'Battle For America 2008' Details 'Extraordinary Election'

Veteran political reporters Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson followed the 2008 presidential campaign from the inside. In their new book, The Battle For America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election, they reveal little-known details about the candidates, including President Barack Obama. Guest host Daniel Zwerdling sits down with Balz and Johnson for a look past the cameras.

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DANIEL ZWERDLING, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Daniel Zwerdling.

Now, picture this. It's January 16th, 2006. That's almost three years before the presidential election, and one of Senator Barack Obama's advisors writes him a memo. The memo says: It makes sense for you to consider now whether you want to use 2006 to position yourself to run in 2008.

And the memo goes on to tell Mr. Obama that he could be a powerful candidate if a perfect storm of personal and political factors emerges. This is just one of the remarkable memos that Dan Balz and Haynes Johnson unearthed for their new book. It's called "The Battle For America 2008."

Dan Balz, Haynes Johnson, welcome.

Mr. DAN BALZ (Co-Author, "The Battle For America 2008"): Thank you.

Mr. HAYNES JOHNSON (Co-Author, "The Battle For America 2008"): Thank you.

ZWERDLING: Your book is really surprising because I think a lot of us feel like we've heard just about everything there is to hear about Senator Obama's campaign. But you show us that, number one, he started thinking about running a lot earlier than many of us think. Number two, he was a really weak candidate at the beginning. And three, he was often a surly candidate. Dan Balz.

Mr. BALZ: Well, it's very interesting. That memo from Pete Rouse that you talk about was to us quite striking, because it was literally within a week of that memo that Senator Obama went on "Meet the Press" and was asked by the late Tim Russert, Are you going to run in 2008? And he said, No, I'm not going to run in 2008.

And yet we now know that his own team was beginning to at least think about the idea that events could conspire to make it possible for him to do that.

ZWERDLING: But Haynes Johnson, when Barack Obama did start running officially in 2007, at first despite all this sort of rock star status he got in many places, he fell flat, you write.

Mr. JOHNSON: Yeah, it's a fascinating thing. The more we look at that campaign, you think you know everything. But the more you get into it, you realize how little you knew, including about the character of the candidates, and including especially about Barack Obama.

He is on the one hand one of the most confident, ambitious people I've ever seen or any of us has seen. At the same time, he would get frustrated. He'd get down, discouraged, and surly even. His team had to buck him up, and there was a whole series of events when he started out. He was not a great candidate.

And he said something very interesting in talking about his own candidacy. He describes himself as a storyteller. And it took a while to get his message right in the long run of television shorts, soundbites, and so forth.

ZWERDLING: But you write about one speech he gave to - a huge union speech, right? This was the SEIU, the big Service Employees Union? You say he bombed. What happened at that speech?

Mr. BALZ: Well, he went in there that morning, all of the major Democratic candidates were there in Las Vegas for this event, and it was the first big moment for people to talk about health care. And John Edwards was there. He spoke first. He was there with Elizabeth Edwards. It came just a couple of days after the announcement of the recurrence of her cancer. And Edwards had a plan for health care and obviously a great deal of empathy around him for what had happened with his wife.

Barack Obama then came on the stage and he had no plan and he had no particular message about health care. Hillary Clinton came on stage and she could talk for five hours on health care in a compelling way. And she was very much on her game that day. And he watched what she had done and realized how much better she was performing as a candidate than he was.

ZWERDLING: And which brings up a really interesting point about him, I think. During the previous election, when Al Gore ran, his friends and his advisors pulled their hair out trying to get this guy to loosen up. They'd say, Al, be funny, be personable, connect with people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: And the guy couldn't learn. I mean, Haynes, you're laughing. Yet when advisors came to Barack Obama and said, listen, you are not doing well, there was something about him that was able to change. What was that? How did they reach him?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, the funny thing about him is that it was always two things going at the same time. He was incredibly ambitious. He was self-confident. At the same time, he wasn't used to the sort of strain of a campaign, and he was very frustrated and down to a point where they were afraid it was affecting the entire - his candidacy.

ZWERDLING: In fact, at one point Robert Gibbs made a sort of intervention, right? Can you tell us about that?

Mr. BALZ: Well, Gibbs has a very interesting relationship with Barack Obama. They had traveled so long together in the 2004 campaign that Robert Gibbs could say things to him that not everybody else in the campaign could.

ZWERDLING: Uh-huh.

Mr. BALZ: And it was Gibbs's feeling that day that he had to go out and talk to the candidate and try to get him to feel more positive about the way things were going. And he said, There must be something positive that you feel about this campaign at this point. Focus on that and don't worry about everything else.

Obama was very unhappy at that point. He was unhappy with his own message. He was unhappy with the criticism he was getting from headquarters about his message. And he said to Gibbs, in essence, There's nothing I feel positive about right now. At this point...

ZWERDLING: Wow.

Mr. BALZ: ...there's a young man named Reggie Love who was the personal assistant to Barack Obama, big strapping young guy, played basketball at Duke. And Reggie was sitting nearby listening to this. And he looked up and he said to Obama, Boss, if it's any consolation, I'm having a blast. And Obama looked at him and he said, with a very withering look, Reggie, it's not.

Mr. JOHNSON: And that's the side of Obama that you didn't see in the public at all, nor was it written about at the time. You had this - the guy was a great orator, the great speechmaker, cool, confident, poised, held himself up. But there was the other side always there, until he finally connected and put it together.

ZWERDLING: So on another level though, and of course this is what helped him win, Barack Obama showed this amazing self-confidence that you write about. For example, there was a period where at the first debate and then in speeches later he made a series of comments about foreign policy which were widely seen by his advisors and by the media as gaffes - oh, he doesn't know enough about foreign policy. And you say his advisors were trying to get him to reword what he had said, but he refused.

Mr. BALZ: The main moment on this came at a debate in South Carolina in late July of 2007. It was the famous YouTube debate in which he was asked would you meet without conditions in your first year as president with Ahmadinejad and several other foreign dictators from hostile nations, and Obama said, I would. And David Axelrod, his senior political advisor, was in the spin room after the debate, trying gently to walk that back a little bit. And the next morning Dave started talking about it, and the aides were very nervous at that point because it had widely perceived as a gaffe, and Obama said do not back off. He said, I believe this and we're going to fight this. I feel confident about my position and if people think it's going to hurt us, we're going to take it on.

And when we talked to him later, he felt that that was in some ways a turning point. I don't want to play pop psychologist, but a turning point in his own mind that he wasn't going to listen to conventional wisdom. He wasn't going to pay attention to, you know, the bloggers and the chatter on cable television. He's going to do what he felt in his gut was the right thing to do.

Mr. JOHNSON: And you look back on that moment, if I may say, that that is very revealing about Obama the president now going through difficulties. Sure, it's not (unintelligible) self-confidence, but he was sure he was right about issues. And he was going to stay with it no matter what the difficulties would be, even though it didn't seem it was going anywhere at the time, or it might be a negative. Now, we'll see what happens a year from now and all that on the issues.

Mr. BALZ: And he also demonstrated a sort of a resilience and a sense of patience…

Mr. JOHNSON: Yes.

Mr. BALZ: …and timing that I think could be instructive for the kinds of things he's going through now.

Mr. JOHNSON: Right.

ZWERDLING: Is there something you learned about Barack Obama while researching the book that you think could cause problems for him as president?

Mr. BALZ: Well, I think that one of the things that could potentially cause problems for him is - he does have such a degree of self-confidence. Certainly the success that he has enjoyed in a relatively short time would say to him it's justifiable, and yet it can lead you down paths that might not be wise as you embark on them.

Mr. JOHNSON: I agree with that entirely. I think that looking back at what we did learn about Mr. Obama, he is - and I've watched - we both have watched a lot of presidents - in my case since Eisenhower. He is to me the single most self-confident of all the presidents that I've reported on or written about. You worry, does that sort of take over, that he can do no wrong, that he's going to be victorious, he will ride out? And the record so far is mixed, but that would be a bother, a trouble. Maybe it won't play out, we don't know.

ZWERDLING: Well, thanks so much. Washington Post political writer Dan Balz and Pulitzer Prize-winner Haynes Johnson. They're the authors of the new book "The Battle For America 2008: The Story Of An Extraordinary Election." Thanks so much for coming in.

Mr. BALZ: Thank you so much.

Mr. JOHNSON: Enjoyed being here.

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