How Obama Mapped Out His Path To Power President-elect Barack Obama has followed an extraordinary path that lifted him from the category of "flash in the pan" first-term senator to the Oval Office in less than four years. His well-organized campaign always seemed to know how to respond to crises.
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How Obama Mapped Out His Path To Power

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How Obama Mapped Out His Path To Power

How Obama Mapped Out His Path To Power

How Obama Mapped Out His Path To Power

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Barack Obama's path from underdog candidate to president-elect is among the most unlikely success stories in the history of American politics.

The outcome is a tribute to his skills as an orator, an organizer and a politician. But none of it would have happened without a well-organized, well-funded and well-disciplined organization that always seemed to know how to respond to crises.

That's because a campaign is not a static thing. It's a process — and an unpredictable one at that. Things don't go as planned. So the real trick is to adapt.

War, Then Wall Street

Way back when, Obama was an underdog taking on front-runner Hillary Clinton.

It looked like his big issue would be the war.

"Most of you know that I opposed this war from the start. I thought it was a tragic mistake," Obama said in February 2007 during the very first speech of his campaign.

Discontent over the war did help propel Obama's early success in the Iowa caucuses and later on Super Tuesday.

But during the general election, the war actually receded as an issue, replaced by a sudden jolt of dire news from Wall Street.

"We are in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression," Obama said.

Just before the economic crisis, the Obama campaign seemed to be slumping. His long-standing lead in the polls had evaporated. His supporters openly worried that potential victory might be slipping away.

In September, Obama called an urgent meeting of his advisers to talk about the need to refocus.

Then came the failure of the giant investment bank Lehman Brothers.

Obama had long talked of the need to help American workers and the middle class. And then the economy became the centerpiece of his campaign.

He blamed the policies of President Bush and his Republican rival, John McCain.

"They said they wanted to let the market run free, but instead they let it run wild," Obama said.

Fundamental Flub

Obama prepared to go hard after McCain on the economy to highlight McCain's own past statements about not being an expert on the issue. But then McCain gave them fresh ammunition when he flubbed in reacting to the crisis on Wall Street.

"The fundamentals of our economy are strong," McCain said. Later in the day, McCain said the fundamentals were at risk.

"This morning, he said that the fundamentals of the economy are still strong," Obama said. "Sen. McCain, what economy are you talking about?"

Then McCain suspended his campaign and called on Obama to do the same. It was a moment of decision for the Democrat. He chose to keep campaigning and to keep pressing his attacks on the issue.

"It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once," Obama said.

Exit polls show that the economy was by far the most significant issue for voters on Tuesday. That gave Obama a big edge. He can credit his message, but also the huge organizational and financial advantages he used to keep McCain on the defensive the rest of the way.

The Wright Test

Over the course of the long campaign, there were other big tests Obama needed to overcome just to make it to the general election. Perhaps the biggest challenge was the emergence of a voice from Chicago's South Side.

In March, video footage surfaced of Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, saying "not God bless America. God damn America."

Suddenly, race became the issue of the campaign. Obama responded with a lengthy speech on race in America. His remarks were widely praised and very personal.

"Rev. Wright's comments were not only wrong, but divisive — divisive at a time when we need unity, racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems," Obama said.

Finally, another key part of Obama's success has been the securing of prominent endorsements along the way. Sen. Edward Kennedy and President Kennedy's daughter, Caroline Kennedy, helped make the case to traditional Democrats. And very late in the campaign came the backing of an iconic military figure, former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell.

"I think he is a transformational figure. He is a new generation coming in to the world stage, onto the American stage, and for that reason I'll be voting for Sen. Barack Obama," Powell said.

It was one more piece of reassurance for anyone still wondering about Obama's readiness. And it provided an unexpected boost that complemented all of the planning, the organizing and the adapting that the president-elect's team did along the way.