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Barack Obama: The Interview

He claims he can get dirty if he needs to.

On November 19, I sat down with Barack Obama at Iowa Central Community College. (Go Tritons!) The senator had just finished a campaign event, and he spoke with remarkable candor about his mid-summer malaise, the challenges he faces in beating “the top brand in Democratic politics,” and how he’s not afraid to get dirty.

TNR: There are all these people, journalists included, who want to see a legend being born. They expect you to give an historic speech nearly every night. It seems like a big burden to carry around, one that maybe other candidates don’t have to deal with.

Obama: I do think that there are different expectations. Right before the [Jefferson-Jackson] dinner--who was the reporter who asked me, “Do you feel like you still have the magic of the 2004 convention?” I was sort of like, “wow.” But then at the J-J dinner, right, where you’ve got a format in which you’re trying to deliver to a big auditorium, then obviously you can do that. But it would be way over the top for me to give this big peroration when people are expecting a town hall meeting. I do think it’s fair to say that there were periods of time during the dog days of summer where… I wasn’t always firing on all cylinders. I think right now, we’re feeling pretty good. I think the people here felt that I was speaking to them and, more importantly, that they were also getting a chance to engage with me in a way that was real.

What accounts for the new energy?

Some of this is just a learning curve for me. Some of it is also my style of campaigning…. [For instance,] I oftentimes don’t write out my stump speeches. I’m kind of working them out as I’m going through. And so sometimes at the beginning of the process, the thing’s not clicking, just because I’m still trying to sense what the core of my message is, what is working with people, what do I want to communicate. Some of it is just you get better as time goes on. And some of it is, you know, it’s the fourth quarter. You’ve got to pick up your game in the fourth quarter.

The only thing I heard consistently from other people was: “Maybe this guy’s feeling like he got in this race too early. He was looking four or eight years from now, and all of a sudden he got called into this race maybe before he was ready.” Were there moments when you thought, man, maybe this is a little ahead of schedule?

I don’t think I felt that. But what I do think is that what caught us probably by surprise, although it shouldn’t have--it didn’t catch my staff by surprise. I don’t want to lump them into this. I think what probably caught me by surprise was how, from the moment we announced, it was nonstop and relentless. I felt that it would be a little more of off-Broadway before you got on Broadway. I think that probably caught me by surprise. And so after the first flush of excitement, after you’ve campaigned for three or four months, then you look up and realize, in traditional campaigns, the campaign wouldn’t have even started yet, you know. So I think there was an adjustment period there. But, actually I’ve become more certain that this is the moment where my particular skills and gifts are most needed in the country. Whether it’s the politically optimal time, I can’t tell. But in terms of me being more convinced as time goes on that my presidency would fill the needs of America right now, I’ve become more convinced of it, not less.

I asked you [in 2004] what you had learned from the 2000 campaign against Bobby Rush. And one of the things you said is, “Sometimes you’ve got to wait your turn, and sometimes you think you’re a big deal [when] other people don’t think you’re a big deal.”

Am I contradicting that lesson?

Contradicting, or just making the same mistake again?

I think this time I’m able to get my message out. I am much more humble about the twists and turns of politics now. I didn’t get into this race saying to myself, “Not only do I believe I’m a better candidate, but because I believe I’m a better candidate, I’m automatically going to win.” I’ve always understood we’re running against the top brand in Democratic politics. I always assumed that Senator Clinton and many of the other candidates would run good races. So this isn’t one of those [situations] where I think I fooled myself into some false sense of how easy this would be. I think we went into this knowing that I’m the underdog. But, having factored that in, I made the determination that, because I think this may be the right moment for the country to see me as president, it’s worth the risks involved.

I was going through ward-by-ward in Chicago and looking at the wards you won, and some of those wards were 95% white ethnic, maybe more. And so I called some aldermen, just to ask their ideas, “Why do you think Barack Obama was able to carry your ward?” The most memorable conversation came with a guy who’s an alderman in the 45th ward, I think his name is Pat Levar. [Editor’s note: It was actually Brian Doherty of the 41st.] He said, “You know, I was sort of scratching my head about that myself, I have no idea.” So I want to put it to you. And one thing I should stipulate--what becomes clear if you look at the tracking polls is that you were actually ticking up before [self-funded millionaire] Blair Hull melted down.

And [state comptroller] Dan Hynes was still in the race.

And Dan Hynes­­­.

I always assumed that as people know me and my record more that we will do better with any demographic group. And that was true of the U.S. Senate race, and I think it will be true in this race. You’re seeing this happen the further we go along. Part of our interpretation has always been that the reason we were doing not as well in the polls among blue-collar voters, union households, and seniors, was because they weren’t paying as close attention to the race. You know, they’re not reading The New Republic. They’re not reading The New York Times. They’re not watching Chris Matthews. And, so, they might have a vague notion that I had given a speech in 2004. They didn’t really know what my track record was. And, so, what we’re seeing now is that people are getting a chance to see me. And when they see me, and they hear our track record, and they hear what I’m about, then I think they feel pretty confident this guy’s going to fight for them.

That’s part of the reason we just got the UAW recommendation--I mean, that was fiercely fought. You know, John Edwards came in with a pretty strong base of support. I spoke in front of [the UAW people]. I spent a bunch of time with them. And at the end of the day, it wasn’t unanimous. But, even among Edwards supporters, many of whom I called afterwards, there was no sense that “Oh, this guy can’t connect with us.” In fairness to the other campaigns, look, Edwards has been working here for four years, and directly targeting that demographic. He’s got a certain appeal. As I said, Hillary’s a brand name. So we’ve always felt that as long as we keep on delivering our message, and if you combine it with my biography, so that people suddenly find out, “You know what, this guy’s always been on the side of working people. This guy started his career in Chicago working with working people.” Or if, you know, they hear the story of my grandparents, or Michelle’s parents, and they realize, “Yeah, the guy’s got a funny name, and he went to Harvard, but it turns out he actually is more like us than we expected,” we think we’ll do well.

I don’t know how closely you followed this, but a lot of journalists read this Ron Brownstein column at the very beginning…

Yeah, yeah. The wine--

Exactly. [Brownstein wrote that Obama could be viewed as the “wine track” candidate who appeals to college-educated elites and who is more interested in lofty ideals than bare-knuckle politics, whereas Hillary looks like the “beer track” candidate, someone who isn’t quite as eloquent, but enjoys a good fight and can get things done.] I have to say that column was influential in my writing and the way I viewed the race, too.  But in thinking about it a little more carefully, I thought he maybe confused two things. One is either you’re very partisan or you’re trying to bring people together, the other is abstract reform liberalism versus concrete--

Bill Bradley liberalism.

Exactly. And it seemed like he was confusing the fact that you’re not partisan—

With being a process Democrat.


And that’s not true. Look, I mean there’s no doubt that we have made an argument that is a little tougher than the argument that--well, we’re making an argument that our politics has to change. In that sense, it’s a process argument, to some degree. But it’s tied very concretely to what we need to get done. I’m not interested in good government for the sake of good government. You can make an argument that there were times when patronage politics worked pretty well for the down and out and for the immigrant end of America. And, you know, maybe the lace curtain crowd didn’t like it, but it really helped in terms of upward mobility. That’s not true any more. So when I say I want to change politics, it’s precisely because I want to make sure that people have health care, that they’ve got a job that pays a living wage, that they can send their kids to college, that they can retire with dignity and respect.

And you’re right that this notion of partisanship is also a little confused. I’m not afraid to get in a big partisan fight. But what I’m not going to do is organize my campaign around the fact that I’m not a Republican. I don’t think that gets us to where we need to go. So, look, nobody’s been fiercer in going after Republicans where I think they’re wrong. I’ve never been a centrist, middle of the road Democrat. I mean, if anything, both Hillary and John have had their moments, you know, their roles in that. That’s not a role I’ve ever taken. And I’ve never pretended to take that role. I have always taken the view that my job is to fight for people who nobody else is fighting for. And to fight hard for ‘em. And sometimes that’s partisan. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes working with Republicans is the best way to deliver for them. Sometimes cleaning up politics is the best way to deliver for them. Ultimately, my goal is to deliver for them.

Something one of your aides told me in 2004 was that as you guys were thinking about the general election, there was some discussion in the campaign that you should try to get to the right of [then-Republican Senate nominee Jack] Ryan on the death penalty because there were some instances where you supported it, and he was across the board not a proponent of the death penalty. And you actually told them, I don’t want to do that; I don’t want to play this kind of game.

That’s a true story.

Why were you so adamant about that?

That was something about him that I respected. Because my own views on the death penalty are very complicated. I’ve said that in theory I don’t object to the death penalty for heinous crimes--terrorism, mass murder, child killers. But, in its application, it’s been racially biased, highly unreliable, inconsistent. So for me to try to pretend that I was a cheerleader for the death penalty, simply to score a political point, that wasn’t reflective of my views. And I figured I was going to beat him by 20 points anyway.

Do you worry that people look at that and say “Well, this guy doesn’t have the thirst, the kind of bloodlust for brass-knuckle politics that you need to have?”

This argument never makes sense to me. If I lose, then I think it’s fine for people to speculate that I don’t have the bloodlust. I think I’m going to win doing exactly what I’m doing. This notion that somehow the only way to succeed in politics is to try to kneecap people, distort their records, engage in underhanded maneuvers--I just don’t buy it. Now, you know what, if it turns out in this campaign that I have lost, and the reason I’ve lost is because I wasn’t willing to do things that I think are wrong, I can live with that. I don’t think that’s going to happen. The one thing I won’t tolerate is people trying to play that stuff on me. The one thing I hope people have become very clear about, and if not I will remind them, is I won’t be a punching bag for anybody. I won’t have people try to engage in unfair attacks against me. And if they come at me hard, I will come back at them harder. Alright?