Even-Keeled Obama Built Image On Bridging Divides Barack Obama is cool and calm to John McCain's hot and fiery demeanor. Some see Obama as detached and aloof. Others see him as exhibiting strength and calmness in turbulent times.
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Even-Keeled Obama Built Image On Bridging Divides

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Even-Keeled Obama Built Image On Bridging Divides

Even-Keeled Obama Built Image On Bridging Divides

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. Now we're going to return to the issue of temperament and the presidential candidates. The different temperaments of Barack Obama and John McCain have been on display with the events of the last 24 hours. As we've been reporting, yesterday McCain abruptly called for a suspension of campaigning and a delay of the Friday night debate in order to deal with the financial crisis. Obama said he wanted to go ahead with the debate as scheduled. NPR's Mara Liasson has been reporting on the candidates' temperaments, yesterday on McCain's, and today it will be on Obama's. And first, Mara, there's a big question here. Will we actually see both candidates debate tomorrow night in Oxford, Mississippi?

MARA LIASSON: I think it's looking that way. It all depends on what comes out of these negotiations between the White House and Congress. Today even Haley Barbour, the Republican governor of Mississippi and the former chair of the Republican Party, said he expects the debate to go ahead.

BLOCK: This debate was supposed to be about foreign policy, Mara. Jim Lehrer is the moderator. Should we assume that at least part of this debate is going to have to be about the economy?

LIASSON: Yes, we should.

BLOCK: What has John McCain, do you think, accomplished with this gambit, coming into Washington, calling off briefly his campaign in trying to deal with this issue?

LIASSON: Well, he got Barack Obama to come back to Washington, which he hadn't planned to do. He showed himself to be a leader. He commanded news coverage for at least a day. But he also earned himself a round of attacks from Democrats who said that what was meant to be a bold act of leadership was really just a political stunt.

BLOCK: And it will be interesting to see how much traction that has with the voters. Mara, you've been reporting on both candidates' temperaments. Yesterday, you talked about John McCain, today Barack Obama.

LIASSON: That's right, Melissa. The reason why we're focusing on temperament this week is because even though the candidates spar about the issues in a campaign, voters often make their decision based on character. And in this race, Barack Obama is welcoming that comparison. Let's listen to him in Denver accepting the democratic nomination.


NORRIS: If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgment to serve as the next commander in chief, that's a debate I'm ready to have.

LIASSON: Obama's temperament is famously cool as a cucumber and unflappable. He reacted with characteristic caution to the Wall Street financial crisis, holding back at times while his rival charged ahead. His campaign mantra is "No Drama Obama." Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod, described a staff meeting after Obama's loss in the Ohio and Texas primaries.

NORRIS: And as he walked out the door, he turned around and said, you know, I'm not yelling at anybody here. He said, I could, he said, after spending $20 million and losing 2 primaries, he said, but I'm not. And he laughed and walked out the door.

LIASSON: Often it sounds as though Obama's bid for the White House is based on his temperament.


NORRIS: I think, both by training and disposition, I understand where we need to take the country.

LIASSON: That's Obama on "60 Minutes" last Sunday.


NORRIS: One of the things I'm good at is getting people in a room with a bunch of different ideas, who sometimes violently disagree with each other, and finding common ground.

LIASSON: Obama has built his public image around his ability to bridge divisions: racial, ideological, and generational. And that was his reputation even at Harvard Law School where he was the first black editor of the Law Review. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Obama was actually the Law Review's first black president.]

NORRIS: The early '90s on the Harvard Law School campus were fairly turbulent, fairly politicized. There was a lot of bitterness and political argument going on.

LIASSON: That's Brad Berenson. He served on the Law Review with Obama. A staunch conservative, Berenson went on to work in the White House for President Bush, but he has these memories about Obama's tenure.

NORRIS: He did not generally take sides in these disputes. He cast himself more in the roll of mediator and conciliator. He would make a decision when he had to, but he always tried to do it in a way that left people feeling as fairly dealt with as possible.

LIASSON: Obama was always a negotiator, not a challenger. He wrote about this trait in his book, "Dreams for my Father," a memoir about coming to terms with his mixed-raced heritage.


NORRIS: (Reading) People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied, they were relieved. Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered, young, black man who didn't seem angry all the time.

G: Part of the experience of dealing with race is learning that sometimes you have to put others at ease before you can engage on anything else.

LIASSON: That's Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a close friend of Obama's who also broke a racial barrier.

G: It's not having people's predispositions about who you are, what you think, how you'll behave so cloud the ability to actually engage with people. That's a learned behavior that from Barack's very broad-life experience and professional experience, he has adapted, and I think I have, and others in that so-called class of new black leaders have as well.

LIASSON: But for Obama, it wasn't just learned behavior. It's his natural personality.

NORRIS: I've actually never known him to be angry.

LIASSON: That's Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, who says he's the same in private.

NORRIS: He is genuinely cool. He really doesn't see the utility of getting too worked up and finds it quite easy to stay even, which as you might imagine, as his younger sister, was terribly maddening.

LIASSON: Obama's even keel sometimes comes across as aloof or even cold. That's how many interpreted his remark in a New Hampshire primary debate with Hillary Clinton.


NORRIS: You're likeable enough, Hillary. No doubt.

NORRIS: Thank you so much.

LIASSON: Clinton was able to ride the backlash of sympathy over that glib comment to victory in the New Hampshire primary. And now Obama's Republican opponents are trying to turn his effortless cool against him. They've run ads painting him as a full-of-himself celebrity and an elitist. Someone who, as Sarah Palin charged, condescended to small town voters when he called them "bitter" at a private fundraiser.

G: We tend to prefer candidates who don't talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco.

LIASSON: Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein says like many other politicians, Obama is a complicated mix of outsized abilities and flaws.

D: His strengths are his extraordinary fluency, his acuteness of mind, and capacity to handle subtleties. I think his weakness is that he seems to float above the fray.

LIASSON: The question of whether Obama's famous detachment is really a lack of toughness comes up on the campaign trail. Voter Glenn Grasso(ph) asked Obama about it at a town meeting in New Hampshire this month.


NORRIS: So for those of us that have given you our support, and more importantly our money, when and how are you going to start fighting back against attack ads and the smear campaigns?

NORRIS: Well, look. You know, I...

LIASSON: People close to Obama say it's a mistake to interpret his cerebral demeanor as a lack of passion. Instead, they say, it masks an intense competitive instinct and a fierce drive. Here he is at a campaign rally in Maryland earlier this year.


NORRIS: I have to explain to people I'm skinny, but I'm tough.

LIASSON: And then he did a little shadow box with his fists up.

NORRIS: Don't mess with me. Let them bring it on. Who they got? John McCain?

LIASSON: Tomorrow in Oxford, Mississippi, if his opponent shows up, Barack Obama will get his wish to go one on one with John McCain.

BLOCK: And Mara, regardless of who shows up, you will be there in Oxford, Mississippi.

LIASSON: You bet I will.

BLOCK: OK, Mara, thanks so much. That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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