Obama's Moment

The Democratic nominee for president talks about how George W. Bush screwed up, why John McCain turned ugly and what he's learned from Bill Clinton

Barack Obama in Philadelphia on October 11th, 2008. Credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty

It's the morning after the vice presidential debate, and Barack Obama strides onto the football field at Abington Senior High School in suburban Philadelphia as Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" rings out over the loudspeakers. The bleachers on both sides of the field are packed with cheering students and their parents, and the crowd has spread out onto the lawns beyond the goal posts. Abington is one of the swing districts where the presidential race will be decided on November 4th. It's overwhelmingly white and solidly middle-class, and it just barely favored Hillary Clinton over Obama in the primaries. It's a place that Obama needs to win this time around if he wants to take Pennsylvania, and he knows it: He plans to return to Philadelphia in a week for more campaigning.

No matter what you think of Obama, it's impossible not to recognize that he rep­resents a historic turning point in Ameri­can politics – and that the momentum of the race has tilted sharply in his favor in recent weeks. Part of the shift, of course, is due to the catastrophic meltdown on Wall Street. Part of it is due to the equally impressive meltdown of John McCain: his erratic and reckless mishandling of the crisis, his desperate unleashing of the same kind of smear campaign he has long condemned. But most of the credit goes to Obama himself, to his sure-footedness as a candidate and a leader. As we wrote in our endorsement of him seven months ago, "Obama has emerged by displaying precisely the kind of character and judg­ment we need in a president: renouncing the politics of fear, speaking frankly on the most pressing issues facing the country and sticking to his principles."

Speaking to the crowd in Abington, Obama drives those principles home with a sense of outrage. "The financial crisis," he declares, "is a direct result of the greed and irresponsibility that has dominated Washington and Wall Street for years." It is an economic philosophy, he adds, that John McCain has staunchly supported during his 26 years in Congress – —opposing common-sense regulation, insisting that "the market is king" and backing massive tax breaks for the wealthy. "He hasn't been getting tough on CEOs!" Obama shouts, departing from his stump speech. "He hasn't been getting tough on Wall Street! Suddenly a crisis comes and the polls change and he's out there talkin' like Jesse Jackson. Come on!"

Americans may not be taking to the streets over the financial crisis, but they are taking to the streets for Obama. After he finishes his speech and his motorcade leaves the football field, lights flashing, people spill out onto the sidewalks for miles to catch a glimpse of him as he passes. There are salesmen cheering in front of a Ford dealership, workers in blue uniforms waving outside a sewage-supply company, secretaries holding signs, parents holding children. At an elementary school, teachers have gathered a hundred students on the lawn, row after row of five- and six-year-olds, squirming impatiently, hands clasped in their laps. Unable to resist, Obama halts the motorcade and walks over to say hello. The kids go nuts –— screaming and running in circles and literally bumping into one another – as Obama flashes a wide smile, surrounded by a sea of tiny hands.

Later, sitting in the front section of his chartered campaign plane, Obama looks weary. "I'm beat," he says. He is on his way home to Chicago, to celebrate his 16th wedding anniversary with Michelle. During the flight, he takes a half-hour to speak with Rolling Stone about the final days of this historic race –— and what is at stake for America.

It's January 20th. You take office. Look at what you're confronting: the worst eco­nomic collapse since the Great Depres­sion, the climate heating up faster than anyone imagined, dangerous nuclear in­stability around the world...
Two wars. Yeah, we got some problems.

Do you still want the job?
I tell you what – now is the time, I think, to want the job. Because this is going to be a transitional moment for the United States. We have these moments pe­riodically. Obviously, I wish that the Bush administration had not run things into the ground so bad, but no matter what, we would have had some big decisions to make. We have a big decision to make about our energy. We have a big decision to make about health care. We have a big decision to make about how do we revamp our education system to compete in a global economy. We have a big decision to make about our foreign policy and how we deal with transnational threats like terror­ism, climate change – eventually pandem­ic, refugee flows, genocide.

So how do you prioritize with so many explosive crises occurring all at once?
No matter what, there's going to be the need for a paradigm shift. The problem is that Bush has left us with very few re­sources to deal with these issues, and the economy's in a weakened state. But I de­cided to run this time —– which was rela­tively early in comparison to some other presidents, or other candidates – precisely because I thought the skills I have might be important at this time. So I welcome the challenge, and I think America can rise to it.

What makes you better prepared than John McCain to handle a crisis – whether it's a terrorist attack, a financial meltdown or a natural disaster?
We've had two significant moments where the judgment of a commander in chief would have to be applied in a very deliberate fashion. One is the war in Iraq, and the other is what's happened just over the last three and a half weeks on Wall Street. In both instances, what you've seen is John McCain being impulsive, not getting all the information that he needs, surrounding himself with people who arc predisposed to agreeing with him. And as a consequence, I think he's made bad judg­ments. In Iraq he embraced a theory of preventive war without thinking through all the consequences. He embraced the in­telligence that was patently bad, and we're suffering the consequences of it. And just over the last three and a half weeks, he's gone from being always for deregulation to now presenting himself as this cham­pion of regulatory toughness. He's gone from the economy being fundamentally sound to two hours later saying that we're in crisis. I don't get a sense that that kind of approach is what's going to be needed right now. I think we need somebody who is able to see all sides of an argument, bring the best people together, evaluate all our options, make decisive decisions, correct those decisions when they're not working out, and has a strategic sense or a vision of where the country needs to go – who's not simply reacting all the time or thinking tactically.

The campaign has taken a nasty turn in the past few weeks. Has it changed your opinion of McCain personally, the way he's run his campaign?
I just think he wants to win. And I think he's decided that the environment's not a good one for Republicans, so he's going to do what he thinks is necessary. I am sur­prised that he would hire people who are connected to the same kind of destructive politics that Bush directed at him in 2000.

Were you disturbed by the disdain he exhibited toward you during the first debate?
No. I think that's a sign that we must be doing pretty well.

Tell me your reaction when you first heard that he had picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.
I didn't know her, so it was a surprise de­cision. Look, you have to give them credit: It obviously energized the conservative wing of the party. And that's worth some­thing in politics.

Weren't you shocked, at least a little, by the choice of someone with no real experience on the national stage?
As I said, we didn't know her, so we were surprised. It wasn't anticipated.

Speaking of running mates, why didn't you pick Hillary? There are still a lot of people out there who wish you had.
Look, Hillary was on my shortlist. She is an extraordinary public servant, and she's going to be a great ally in years to come, should I be fortunate enough to be elected. I thought that the skill set that Joe Biden has — his temperament, the relationship we had built on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – made him a great fit at this time. But Hillary's extraordinary as well.

You had lunch with Bill Clinton in September. What was that like? Was it awkward trying to patch up what had become a very public relationship?
You know, it wasn't awkward at all, partly because Bill Clinton's as charm­ing a person as there is. Although I think that...well, I can just speak for myself. I never felt awkward or uncomfortable with the Clintons. And I think that some of the accusations leveled at him by some of my supporters were probably unfair. The notion that, for example, when he said, "This is a fairy tale" —– that that was a racial remark. I didn't think that was a racial remark. I think he was questioning my opposition to the war in Iraq. So he was factually wrong, and it deserved to be corrected. But one of the things I've discov­ered over the last 21 months is that I don't take things too personally.

Is there anything you feel you can learn from him, as a candidate and as a president?
Oh, I've already learned a lot from him. Bill Clinton, I think, understood earlier than most Democrats the need to correct for some of the excesses of the late Sixties and early Seventies, both in terms of our fiscal policies and our cultural posture toward Middle America. And he was right about that. Democrats, progressives, liberals – whatever you want to call them – should never make any apologies for cham­pioning women's rights and civil rights, for insisting on greater accountability in government, for championing civil liberties. But some of the caricatures of the left as being out of touch, snotty, self-righteous – there have been times when those caricatures were justified. And Bill Clinton did a lot to make Democrats seem like they were in touch with the ordinary aspirations of a great number of Americans. That, I think, stopped the hemorrhaging of independent voters and Reagan Democrats into the Republican Party, and gave us the space and the opportunity to start reaching out to them. So I'm still in debt to Bill Clinton for what he accomplished.

Let's talk about your role in the cam­paign's ad strategy. Every ad begins or ends with your voice saying, "I'm Barack Obama, and I approve this message." Do you suggest ads yourself? And have there been ones you rejected?
There are times when I suggest a basic framework for an ad. There arc definitely ads that I've rejected. There are some ads that I'm happier with than others.

Can you give me an example of one that was your idea?
We're now running two-minute ads fo­cused on the economy. The way it worked was, I suggested, "We need to get above the back and forth of the daily negative ads that both campaigns have been running." I felt that explaining to the American people in a direct way what we are gonna do about the economy, or what we would do about taxes, could be useful to break through the clutter, if it was done differently. Then David Plouffe, our campaign manager, said, "Why don't we do a two-minute ad? Let's buy the time and see how it does." And I think those ads have actually been very successful during a critical time when people are anxious and nervous about the state of the economy. There's some sense that this guy's speaking directly to me, and he's explaining to me in clear language what exactly he intends to do.

In the last two elections, the Republicans worked to suppress the vote, espe­cially in Democratic precincts. Reporting by Bobby Kennedy in "Rolling Stone" has raised questions about whether the Re publicans stole the 2004 election in Ohio. Are you worried about those kinds of tactics this time? And what are you doing in advance to keep that from happening?
Without leveling any accusations about past misdeeds, I can tell you that we're paying a lot of attention to how the election a month from now is going to take place. We've got an extraordinary team of lawyers in every battleground state —– hundreds of them – fanning out across these states. A lot of the work is actually being done now: We have organized such a surge in voter registration that there were clerks having difficulty processing the registration, and there was some question as to legal requirements for them to hire more clerks. So there's already been a lot of work done, and I feel pretty confident that if there are any shenanigans out there that we'll be on top of them.

But John Kerry said the same thing in 2004. Lawyers are mainly useful after the fact, when it's too late. Is there anything you can do before the fact to keep the vote from being tampered with?
Well, in Ohio the thing we did was make sure there was a Democratic secre­tary of state.

Replacing Kenneth Blackwell, the Re­publican who was in charge in 2004.
Right.

You've talked about the need for Washington to "stop acting like an industry ad­vocate and start acting like a public advo­cate." Yet your campaign donors include executives of some of the most troubled financial companies, like Lehman Broth­ers. You've also accepted more money from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae than any senator except Chris Dodd, who chairs the Senate Banking Committee...
Let me just interrupt there. We've raised so much more money than anybody that these kinds of statistics can be misleading. I don't take money from lobbyists. None of the lobbyists for these industries has organized any fundraisers specifically for me. It's not as if we had a Lehman Brothers fundraiser or what have you.

You're not out on their yacht, in other words.
Yeah. What happens is that people have sent us a lot of money. It was interesting with the oil companies, for example. When I talked about how John McCain met with oil company executives and reversed himself on offshore drilling, and that same week raised a whole bunch of money from oil executives, they came back and said, "Well, you've raised all this money from oil companies, too." What they're doing there is they're counting the $25 check from some secretary who works in a back office some­where. Cumulatively, it ends up looking like a lot of money. But there is a very big difference between us getting money from employees of all sorts of industries and us getting bundled big checks from industry lobbyists, which we never do.

For me, the problem isn't that there's a quid pro quo, or even access that much. It was interesting— – during my U.S. Senate career, I think I've actually met with industry lobbyists...I can remember maybe two times. Most of the time you've got this staff buffer —– they're meeting with the lobbyists, and then they bring me issues. I don't have relationships with the lobbyists, I don't know them. I'm not really a Washington guy. I haven't done the cocktail circuit – that's not how I've organized my fundraising.

Now, does that make me completely pure? No. Because the fact of the matter is, there is a danger that if you're spending a lot of time on fundraising, you're spending time with the one percent of the population that can afford to write you a check. And you may end up losing touch with what ordinary folks are going through. That's why the model that we've built where huge amounts of money are raised in small in­crements has done two things. One is, it means that they have ownership over the campaign. The other is that it frees me up from having to do a lot of big-dollar fund-raisers. I've maybe done [pauses]...10 in the last two or three months? Don't hold me perfectly to that, but I actually don't spend much time on fundraising, and I don't really know, most of the time, who is writing checks.

When do you see us being completely out of Iraq – no troops, no bases, nothing beyond an ordinary presence?
I envision us having combat troops out in 16 months. Prosecuting a war as we currently understand it, I anticipate us being finished with that in 2010. The time frame for having no residual troops, no trainers, no strike forces to go after terrorists that may pop up again in Iraq – that is very hard to anticipate, because we just don't know what the situation is going to be.

Afghanistan: How do you make a course correction without just throwing more troops at the situation? Won't more troops just give the Taliban more targets and escalate the violence?
I think you have to have what we should have had in the first place: a much better plan for rebuilding the country, a much better plan for making the apparatus of the state functional, a much better plan to replace poppy crops in Afghanistan and, probably the most important thing, a much better plan to deal with Pakistan. It is going to be difficult for us to execute a long-term success in Afghan­istan if the northwest provinces of Paki­stan continue to serve as safe havens for Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

At your campaign stop this morning at a high school in Pennsylvania, you made what you called a "solemn vow to the young people of America" that you will make sure they can afford to go to college – "no ifs, ands or buts." How will you do that in a way that doesn't simply add to the crushing debt that students and their families already take on in the form of student loans?
We're going to give a $4,000 tuition credit to every student, every year, in exchange for a minimum of 100 hours of community service a year. That's above and beyond the additional scholarships we're offering for people who are willing to teach, nurses – there are certain categories and occupations where we have a shortage, so there will be targeted scholarships there. But everybody would be eligible for this $4,000 tuition credit, which covers pretty much all of the cost of community college and about two-thirds of the cost of a public college or univer­sity. In combination with Pell grants and other resources, we can at least drasti­cally reduce the amount of debt that young people are accumulating. One of the ironic things about the war in Iraq, as well as this Treasury rescue plan, is that it reminds us that when we feel a sense of urgency about something, we spend an awful lot of money. And the amount of money required to educate every child and send them to college pales in comparison to the amount of money that we're spending on things that could have been avoided had we made better decisions.

Looking back over the past eight years, what's the thing that Bush screwed up the worst?
I think Iraq has to rank number one. Although the economy and his failure, utterly, to anticipate the dangers of such a highly leveraged Wall Street, combined with such a highly leveraged federal government, combined with such highly leveraged consumers, at a time when we knew that baby boomers are about to retire and we need to start storing the acorns for the winter— – it's breathtaking. The level of ir­responsibility that's taken place over the last eight years is breathtaking.

What's going to be the hardest part of his legacy for you to undo?
The budget. We are going to be in a massive hole. Now, if this rescue package is structured properly and the market re­covers, it is possible that it doesn't end up costing us anywhere close to $700 billion —– we might even make money on it. That was true with the Home Owners' Loan Corporation during the New Deal, which refinanced homes to prevent foreclosure. We're not putting up $700 billion without getting a return. But keep in mind that we did subsidize Bear Stearns, we did subsi­dize AIG. We've already put a lot of money out. We have a half-trillion-dollar deficit. Even under my Iraq plan, our military is going to have to be reset. National Guards don't have equipment. The future cost for veterans care will be enormous. So digging ourselves out of the fiscal mess we're in is going to be a big, big challenge, and it's going to require some tough decisions that will not always be popular – particularly when there's going to be a lot of pent-up energy among Democrats. If I win, every member of Congress on the Demo­cratic side, and some on the Republican side, is going to have ideas about pressing needs and worthy programs. Trying to set some very hard, clear priorities is going to be tough.

Some people criticized President Rush after 9/11 for not asking Americans for a period of shared sacrifice, like the one the nation went through during World War II. When you spoke about the financial crisis at your campaign stop this morning, you said, "We're all going to need to sacrifice, because now more than ever, we're all in this together. I don't pretend that it's going to be easy, or that it's going to come without a cost." What specifical­ly will you ask of the American people?
Number one, I want to greatly expand our service agenda. Some of that will be formalized in AmeriCorps programs and the expansion of the Peace Corps, but I'd like to see greater volunteerism in general.

The other thing is the whole issue of energy. It's going to require some very dif­ficult choices. People are going to have to embrace –— revel in —– the possibilities of a transformed energy economy. Over the long term it will mean a higher standard of living. But in the short term it means doing things we don't like to do —– turn off lights, check your tire gauges, replace your light bulbs. Just being conscious of energy usage in ways other cultures, like Japan, have been for a long time because they're an island nation and just didn't have resources.

That can get on people's nerves, because it's not what our traditions are like. Jimmy Carter, you'll recall, had the unfortunate approach of wearing a sweater and telling people to sit in 68-degree rooms. I don't think it has to be an "eat your peas" mo­ment. It just has to be a consciousness —– one that young people already have.

There is a generational element to this. You see in young people a much greater awareness and a certain comfort level with having to think about these things. I even see it in my daughters now, age 10 and seven. If you ask them about what issues they're concerned about, the environment immediately comes to mind. It's interesting – that just seeps through the culture in a way that I think bodes well for the future. But one of our challenges is making sure that we can get to that, and stay focused on the future.

Are we in danger of losing the longterm momentum on the environment, given the short-term panic over the fi­nancial meltdown?
It doesn't make it easier.

Today is your 16th wedding anniver­sary. What did you get Michelle?
I got her a necklace. We'll see if she likes it. You never know —– it's unpredictable.

You know, there is no official gift like silver or diamonds designated for a 16th anniversary. After 15, it goes to every five years.
So I probably could have gotten away with not giving her anything.

Exactly – you were good until the end of your first term.
Yeah, thanks for the marriage counsel­ing there, buddy [laughs].

Tell me about what you find funny. Is there a comedian out there who captures your sense of humor?
I'll tell you the guy who these days makes me laugh: Chris Rock. I understand his humor. That doesn't mean that's my sense of humor, but it works for me. [Turns to spokesman Robert Gibbs] I don't know, Gibbs, what do you think? I'm a pretty funny guy.

[Gibbs] We have fun on the road.

When you and the staff tease him, what do you tease him about?
[Gibbs] What do we tease you about? We ceased him about this old pair of brown shoes he had for a while.

[Obama] They did. GQ says I'm pretty well-dressed, but Michelle scoffs at this because she sees patches on my pants. These guys finally bought me a new pair of shoes for my birthday.

[Gibbs] We were tired of being seen with him in the other ones.

[Obama] I'm sure that behind my back they tease me about some of my quirks. I tend to be late, although not as late as other politicians. I can get pretty cranky about certain scheduling matters. Like waking up.

If you're in the White House and could install any one play toy – bowling alley, water polo – what would it be?
Basketball court. If we can get an indoor basketball court, I'd be happy.

Indoor?
Yeah, just because the weather's kind of fickle in Washington.

In what way will people underestimate you as president?
[Long pause] Because I tend to be a pretty courteous person and I don't lose my temper, I think people underestimate my willingness to mix it up. I don't know if they'll continue to underestimate that after this campaign, but I think you'll still get columns saying, "He's too cool, he's too soft." [Laughs] That's OK, actually.

You like being underestimated in that way.
Yeah. No point in having them see you coming.