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Cruel Intentions

Barack Obama doesn't express anger like the rest of us. He becomes cold and distant, rather than hot and strident. He over-enunciates and clips the final word of each sentence. Such was his posture on April 29, when Obama held a press conference to denounce the latest rantings of his ex-pastor, Jeremiah Wright. To the reporters who follow him from stop to stop, Obama was "seething" and "clearly upset." But, to the folks watching at home, Obama may as well have been leading a seminar on contract arbitration. A mere 30 percent of voters thought Obama was genuinely outraged, according to one poll. Fifty-eight percent said he'd denounced Wright out of political calculation.

The irony, of course, is that the reason Obama found himself in this mess was that he hadn't been calculating enough. Had he repudiated Wright back in March, when the reverend first entered the public consciousness, it hardly would have mattered what manner of deranged musing Wright later conjured up. But Obama had refused to cut the cord, and Wright wrapped it around his windpipe. On "Meet the Press" that Sunday, Obama sounded like a man who'd endured a million "I told you so"s. "It's always good to pull the Band-Aid off quick," he conceded when asked what he'd learned.

After eight years of the Clintons and eight more of Karl Rove, there's no doubt Obama's queasiness on matters of political expediency holds a certain appeal. "The politically correct, in quotes, thing to do would be to throw the guy off the boat the first chance you had," says one Obama confidant. "No one doubts Hillary would have done that." He did not mean this as a compliment. On the other hand, there's clearly some amount of cynicism, calculation, and ruthlessness that's required of any successful candidate. Which makes it worth asking: How much of these qualities does Barack Obama possess--and is it enough?

In the Clinton campaign's telling, Obama is hardly the Bambi-like figure his supporters imagine. To the Clintonites, the only thing more galling than Team Obama's portrayal of Hillary as someone who will "say anything to get elected" is the rank hypocrisy of the exercise. On practically every conference call they host, Clinton communications director Howard Wolfson and his deputy, Phil Singer, marvel at the chutzpah of someone purporting to change politics while running such and such an ad or sending out such and such a mailer. That they say this in practically the same breath that they bash Obama as an out-of-touch elitist doesn't make it untrue.

Privately, even loyalists concede Obama is more than willing to be ruthless. They often do so with a tinge of pride and satisfaction. "Just ask that lady he bumped off the ballot," says one campaign official when I bring up Obama's alleged softness. "That lady" would be former Illinois state senator Alice Palmer. In 1995, Palmer decided to run for an open congressional seat and all but proclaimed Obama her heir apparent. But, after losing the primary, Palmer wanted to stick with her old job. Obama wouldn't budge. For good measure, he challenged the petitions she'd filed to run for reelection, alleging that many of her signatures were flawed. Palmer withdrew, and Obama eventually waltzed into office unopposed.

It wasn't an anomaly. While running for U.S. Senate eight years later, Obama's campaign prepared another hard-nosed challenge--this time against a woman named Joyce Washington. The Obama camp worried that Washington, an African American who had mounted a strong primary campaign for lieutenant governor two years earlier, would threaten his chances in a seven-candidate field. The campaign spent dozens of man-hours scrutinizing Washington's signatures before eventually deciding that the risks outweighed the benefits. "We figured he might take heat because he did it once before," recalls an aide involved. (The campaign denies that this happened.)

And yet, as ruthless as Obama has been at times, there are lines he's refused to cross. Back in 2003, Obama's pollster Paul Harstad discerned that running as "Barack" rather than "Barry"--the candidate's childhood name--could cost Obama precious votes. "There was a poll," recalls Harstad. "We were trying to figure out how much resistance there was to the name 'Barack Obama.' And there was some resistance." Harstad told Obama he could get away with one weird name, but two would be a stretch. "I very distinctly remember him saying on that call: 'I'm Barack Obama. I may have been raised Barry Obama, but I'm Barack Obama.' ... He wouldn't think of changing it."

Obama has tended to shun similar stunts when they relate to race. The run-up to South Carolina was rife with talk that post-racial Obama was morphing into a decidedly pre-post-racial candidate. To reverse the slide, blogger Mickey Kaus suggested he give a speech embracing class- rather than race-based affirmative action, something Obama had flirted with in the past. Kaus had a point: The atmospherics would have been irresistible to ambivalent whites. I pushed a milder form of the idea on my own blog. Not long after, I got a response from an Obama adviser: Never gonna happen. Urging Sister Souljah politicking on him was the surest way to provoke a scowl.

The affirmative-action-speech-that-wasn't points to a broader m.o.: The more a gesture looks like a direct response to political circumstances, the less keen Obama is. Take the recent gas-tax debate. It's not that Obama would never contemplate pandering, even on an issue economists regard as bogus. In 2000, he voted for a similar measure in the Illinois state Senate. It's the particular form of pander that so overtly responds to a throbbing political need--courting working-class voters in North Carolina and Indiana, in this case--that he resists. Pete Giangreco, a senior Obama strategist, recalls a similar situation last summer. At the time, Obama had stalled out in the polls, and a number of candidates were outflanking him on the war. Major donors and Iowa supporters were pressing him to call for an immediate and complete withdrawal. Some aides wondered where Obama's votes would come from if he stuck to his more cautious position. "There was definitely a conversation--maybe we should do this, roll the dice, be more aggressive," recalls Giangreco. "But it got shut down" by Obama.

For Obama, these decisions typically boil down to three considerations. First, such pandering genuinely offends his sensibilities. Obama was pretty much untempted amid all the prodding on the war, says Giangreco. "It constantly came up. He was simply not going to change his position." The second, related consideration is that Obama believes this sort of crassness is simply unnecessary for someone of his rhetorical gifts. He has a serene confidence that he can win over people on both sides of an issue, whereas a lesser pol must slavishly follow majority opinion. "He is so good at having it both ways, so damn good," says one former aide. "It's standard Barack procedure."

Finally, there's the matter of the meta-narrative Obama has constructed. Simply put, it's hard to sell yourself as a non-politician while behaving in obviously political ways. "He has gone out of his way to communicate that he is going about this differently," says Mike Feldman, a former aide to Al Gore. "I'm sure there are times when he has to alter his tactics to be consistent with that promise." This can sound more cynical than it is. Deciding to market yourself as a "different kind of politician" imposes real constraints. No one would voluntarily accept those constraints unless they were comfortable abiding by them.

The logic of all three considerations plainly converged during the Wright fiasco. Back in March, breaking with Wright struck Obama as a cheap political move, even if, in retrospect, it was the prudent course. "[L]ife's messy sometimes, and ... things don't proceed in textbook Political 101 fashion," he reflected to Tim Russert. In any case, Obama figured he could solve the problem with his trademark speechifying. "That speech had it both ways: Keep Wright, make everybody happy," says the former aide. But, even if he'd opted for the high-percentage play, it wouldn't necessarily have worked. The fact that unloading on Wright was a political no-brainer made it risky for the guy who transcends politics.

Few will fault Obama's instincts after his May 6 triumph. The college-educated voters Wright did his best to scare off came home to Obama in the end. Still, it's hard not to feel as though the whole Obama project is an absurdly delicate ecosystem, in which a slight shift in the mix of politics and principle could lead to mass extinction. Given the disinformation campaign the GOP is surely plotting, there may be times this fall when a cheap stunt is exactly what the moment demands.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.