and cheap flat-screen TVs couldn’t compensate for layoffs, fewer hours and temp work, stagnant wages and reduced benefits, especially when both healthcare and education costs (two sectors less subject to cost-saving automation) kept soaring.
Inequality also had a way of compounding itself. Even middle-class Americans found themselves increasingly priced out of neighborhoods with the best schools or cities with the best job prospects. They were unable to afford the extras—SAT prep courses, computer camps, invaluable but unpaid internships—that better-off parents routinely provided their kids. By 2007, the American economy was not only producing greater inequality than almost every other wealthy nation but also delivering less upward mobility.
I believed that these outcomes weren’t inevitable, but rather were the result of political choices dating back to Ronald Reagan. Under the banner of economic freedom—an “ownership society” was the phrase President Bush used—Americans had been fed a steady diet of tax cuts for the wealthy and seen collective bargaining laws go unenforced. There had been efforts to privatize or cut the social safety net, and federal budgets had consistently underinvested in everything from early childhood education to infrastructure. All this further accelerated inequality, leaving families ill-equipped to navigate even minor economic turbulence.
I was campaigning to push the country in the opposite direction. I didn’t think America could roll back automation or sever the global supply chain (though I did think we could negotiate stronger labor and environmental provisions in our trade agreements). But I was certain we could adapt our laws and institutions, just as we’d done in the past, to make sure that folks willing to work could get a fair shake. At every stop I made, in every city and small town, my message was the same. I promised to raise taxes on high-income Americans to pay for vital investments in education, research, and infrastructure. I promised to strengthen unions and raise the minimum wage as well as to deliver universal healthcare and make college more affordable.
I wanted people to understand that there was a precedent for bold government action. FDR had saved capitalism from itself, laying the foundation for a post–World War II boom. I often talked about how strong labor laws had helped build a thriving middle class and a thriving domestic market, and how—by driving out unsafe products and fraudulent schemes—consumer protection laws had actually helped legitimate businesses prosper and grow.
I explained how strong public schools and state universities and a GI Bill had unleashed the potential of generations of Americans and driven upward mobility. Programs like Social Security and Medicare had given those same Americans a measure of stability in their golden years, and government investments like those in the Tennessee Valley Authority and the interstate highway system had boosted productivity and provided the platform for countless entrepreneurs.
I was convinced we could adapt these strategies to current times. Beyond any specific policy, I wanted to restore in the minds of the American people the crucial role that government had always played in expanding opportunity, fostering competition and fair dealing, and making sure the marketplace worked for everybody.
What I hadn’t counted on was a major financial crisis.
DESPITE MY FRIEND George’s early warning, it hadn’t been until the spring of 2007 that I started noticing troubling headlines in the financial press. The nation’s second-largest subprime lender, New Century Financial, declared bankruptcy after a surge in mortgage defaults in the subprime housing market. The largest lender, Countrywide, avoided the same fate only after the Federal Reserve stepped in and approved a shotgun marriage with Bank of America.
Alarmed, I had spoken to my economic team and delivered a speech at NASDAQ in September 2007, decrying the failure to regulate the subprime lending market and proposing stronger oversight. This may have put me ahead of the curve compared to other presidential candidates, but I was nonetheless well behind the pace at which events on Wall Street were beginning to spin out of control.
In the months that followed, financial markets saw a flight to safety, as lenders and investors moved their money into government-backed Treasury bonds, sharply restricted credit, and yanked capital out of any firm that might have significant risk when it came to mortgage-backed securities. Just about every major financial institution in the world was dangerously exposed, having either invested directly in such instruments (often taking on debt to finance their bets) or loaned money to firms that did. In October 2007, Merrill Lynch announced $7.9 billion in losses related to mortgages. Citigroup warned that its figure might be closer to $11 billion. In March 2008, the share price in the investment firm Bear Stearns dropped from $57 to $30 in a single day, forcing the Fed to engineer a fire-sale purchase by JPMorgan Chase. No one could say if or when Wall Street’s three remaining major investment banks—Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and especially Lehman Brothers, all of which were hemorrhaging capital at alarming rates—would face a similar reckoning.
For the public, it was tempting to see all this as a righteous comeuppance for greedy bankers and hedge fund managers; to want to stand by as firms failed and executives who’d drawn $20 million bonuses were forced to sell off their yachts, jets, and homes in the Hamptons. I’d encountered enough Wall Street executives personally to know that many (though not all) lived up to the stereotype: smug and entitled, conspicuous in their consumption, and indifferent to the impact their decisions might have on everyone else.
The trouble was that in the midst of a financial panic, in a modern capitalist economy, it was impossible to isolate good businesses from bad, or administer pain only to the reckless or unscrupulous. Like it or not, everybody and everything was connected.
By spring, the United States had entered a full-blown recession. The housing bubble and easy money had disguised a whole host of structural weaknesses in the American economy for a full decade. But with defaults now spiking, credit tightening, the stock market declining, and housing prices plummeting, businesses large and small decided to retrench. They laid off workers and canceled orders. They deferred investments in new plants and IT systems. And as people who had worked for those companies lost their jobs, or saw the equity in their homes or 401(k) plans dwindle, or fell behind on their credit card payments and were forced to spend down their savings, they, too, retrenched. They put off new car purchases, stopped eating out, and postponed vacations. And with declining sales, businesses cut payrolls and spending even more. It was a classic cycle of contracting demand, one that worsened with each successive month. March’s data showed that one in eleven mortgages was past due or in foreclosure and that auto sales had cratered. In May, unemployment rose a half point—the largest monthly increase in twenty years.
It had become President Bush’s problem to manage. At the urging of his economic advisors, he had secured bipartisan agreement from Congress on a $168 billion economic rescue package providing tax breaks and rebates meant to stimulate consumer spending and give the economy a jolt. But any effect it may have had was dampened by high gas prices that summer, and the crisis only grew worse. In July, news stations across the country broadcast images of desperate customers lined up to pull their money out of IndyMac, a California bank that promptly went belly-up. The much larger Wachovia survived only after Secretary Paulson was able to invoke a “systemic risk exception” to prevent its failure.
Congress meanwhile authorized $200 billion to prevent Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—the two privately owned behemoths that together guaranteed nearly 90 percent of America’s mortgages—from going under. Both were placed in government conservatorship through the newly formed Federal Housing Finance Agency. Yet even with an intervention of that magnitude, it still felt as if the markets were teetering on the edge of collapse—as if the authorities were shoveling gravel into a crack in the earth that just kept on growing. And for the moment, at least, the government had run out of gravel.
Which was why Hank Paulson, the U.S. Treasury secretary, was calling me. I had first met Paulson when he was the CEO of Goldman Sachs. Tall, bald, and bespectacled, with an awkward but unpretentious manner, he’d spent most of our time talking about his passion for environmental protection. But his voice, typically hoarse, now sounded thoroughly frayed, that of a man fighting both exhaustion and fear.
That morning, Monday, September 15, Lehman Brothers, a $639 billion company, had announced it was filing for bankruptcy. The fact that the Treasury Department had not intervened to prevent what would be the largest bankruptcy filing in history signaled that we were entering a new phase in the crisis.
“We can expect a very bad market reaction,” he said. “And the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.”
He explained why both Treasury and the Fed had determined that Lehman was too weak to prop up and that no other financial institution was willing to take on its liabilities. President Bush had authorized Paulson to brief both me and John McCain because further emergency actions would need bipartisan political support. Paulson hoped that both campaigns would respect and respond appropriately to the severity of the situation.
You didn’t need a pollster to know that Paulson was right to be worried about the politics. We were seven weeks from a national election. As the public learned more about the enormity of the crisis, the idea of spending billions of taxpayer dollars to bail out reckless banks would surely rank in popularity somewhere between a bad case of shingles and Osama bin Laden. The following day, Paulson’s Treasury would prevent catastrophes at Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley by redefining both institutions in a way that allowed them to create commercial banks eligible for federal protection. Still, even blue-chip companies with sterling ratings were suddenly unable to borrow the money needed to finance day-to-day operations, and money market funds, previously considered as safe and liquid as cash, were now starting to buckle.
For Democrats, it would be easy enough to lay blame for the fiasco at the foot of the administration, but the truth was that plenty of congressional Democrats had applauded rising homeownership rates throughout the subprime boom. For Republicans who were up for reelection and already saddled with an unpopular president and a tanking economy, the prospect of voting for more Wall Street “bailouts” looked like an invitation to dig their own graves.
“If you need to take further steps,” I told Paulson, “I’m guessing your biggest problem will come from your side, not mine.” Already, many Republicans were complaining that the Bush administration’s interventions in the banking sector violated the core conservative principles of limited government. They accused the Federal Reserve of overstepping its mandate, and some had the gall to criticize government regulators for failing to catch the problems in the subprime market sooner—as if they themselves hadn’t spent the past eight years working to weaken every financial regulation they could find.
John McCain’s public comments up to that point had been muted, and I urged Paulson to keep in close contact with my competitor as the situation developed. As the Republican nominee, McCain didn’t have the luxury of distancing himself from Bush. His vow to continue most of Bush’s economic policies, in fact, had always been one of his great vulnerabilities. During the primaries, he’d confessed that he didn’t know much about economic policy. He’d more recently reinforced the impression that he was out of touch by admitting to a reporter that he wasn’t sure how many homes he owned. (The answer was eight.) Based on what Paulson was telling me, McCain’s political problems were about to get worse. I had no doubt his political advisors would urge him to improve his standing with voters by distancing himself from any financial rescue efforts the administration tried to make.
If McCain chose not to be supportive, I knew I’d be under fierce pressure from Democrats—and perhaps my own staff—to follow suit. And yet, as I wrapped up the conversation with Paulson, I knew that it didn’t matter what McCain did. With the stakes this high, I would do whatever was necessary, regardless of the politics, to help the administration stabilize the situation.
If I wanted to be president, I told myself, I needed to act like one.
AS EXPECTED, John McCain had difficulty coming up with a coherent response to the rapidly unfolding events. On the day of the Lehman announcement, in an ill-timed attempt at reassuring the public, he appeared at a televised rally and declared that the “fundamentals of the economy are strong.” My campaign absolutely roasted him for it. (“Senator, what economy are you talking about?” I asked, speaking later in the day at a rally of my own.) In the ensuing days, the news of Lehman’s bankruptcy sent financial markets into a full-blown panic. Stocks plunged. Merrill Lynch had already negotiated a desperation sale to Bank of America. Meanwhile, the Fed’s $200 billion loan program to banks had proven to be insufficient. Along with all the money to shore up Fannie and Freddie, another $85 billion was now being consumed by an urgent government takeover of AIG, the massive insurance company whose policies underwrote the subprime security market. AIG was the poster child for “too big to fail”—so intertwined with global financial networks that its collapse would cause a cascade of bank failures—and even after the government intervened, it continued to hemorrhage. Four days after Lehman’s collapse, President Bush and Secretary Paulson appeared on television alongside Ben Bernanke and Chris Cox, the respective chairs of the Federal Reserve and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and announced the need for Congress to pass a bill that would eventually be known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, establishing a new emergency fund of $700 billion. This was the price, they estimated, of staving off Armageddon.
Perhaps to compensate for his earlier blunder, McCain announced his opposition to the government bailout of AIG. A day later, he reversed himself. His position on TARP remained unclear, opposing bailouts in theory but maybe supporting this one in practice. With all the zigging and zagging, our campaign had no problem tying the crisis to a “Bush-McCain” economic agenda that prioritized the wealthy and powerful over the middle class, arguing that McCain was unprepared to steer the country through tough economic times.
Nevertheless, I did my best to stay true to the commitment I’d made to Paulson, instructing my team to refrain from making public comments that might jeopardize the Bush administration’s chances at getting Congress to approve a rescue package. Along with our in-house economic advisors, Austan Goolsbee and Jason Furman, I had begun consulting with an ad hoc advisory group that included former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, former Clinton Treasury secretary Larry Summers, and legendary investor Warren Buffett. All had lived through major financial crises before, and each confirmed that this one was of a different order of magnitude. Without swift action, they told me, we faced the very real possibility of economic collapse: millions more Americans losing their homes and their life savings, along with Depression-era levels of unemployment.
Their briefings proved invaluable in helping me understand the nuts and bolts of the crisis and evaluate the various responses being proposed. They also scared the heck out of me. By the time I traveled to Tampa, where I would be preparing for my first debate with McCain, I felt confident that on the substance of the economy, at least, I knew what I was talking about—and I increasingly dreaded what a prolonged crisis might mean for families all across America.
EVEN WITHOUT THE distraction of a looming crisis, I probably wouldn’t have looked forward to being holed up in a hotel for three days of debate prep. But given my inconsistency during the primary debates, I knew I needed the work. Fortunately, our team had recruited a pair of lawyers and political veterans—Ron Klain and Tom Donilon, who had served in similar roles prepping candidates like Al Gore, Bill Clinton, and John Kerry. The moment I arrived, they gave me a detailed breakdown of the debate format and an outline of every conceivable question that might be asked. Along with Axe, Plouffe, communications advisor Anita Dunn, and the rest of the team, they drilled me for hours on the precise answers they wanted to hear, down to the last word or turn of phrase. In the old Biltmore Hotel where we had set up shop, Ron and Tom had insisted on building an exact replica of the debate stage, and that first night they subjected me to a full ninety-minute mock debate, picking apart every aspect of my performance, from pace to posture to tone. It was exhausting but undeniably useful, and by the time my head hit the pillow, I was certain I would be dreaming in talking points.
Despite their best efforts, though, news from outside the Klain-Donilon bubble kept diverting my attention. In between sessions, I got updates on market developments and on the prospects for the administration’s TARP legislation. To call it “legislation” was a stretch: The bill Hank Paulson had submitted to Congress consisted of three pages of boilerplate language authorizing the Treasury to use the $700 billion emergency fund to buy troubled assets or more generally take steps it deemed necessary to contain the crisis. With the press and the public howling at the price tag and representatives from both sides of the aisle balking at the lack of detail, Pete Rouse told me, the administration wasn’t even close to having the votes it needed for passage.
Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi affirmed this when I spoke to them by phone. Both were hard-nosed politicians, not averse to bashing Republicans in order to solidify their majorities when the opportunity arose. But as I would see repeatedly over the next few years, both Harry and Nancy were willing (sometimes after a whole lot of grousing) to set politics aside when an issue of vital importance was at stake. On TARP, they were looking to me for direction. I shared my honest assessment: With some conditions attached to ensure it wasn’t just a Wall Street giveaway, Democrats needed to help get it passed. And to their credit, the two leaders said they’d manage to drag in their respective caucuses and provide votes for passage—if Bush and GOP leaders delivered sufficient Republican votes as well.
I knew that was a hell of a big “if.” Unpopular legislation, an election fast approaching, and neither side wanting to hand ammunition to the other—it seemed a surefire recipe for gridlock.
To break the impasse, I started seriously considering a quixotic idea proposed by my friend Tom Coburn, a Republican senator from Oklahoma: that McCain and I put out a joint statement advocating that Congress pass some version of TARP. If both of us placed our hands on the bloody knife, Coburn reasoned, we could take the politics out of the vote and allow a nervous Congress to make a reasonable decision without obsessing over its Election Day impact.
I had no idea how McCain would respond to this. It could come off as gimmicky, but knowing that unless a rescue package passed we’d be looking at what could turn into a full-blown depression, I figured it was worth a shot.
McCain and I spoke by phone as I rode back to my hotel after a short campaign event. His voice was soft, polite but cautious. He was open to a possible joint statement, he said, but had been mulling over a different idea: How about if we both suspended our campaigns? What if we postponed the debate, headed back to Washington, and waited until the rescue package passed?
Though I couldn’t imagine how bringing the presidential campaign circus to Washington would be in any way helpful, I was encouraged by McCain’s apparent interest in rising above the day-to-day scrum and getting a bill passed. Careful not to sound dismissive, I suggested—and John agreed—that our campaign managers work up a range of options for our consideration, and that we check back in with each other in an hour or two.
That’s progress, I thought, hanging up. I then dialed Plouffe and instructed him to call Rick Davis, McCain’s campaign manager, to follow up. Minutes later, I arrived at the hotel and found Plouffe scowling, having just hung up with Davis.
“McCain’s about to hold a press conference,” he said, “announcing his plan to suspend his campaign and fly back to Washington.”
“What? I talked to him ten minutes ago.”
“Yeah, well…it wasn’t on the level. Davis says McCain won’t even show at the debate unless a rescue package gets done in the next seventy-two hours. He says McCain’s going to publicly call on you to join him in suspending campaigning since—get this—’Senator McCain thinks politics should take a backseat right now.’ ” Plouffe spat out the words, looking like he wanted to hit somebody.
A few minutes later, we watched McCain make his announcement, his voice dripping with concern. It was hard not to feel both angry and disappointed. The charitable view was that John had reacted out of mistrust: Afraid that my suggestion of a joint statement was an attempt to one-up him, he’d decided to one-up me first. The less charitable view, shared unanimously by my staff, was that a desperate campaign was embarking on yet another poorly-thought-out political stunt.
Stunt or not, a whole passel of Washington political insiders considered McCain’s move a masterstroke. As soon as he was off the air, we were bombarded with anxious messages from Democratic consultants and Beltway supporters saying we needed to suspend the campaign or risk ceding the high ground at a moment of national emergency. But by both temperament and experience we weren’t inclined to follow the conventional wisdom. Not only did I think that the two of us posturing in Washington would lessen rather than improve the chances of getting TARP passed, but I felt that the financial crisis made it that much more important for the debate to take place, so that voters could hear directly from the two men vying to lead them through uncharted waters. Still, rejecting McCain’s call felt like a huge gamble. With my team gathered around me, I asked if anyone disagreed with my assessment. Without hesitation, they all said no.
I smiled. “Okay, then.”
An hour and a half later, I held my own press conference to say I would not be suspending my campaign. I pointed out that I was already in regular consultation with Paulson and congressional leaders and that I was available to fly to Washington at a moment’s notice if needed. I then ad-libbed a line that would dominate the news coverage: “Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time.” We had no idea how voters would respond, but we all felt good about my decision. As soon as we sat down to start gaming out next steps, though, Plouffe got an email from Josh Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff, asking that he call. He darted out of the room; when he returned a few minutes later, his frown had deepened.
“Apparently McCain has asked Bush to host a meeting tomorrow at the White House with you, McCain, and the congressional leaders to try to hash out an agreement on TARP. Bush should be calling at any minute to invite you to the festivities.” Plouffe shook his head.
“This is absolute bullshit,” he said.
ALTHOUGH IT’S NOT large, the Cabinet Room of the White House is stately, with a rich red carpet adorned with gold stars, and cream-colored walls with eagle-shaped sconces. On the north side of the room, marble busts of Washington and Franklin, sculpted in the classical style, gaze out from nooks on either side of a fireplace. At the center of the room sits an oval table made of gleaming mahogany and surrounded by twenty heavy leather chairs, a small brass plate affixed to the back of each one signifying where the president, vice president, and various cabinet members should sit. It’s a place for sober deliberation, built to accommodate the weight of history.
On most days, light streams into the room through broad French doors that look out onto the Rose Garden. But on September 25, as I took my seat for the meeting Bush had called at McCain’s behest, the sky was overcast. Around the table sat the president, Vice President Cheney, McCain, and me, along with Hank Paulson, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, the Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, plus the chairpersons and ranking members of the relevant committees. A horde of White House and congressional staffers lined the walls, taking notes and leafing through thick briefing books.
No one looked like they wanted to be there.
The president certainly hadn’t sounded enthusiastic when we’d spoken on the phone the previous day. I disagreed with just about every one of George W. Bush’s major policy decisions, but I’d come to like the man, finding him to be straightforward, disarming, and self-deprecating in his humor.
“I can’t tell you why McCain thinks this is a good idea,” he’d said, sounding almost apologetic. He acknowledged that Hank Paulson and I were already communicating a couple of times daily and expressed appreciation for my behind-the-scenes help with congressional Democrats. “If I were you, Washington’s the last place I’d want to be,” Bush said. “But McCain asked, and I can’t say no. Hopefully we can keep it short.” Only later would I learn that Paulson and the rest of Bush’s team had been opposed to the meeting, and for good reason. Over the previous several days, congressional leaders had begun to narrow their differences on the TARP legislation. That very morning, there had been reports of a tentative agreement (although within a few hours, House Republicans pulled back from it). With negotiations at such a delicate stage, Bush’s advisors rightly felt that inserting me and McCain into the process would likely hinder more than help.
Bush, though, had overruled his team, and I couldn’t blame him. Given the increasing resistance to TARP within his own party, he could hardly afford to have the Republican nominee go south on him. Still, the entire proceeding had the air of an elaborate charade. Looking at the dour faces around the room, I understood we were gathered not for a substantive negotiation but rather a presidential effort to placate one man.
The president opened with a brief appeal for unity before turning the meeting over to Paulson, who updated us on current market conditions and explained how TARP funds would be used to buy up bad mortgages (“toxic assets,” as they were called) from the banks, thereby shoring up balance sheets and restoring market confidence. “If Hank and Ben think this plan is going to work,” Bush said after they were finished, “then that’s what I’m for.” In accordance with protocol, the president next called on Speaker Pelosi. Rather than take the floor herself, though, Nancy politely informed the president that the Democrats would have me speak first, on their behalf.
It had been Nancy and Harry’s idea that I serve as their point person, and I was grateful for it. Not only did it ensure that I wouldn’t be outflanked by McCain during the deliberations, but it signaled that my fellow Democrats saw their political fortunes as wrapped up with mine. The move seemed to catch the Republicans by surprise, and I couldn’t help noticing the president giving Nancy one of his patented smirks—as a shrewd politician, he recognized a deft maneuver when he saw one—before nodding my way.
For the next several minutes, I spoke about the nature of the crisis, the details of the emerging legislation, and the remaining points on oversight, executive compensation, and homeowner relief that Democrats believed still needed to be addressed. Noting that both Senator McCain and I had publicly pledged not to play politics with the financial rescue effort, I told the president that Democrats would deliver their share of the votes needed for passage. But I warned that if there was any truth to reports that some Republican leaders were backing away and insisting on starting from scratch with a whole new plan, it would inevitably bog down negotiations, and “the consequences would be severe.” Bush turned to McCain and said, “John, since Barack had a chance to speak, I think it’s only fair if I let you go next.”
Everyone looked at McCain, whose jaw tightened. He appeared to be on the verge of saying something, thought better of it, and briefly fidgeted in his chair.
“I think I’ll just wait for my turn,” he said finally.
There are moments in an election battle, as in life, when all the possible pathways save one are suddenly closed; when what felt like a wide distribution of probable outcomes narrows to the inevitable. This was one of those moments. Bush looked at McCain with a raised eyebrow, shrugged, and called on John Boehner. Boehner said he wasn’t talking about starting from scratch but just wanted some modifications—including a plan he had trouble describing, which involved the federal government insuring banks’ losses rather than purchasing their assets.
I asked Paulson if he’d looked at this Republican insurance proposal and determined whether it would work. Paulson said firmly that he had and it wouldn’t.
Richard Shelby, the ranking member on the Senate Banking Committee, interjected to say he’d been told by a number of economists that TARP wouldn’t work. He suggested that the White House give Congress more time to consider all its options. Bush cut him off and said the country didn’t have more time.
As the discussion wore on, it became increasingly apparent that none of the Republican leaders were familiar with the actual content of the latest version of the TARP legislation—or for that matter the nature of their own proposed changes. They were simply trying to find a way to avoid taking a tough vote. After listening to several minutes of wrangling back and forth, I jumped in again.
“Mr. President,” I said, “I’d still like to hear what Senator McCain has to say.”
Once again, everyone turned to McCain. This time he studied a small note card in his hand, muttered something I couldn’t make out, and then served up maybe two or three minutes of bromides—about how talks seemed to be making progress, how it was important to give Boehner room to move his caucus to yes.
And that was it. No plan. No strategy. Not even a smidgen of a suggestion as to how the different positions might be bridged. The room fell silent as McCain set down his note card, his eyes downcast, like a batter who knows he’s just whiffed at the plate. I almost felt sorry for him; for his team to have encouraged such a high-stakes move and then sent their candidate into the meeting unprepared was political malpractice. When reporters got wind of his performance that day, the coverage would not be kind.
The more immediate effect of John’s weirdness, though, was to set off a Cabinet Room free-for-all. Nancy and Spencer Bachus, the ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, started arguing over who deserved credit for the stronger taxpayer protections in the most recent version of the legislation. Barney Frank, the tough and quick-witted Democrat from Massachusetts who knew his stuff and had probably worked harder than anyone to help Paulson get TARP across the finish line, started taunting the Republicans, yelling repeatedly, “What’s your plan? What’s your plan?” Faces reddened; voices rose; people talked over one another. And all the while, McCain remained silent, stewing in his chair. It got so bad that finally President Bush rose to his feet.
“I’ve obviously lost control of this meeting,” he said. “We’re finished.”
With that, he wheeled around and charged out the south door.
The entire scene left me stunned.
As McCain and the Republican leadership quickly filed out of the room, I pulled Nancy, Harry, and the rest of the Democrats into a huddle in the adjacent Roosevelt Room. They were in various states of agitation, and because we’d already decided I wouldn’t be giving any post-meeting comments to reporters, I wanted to make sure that none of them said anything that might make matters worse. We were discussing ways that they could constructively summarize the meeting when Paulson entered, looking absolutely shell-shocked. Several of my colleagues started shooing him away, as if he were an unpopular kid on the playground. A few even jeered.
“Nancy,” Paulson said, towering next to the Speaker. “Please…” And then, in an inspired and somewhat sad blend of humor and desperation, he lowered his six-foot-five, sixty-two-year-old frame onto one knee. “I’m begging you. Don’t blow this up.” The Speaker allowed a quick smile. “Hank, I didn’t know you were Catholic,” she said. Just as quickly her smile evaporated, and she added curtly, “You may not have noticed, but we’re not the ones trying to blow things up.” I had to give Paulson credit; getting back to his feet, he stood there for several more minutes and let the Democrats vent. By the time they exited for press availability, everyone had calmed down and agreed to try to put the best spin they could on the meeting. Hank and I made plans to talk later that night. After leaving the White House, I put in a call to Plouffe.
“How’d it go?” he asked.
I thought for a moment.
“It went fine for us,” I said. “But based on what I just saw, we better win this thing or the country is screwed.”
I’M NOT BY NATURE a superstitious person. As a kid, I didn’t have a lucky number or own a rabbit’s foot. I didn’t believe in ghosts or leprechauns, and while I might have made a wish when blowing out birthday candles or tossing a penny into a fountain, my mother had always been quick to remind me that there’s a direct link between doing your work and having your wishes come true.
Over the course of the campaign, though, I found myself making a few concessions to the spirit world. One day in Iowa, for instance, a burly, bearded guy in biker garb and covered with tattoos strode up to me after an event and shoved something into my hand. It was his lucky metal poker chip, he explained; it had never failed him in Vegas. He wanted me to have it. A week later, a young blind girl in New Hampshire reached out to give me a small heart made of pink glass. In Ohio, it was a silver cross from a nun with an irrepressible smile and a face as grooved as a peach pit.
My assortment of charms grew steadily: a miniature Buddha, an Ohio buckeye, a laminated four-leaf clover, a tiny bronze likeness of Hanuman the monkey god, all manner of angels, rosary beads, crystals, and rocks. Each morning, I made a habit of choosing five or six of them and putting them in my pocket, half consciously keeping track of which ones I had with me on a particularly good day.
If my cache of small treasures didn’t guarantee that the universe would tilt in my favor, I figured they didn’t hurt. I felt comforted anytime I turned them over in my hand or felt their light jangling as I moved from event to event. Each charm was a tactile reminder of all the people I’d met, a faint but steady transmission of their hopes and expectations.
I also became particular about my debate-day rituals. The morning was always devoted to going over strategy and key points, the early afternoon to some light campaigning. But by four o’clock I wanted the schedule cleared. To shed excess adrenaline, I’d get in a quick workout. Then, ninety minutes before heading to the venue, I’d shave and take a long hot shower, before putting on the new shirt (white) and tie (blue or red) that Reggie had hung in the hotel closet beside my freshly pressed blue suit. For dinner, comfort food: steak cooked medium-well, roasted or mashed potatoes, steamed broccoli. And in the half hour or so ahead of the debate, while glancing at my notes, I’d listen to music delivered through earbuds or a small portable speaker. Eventually I became a tad compulsive about hearing certain songs. At first it was a handful of jazz classics—Miles Davis’s “Freddie Freeloader,” John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady.” (Before one primary debate, I must have played that last track two or three times in a row, clearly indicating a lack of confidence in my preparations.) Ultimately it was rap that got my head in the right place, two songs especially: Jay-Z’s “My 1st Song” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Both were about defying the odds and putting it all on the line (“Look, if you had one shot or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip…”); how it felt to spin something out of nothing; getting by on wit, hustle, and fear disguised as bravado. The lyrics felt tailored to my early underdog status. And as I sat alone in the back of the Secret Service van on the way to a debate site, in my crisp uniform and dimpled tie, I’d nod my head to the beat of those songs, feeling a whiff of private rebellion, a connection to something grittier and more real than all the fuss and deference that now surrounded me. It was a way to cut through the artifice and remember who I was.
Before my first debate with John McCain in late September, I followed the ritual to a T. I ate my steak, listened to my music, felt the weight of the charms in my pocket as I walked onto the stage. But frankly, I didn’t need a lot of luck. By the time I arrived on the campus of the University of Mississippi—the place where less than fifty years earlier a Black man named James Meredith had been forced to obtain a Supreme Court order and the protection of five hundred federal law enforcement personnel simply to attend—I was no longer the underdog.
The race was now mine to lose.
As expected, the press covering the fiasco at the White House meeting had been merciless to McCain. His problems only grew worse when his campaign announced, just a few hours before the debate, that—because of the “progress” that had resulted from his intervention in congressional negotiations around TARP—he would lift the self-imposed suspension of his campaign and participate after all. (We’d planned to show up regardless, even if it meant I had a nice, televised one-on-one conversation with the moderator, Jim Lehrer.) Reporters saw McCain’s latest move for what it was: a hasty retreat after a political stunt that had backfired.
The debate itself offered few surprises. McCain appeared relaxed onstage, patching together lines from his campaign speeches and standard Republican orthodoxy, delivered with ample doses of humor and charm. Still, his spotty knowledge of the details of the financial crisis and his lack of answers for what he planned to do about it became more and more evident as we continued to joust. Meanwhile, I was on my game. No doubt my training regimen at the hands of drill sergeants Klain and Donilon had paid off; as much as I instinctively resisted canned answers to questions, there was no denying that both television audiences and the pundits found my more practiced responses compelling, and the preparation kept me from droning on too long.
More than that, though, my mood for the debate with McCain was noticeably different. Unlike my debates with Hillary and the rest of the Democratic field, which so often felt like an elaborate game, splitting hairs and notching style points, the differences between me and John McCain were real and deep; the stakes in choosing one of us over the other would reverberate for decades, with consequences for millions of people. Confident in my command of the facts, certain of why my ideas had a better chance than John’s of meeting the challenges the country now faced, I felt energized by our exchanges and found myself (almost) enjoying our ninety minutes onstage.
The snap postdebate surveys of undecided voters showed me winning by a wide margin. My team was giddy, full of fist bumps, high fives, and probably a few private sighs of relief.
Michelle was happy but more subdued. She hated going to debates; as she described it, having to sit there looking serene, no matter what was said about me or how badly I screwed up, her stomach churning, was like getting a tooth drilled without novocaine. In fact, whether out of fear that it might jinx the outcome, or because of her own ambivalence about the prospect of my winning, she generally avoided talking to me about the horse-race aspect of the campaign. Which is why I was surprised when, in bed later that night, she turned to me and said, “You’re going to win, aren’t you?” “A lot can still happen…but yeah. There’s a pretty good chance I will.”
I looked at my wife. Her face was pensive, as if she were working out a puzzle in her mind. Finally she nodded to herself and returned my gaze.
“You’re going to win,” she said softly. She kissed me on the cheek, turned off the bedside lamp, and pulled the covers over her shoulders.
ON SEPTEMBER 29, three days after the debate at Ole Miss, Bush’s TARP legislation fell thirteen votes short of passage in the House of Representatives, with two-thirds of Democrats voting in support of it and two-thirds of Republicans voting against it. The Dow Jones immediately sustained a terrifying 778-point drop, and after a pounding in the press and no doubt a flood of calls from constituents watching their retirement accounts evaporate, enough members of both parties flipped to pass an amended version of the rescue package several days later.
Greatly relieved, I called Hank Paulson to congratulate him for his efforts. But while TARP’s passage would prove to be critical in saving the financial system, the whole episode did nothing to reverse the public’s growing impression that the GOP—and by extension their nominee for president—couldn’t be trusted to responsibly handle the crisis.
Meanwhile, the campaign decisions that Plouffe had pushed for months earlier were paying off. Our army of organizers and volunteers had fanned out across the country, registering hundreds of thousands of new voters and launching unprecedented operations in states that allowed early voting. Our online donations continued to flow, allowing us to play in whatever media markets we chose. When, a month ahead of the election, the McCain campaign announced it was halting its efforts in Michigan, historically a key battleground state, to concentrate its resources elsewhere, Plouffe was almost offended. “Without Michigan, they can’t win!” he said, shaking his head. “They might as well raise a white flag!” Instead of focusing energy on Michigan, the McCain campaign turned their attention to a man who’d become an unlikely cult figure: Joe Wurzelbacher.
I’d encountered Wurzelbacher a few weeks earlier as I did some old-fashioned door knocking in Toledo, Ohio. It was the kind of campaigning I enjoyed most, surprising people as they raked leaves or worked on their cars in the driveway, watching kids zoom up on bikes to see what the commotion was about.
That day, I was standing on a corner, signing autographs and talking with a group of people, when a man with a shaved head who looked to be in his late thirties introduced himself as Joe and asked about my tax plan. He was a plumber, he said, and he was worried that liberals like me would make it harder for him to succeed as a small-business owner. With the press pool cameras rolling, I explained that my plan would raise taxes only on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, and that by investing those revenues in things like education and infrastructure, the economy and his business would be more likely to prosper. I told him that I believed that this sort of redistribution of income—“when you spread the wealth around” were my words—had always been important in opening up opportunity to more people.
Joe was affable but unconvinced, and we agreed to disagree, shaking hands before I left. In the van headed back to our hotel, Gibbs—who like any great campaign communications director had an unerring nose for how a few seemingly innocuous words could trigger political silliness—told me my comment about spreading the wealth was problematic.
“What are you talking about?”
“The phrase doesn’t poll well. People associate it with communism and shit.”
I laughed it off, saying that the whole point of rolling back the Bush tax cuts was to redistribute income from people like me to folks like Joe. Gibbs looked at me like a parent whose child keeps making the same mistake over and over again.
Sure enough, as soon as the footage of me and Wurzelbacher, instantly dubbed “Joe the Plumber,” surfaced, McCain started hammering on it during our debates. His campaign went all in, suggesting that this salt-of-the-earth guy in Ohio had unmasked my secret, socialist income-redistribution agenda, treating him like an oracle of Middle America. Broadcast news anchors were suddenly interviewing Joe. There were Joe the Plumber TV spots, and McCain brought Joe with him to a few campaign rallies. Joe himself seemed by turns amused, baffled, and occasionally put out by his newfound fame. But when all was said and done, most voters seemed to view Joe as not much more than a distraction from the serious business of electing the next president.
Most voters, but not all. For those who got their news from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, Joe the Plumber fit neatly into some larger narrative involving Reverend Wright; my alleged fealty to radical community organizer Saul Alinsky; my friendship with my neighbor Bill Ayers, who’d once been a leader of the militant group the Weather Underground; and my shadowy Muslim heritage. For these voters, I was no longer just a left-of-center Democrat who planned to broaden the social safety net and end the war in Iraq. I was something more insidious, someone to be feared, someone to be stopped. To deliver this urgent, patriotic message to the American people, they increasingly looked to their most fearless champion, Sarah Palin.
Since August, Palin had tanked during a number of high-profile media interviews, becoming a punch line on Saturday Night Live and other late-night comedy shows. But her power lay elsewhere. She’d spent the first week of October drawing big crowds and enthusiastically gassing them up with nativist bile. From the stage, she accused me of “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” She suggested that I was “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” People turned up at rallies wearing T-shirts bearing slogans like PALIN’S PITBULLS and NO COMMUNISTS. The media reported shouts of “Terrorist!” and “Kill him!” and “Off with his head!” coming from her audiences. Through Palin, it seemed as if the dark spirits that had long been lurking on the edges of the modern Republican Party—xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks—were finding their way to center stage.
It was a testament to John McCain’s character, his fundamental decency, that anytime a supporter approached him spewing Palin-style rhetoric, he politely pushed back. When a man at a Minnesota rally announced into the microphone that he was afraid of having me as a president, McCain wouldn’t have it.
“I have to tell you, he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States,” he said, causing his audience to boo lustily. Answering another question, he said, “We want to fight, and I will fight. But we will be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him. I want everyone to be respectful and let’s make sure we are because that’s the way politics should be conducted in America.” I wonder sometimes whether with the benefit of hindsight McCain would still have chosen Palin—knowing how her spectacular rise and her validation as a candidate would provide a template for future politicians, shifting his party’s center and the country’s politics overall in a direction he abhorred. I never posed the question to him directly, of course. Over the next decade, our relationship would evolve into one of grudging but genuine respect, but the 2008 election understandably remained a sore point.
I like to think that, given the chance to do it over again, he might have chosen differently. I believe he really did put his country first.
THE CHANT THAT had started with Edith Childs and her big hat in a small room in Greenwood, South Carolina, more than a year earlier now rose spontaneously, rippling through crowds of forty or fifty thousand, as people filled up football fields and city parks, undaunted by the unseasonably hot October weather. Fired up, ready to go! Fired up, ready to go! We had built something together; you could feel the energy like a physical force. With just a few weeks to go before the election, our field offices were scrambling to find enough space to accommodate the numbers of people signing on to volunteer; Shepard Fairey’s graphic art poster, titled HOPE, with a stylized red, white, and blue version of my face staring off into the distance, seemed suddenly ubiquitous. It felt as though the campaign had moved beyond politics and into the realm of popular culture. “You’re the new ‘in’ thing,” Valerie would tease.
That worried me. The inspiration our campaign was providing, the sight of so many young people newly invested in their ability to make change, the bringing together of Americans across racial and socioeconomic lines—it was the realization of everything I’d once dreamed might be possible in politics, and it made me proud. But the continuing elevation of me as a symbol ran contrary to my organizer’s instincts, that sense that change involves “we” and not “me.” It was personally disorienting, too, requiring me to constantly take stock to make sure I wasn’t buying into the hype and remind myself of the distance between the airbrushed image and the flawed, often uncertain person I was.
I was also contending with the likelihood that if I was elected president, it would be impossible to meet the outsized expectations now attached to me. Since winning the Democratic nomination, I’d begun to experience reading the newspapers differently, in a way that gave me a jolt. Every headline, every story, every exposé, was another problem for me to solve. And problems were piling up quickly. Despite TARP’s passage, the financial system remained paralyzed. The housing market was in a nosedive. The economy was shedding jobs at an accelerating rate, and there was speculation that the Big Three automakers would soon be in jeopardy.
The responsibility of tackling these problems didn’t scare me. In fact, I relished the chance. But from everything I was learning, things were likely to get significantly worse before they got better. Resolving the economic crisis—not to mention winding down two wars, delivering on healthcare, and trying to save the planet from catastrophic climate change—was going to be a long, hard slog. It would require a cooperative Congress, willing allies, and an informed, mobilized citizenry that could sustain pressure on the system—not a solitary savior.
So what would happen when change didn’t come fast enough? How would these cheering crowds respond to the inevitable setbacks and compromises? It became a running joke between me and the team: “Are we sure we want to win this thing? It’s not too late to throw it.” Marty expressed a more ethnic version of the same sentiment: “Two hundred and thirty-two years and they wait until the country’s falling apart before they turn it over to the brother!” —
MORE THAN ANYTHING campaign-related, it was news out of Hawaii that tempered my mood in October’s waning days. Maya called, saying the doctors didn’t think Toot would last much longer, perhaps no more than a week. She was now confined to a rented hospital bed in the living room of her apartment, under the care of a hospice nurse and on palliative drugs. Although she had startled my sister with a sudden burst of lucidity the previous evening, asking for the latest campaign news along with a glass of wine and a cigarette, she was now slipping in and out of consciousness.
And so, twelve days before the election, I made a thirty-six-hour trip to Honolulu to say goodbye. Maya was waiting for me when I arrived at Toot’s apartment; I saw that she had been sitting on the couch with a couple of shoeboxes of old photographs and letters. “I thought you might want to take some back with you,” she said. I picked up a few photos from the coffee table. My grandparents and my eight-year-old mother, laughing in a grassy field at Yosemite. Me at the age of four or five, riding on Gramps’s shoulders as waves splashed around us. The four of us with Maya, still a toddler, smiling in front of a Christmas tree.
Taking the chair beside the bed, I held my grandmother’s hand in mine. Her body had wasted away and her breathing was labored. Every so often, she’d be shaken by a violent, metallic cough that sounded like a grinding of gears. A few times, she murmured softly, although the words, if any, escaped me.
What dreams might she be having? I wondered if she’d been able to look back and take stock, or whether she’d consider that too much of an indulgence. I wanted to think that she did look back; that she’d reveled in the memory of a long-ago lover or a perfect, sunlit day in her youth when she’d experienced a bit of good fortune and the world had revealed itself to be big and full of promise.
I thought back to a conversation I’d had with her when I was in high school, around the time that her chronic back problems began making it difficult for her to walk for long stretches.
“The thing about getting old, Bar,” Toot had told me, “is that you’re the same person inside.” I remember her eyes studying me through her thick bifocals, as if to make sure I was paying attention. “You’re trapped in this doggone contraption that starts falling apart. But it’s still you. You understand?” I did now.
For the next hour or so, I sat talking to Maya about her work and her family, all the while stroking Toot’s dry, bony hand. But eventually the room felt too crowded with memories—colliding, merging, refracting, like images in a kaleidoscope—and I told Maya I wanted to take a quick walk outside. After consulting with Gibbs and my Secret Service detail, it was agreed that the press pool downstairs would not be informed, and I took the elevator to the basement level and went out through the garage, turning left down the narrow street that ran behind my grandparents’ apartment building.
The street had barely changed in thirty-five years. I passed the rear of a small Shinto temple and community center, then rows of wooden homes broken up by the occasional three-story concrete apartment building. I had bounced my first basketball—a gift from my father when I was ten years old—down this street, dribbling the length of the uneven sidewalk on my way to and from the courts at the nearby elementary school. Toot used to say that she always knew when I was coming home for dinner because she could hear that darn ball bouncing from ten stories up. I had run down this street to the supermarket to buy her cigarettes, motivated by her promise that I could buy a candy bar with the change if I was back in ten minutes. Later, when I was fifteen, I’d walk this same street home from a shift at my first job, scooping ice cream at the Baskin-Robbins around the corner, Toot laughing heartily when I grumbled to her about my paltry paycheck.
Another time. Another life. Modest and without consequence to the rest of the world. But one that had given me love. Once Toot was gone, there would be no one left who remembered that life, or remembered me in it.
I heard a stampede of feet behind me; the press pool had somehow gotten wind of my unscheduled excursion and were gathering on the sidewalk across the street, cameramen jostling to set up their shots, reporters with microphones looking at me awkwardly, clearly conflicted about shouting a question. They were decent about it, really just doing their jobs, and anyway I had barely traveled four blocks. I gave the press a quick wave and turned around to go back to the garage. There was no point in going farther, I realized; what I was looking for was no longer there.
I left Hawaii and went back to work. Eight days later, on the eve of the election, Maya called to say Toot had died. It was my last day of campaigning. We were scheduled to be in North Carolina that evening, before flying to Virginia for our final event. Before heading to the venue, Axe asked me gently if I needed help writing a topper to my usual campaign remarks, to briefly acknowledge my grandmother’s death. I thanked him and said no. I knew what I wanted to say.
It was a beautiful night, cool with a light rain. Standing on the outdoor stage, after the music and cheers and chants had died down, I spent a few minutes telling the crowd about Toot—how she’d grown up during the Depression and worked on an assembly line while Gramps was away in the war, what she had meant to our family, what she might mean to them.
“She was one of those quiet heroes that we have all across America,” I said. “They’re not famous. Their names aren’t in the newspapers. But each and every day they work hard. They look after their families. They sacrifice for their children and their grandchildren. They aren’t seeking the limelight—all they try to do is just do the right thing.
“And in this crowd, there are a lot of quiet heroes like that—mothers and fathers, grandparents, who have worked hard and sacrificed all their lives. And the satisfaction that they get is seeing that their children and maybe their grandchildren or their great-grandchildren live a better life than they did.
“That’s what America’s about. That’s what we’re fighting for.”
It was as good a closing argument for the campaign as I felt that I could give.
IF YOU’RE THE CANDIDATE, Election Day brings a surprising stillness. There are no more rallies or town halls. TV and radio ads no longer matter; newscasts have nothing of substance to report. Campaign offices empty as staff and volunteers hit the streets to help turn out voters. Across the country millions of strangers step behind a black curtain to register their policy preferences and private instincts, as some mysterious collective alchemy determines the country’s fate—and your own. The realization is obvious but also profound: It’s out of your hands now. Pretty much all you can do is wait.
Plouffe and Axe were driven crazy by the helplessness, passing hours on their BlackBerrys scrounging for field reports, rumors, bad weather—anything that might be taken as a data point. I took the opposite tack, giving myself over to uncertainty as one might lie back and float over a wave. I did start the morning by calling into a round of drive-time radio shows, mostly at Black stations, reminding people to get out and vote. Around seven-thirty, Michelle and I cast our votes at the Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, a few blocks from our home in Hyde Park, bringing Malia and Sasha with us and sending them on to school after that.
I then made a quick trip to Indianapolis to visit a field office and shake hands with voters. Later, I played basketball (a superstition Reggie and I had developed after we played the morning of the Iowa caucus but failed to play the day of the New Hampshire primary) with Michelle’s brother, Craig, some old buddies, and a handful of my friends’ sons who were fast and strong enough to keep us all working hard. It was a competitive game, filled with the usual good-natured trash talk, although I noticed an absence of hard fouls. This was per Craig’s orders, I learned later, since he knew his sister would hold him accountable if I came home with a black eye.
Gibbs, meanwhile, was tracking news from the battleground states, reporting that turnout appeared to be shattering records across the country, creating problems in some polling places as voters waited four or five hours to cast their ballots. Broadcasts from the scenes, Gibbs said, showed people more jubilant than frustrated, with seniors in lawn chairs and volunteers passing out refreshments as if they were all at a neighborhood block party.
I spent the rest of the afternoon at home, puttering around uselessly while Michelle and the girls got their hair done. Alone in my study, I made a point of editing the drafts of both my victory and concession speeches. Around eight p.m. Axe called to say that the networks had called Pennsylvania in our favor, and Marvin said we should start heading to the downtown hotel where we’d be watching the returns before moving over to the public gathering at Grant Park.
Outside the front gate of our house, the number of Secret Service agents and vehicles seemed to have doubled over the past few hours. The head of my detail, Jeff Gilbert, shook my hand and pulled me into a brief embrace. It was unseasonably warm for Chicago at that time of year, almost in the mid-sixties, and as we drove down Lake Shore Drive, Michelle and I were quiet, staring out the window at Lake Michigan, listening to the girls horsing around in the backseat. Suddenly Malia turned to me and asked, “Daddy, did you win?” “I think so, sweetie.”
“And we’re supposed to be going to the big party to celebrate?”
“That’s right. Why do you ask?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like that many people might be coming to the party, ‘cause there are no cars on the road.”
I laughed, realizing my daughter was right; save for our motorcade, the six lanes in both directions were completely empty.
Security had changed at the hotel as well, with armed SWAT teams deployed in the stairwells. Our family and closest friends were already in the suite, everyone smiling, kids racing around the room, and yet the atmosphere was still strangely muted, as if the reality of what was about to happen hadn’t yet settled in their minds. My mother-in-law, in particular, made no pretense of being relaxed; through the din, I noticed her sitting on the couch, her eyes fixed on the television, her expression one of disbelief. I tried to imagine what she must be thinking, having grown up just a few miles away during a time when there were still many Chicago neighborhoods that Blacks could not even safely enter; a time when office work was out of reach for most Blacks, and her father, unable to get a union card from white-controlled trade unions, had been forced to make do as an itinerant tradesman; a time when the thought of a Black U.S. president would have seemed as far-fetched as a pig taking flight.
I took a seat next to her on the couch. “You okay?” I asked.
Marian shrugged and kept staring at the television. She said, “This is kind of too much.”
“I know.” I took her hand and squeezed it, the two of us sitting in companionable silence for a few minutes. Then suddenly a shot of my face flashed up on the TV screen and ABC News announced that I would be the forty-fourth president of the United States.
The room erupted. Shouts could be heard up and down the hall. Michelle and I kissed and she pulled back gently to give me the once-over as she laughed and shook her head. Reggie and Marvin rushed in to give everyone big bear hugs. Soon Plouffe, Axe, and Gibbs walked in, and I indulged them for several minutes as they rattled off state-by-state results before telling them what I knew to be true—that as much as anything I’d done, it was their skill, hard work, insight, tenacity, loyalty, and heart, along with the commitment of the entire team, that had made this moment possible.
The rest of the night is mostly a blur to me now. I remember John McCain’s phone call, which was as gracious as his concession speech. He emphasized how proud America should be of the history that had been made and pledged to help me succeed. There were congratulatory calls from President Bush and several foreign leaders, and a conversation with Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, both of whose caucuses had had very good nights. I remember meeting Joe Biden’s ninety-one-year-old mother, who took pleasure in telling me how she’d scolded Joe for even considering not being on the ticket.
More than two hundred thousand people had gathered in Grant Park that night, the stage facing Chicago’s glittering skyline. I can see in my mind even now some of the faces looking up as I walked onstage, men and women and children of every race, some wealthy, some poor, some famous and some not, some smiling ecstatically, others openly weeping. I’ve reread lines from my speech that night and heard accounts from staff and friends of what it felt like to be there.
But I worry that my memories of that night, like so much else that’s happened these past twelve years, are shaded by the images that I’ve seen, the footage of our family walking across the stage, the photographs of the crowds and lights and magnificent backdrops. As beautiful as they are, they don’t always match the lived experience. In fact, my favorite photograph from that night isn’t of Grant Park at all. Rather it’s one I received many years later as a gift, a photograph of the Lincoln Memorial, taken as I was giving my speech in Chicago. It shows a small gathering of people on the stairs, their faces obscured by the darkness, and behind them the giant figure shining brightly, his marble face craggy, his eyes slightly downcast. They’re listening to the radio, I am told, quietly contemplating who we are as a people—and the arc of this thing we call democracy.
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