Game Change: Obama, Hillary, McCain

Hillary Clinton did not want to be Secretary of State when Barack Obama offered her the job — and one reason she gave was her husband,

John Heilemann and Mark Halperin in their book, Game Change, describe Obama’s midnight meeting with Hillary in Washington two weeks after he won the presidential election in November 2008:

It’s not going to work, an anguished Hillary said… You don’t want me, you don’t want all these stories about you and me. You don’t want the whole circus…

Hillary, look, you’re exactly right, Obama said… But the thing is, the economy is a much bigger mess than we’d ever imagined it would be, and I’m gonna be focused on that for the next two years. So I need someone as big as you to do this job… I need someone I can trust implicitly, and you’re that person…

You know my husband, she said…You know I can’t control him, and at some point he’ll be a problem…

I know, Obama replied. But I’m prepared to take that risk…

Hillary announced her decision to be Secretary of State the next morning. The book concludes:

It was November 20. The election was sixteen days in the past. But today, Obama had pulled off the grandest game change of all. On the brink of great power and awesome responsibility, he and Clinton were on the same side.

If the ending seems star-struck, the book is anything but…

Game Change is a juicy insider’s account of the 2008 US presidential election by two seasoned journalists: Heilemann writes for New York magazine, and Halperin for Time.

They show all the major players — Obama, Hillary, Bill Clinton, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden — with their strengths and weaknesses. The vain John Edwards flaming out in a sex scandal, McCain the war hero out of his depth in the economic crisis, the plucky Palin a naif in foreign affairs, the Clintons unable to stop the infighting in their camp, Biden putting his foot in his mouth, Obama’s occasional gaffes turning off white blue-collar workers. All this is common knowledge, but Heilemann and Halperin add interesting details.

It was not Obama who came up with the campaign slogan, “Change we can believe in.” He accepted it, though not eagerly, rejecting the alternative “United we stand”, as sounding “like an airline slogan”.

“Fired up! Ready to go!”

His other slogan, “Fired up! Ready to go!” was coined by Edith Childs, an African American city councilwoman from Greenwood, South Carolina, whom he later invited to the White House.

This book shows how much help and encouragement he received from others.

It was Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada, who encouraged him to run for president. 

Hillary was considered too divisive a figure to rally the country — and, besides, there was the whiff of scandal around her husband. The authors write:

Within days of settling into Clintons’ new house in Chappaqua (New York state, after leaving the White House) in 2001, he could be found at Lange’s deli, chatting up the stay-at-home mothers who trundled in after yoga, startling his aides that he already knew all the women by name.

The rumours were still rife in 2006 when Reid urged Obama to run for president. “What the hell is Bill Clinton doing to Hillary?” asked John McCain over lunch with a Democratic Senator.

Hillary had been urged by her friends to run for president in 2004.

But, no, said her daughter, Chelsea.

She had to keep her promise to the voters of New York, who had elected her to the Senate, that she would serve out her full four-year term. So she did.

“You can always change your mind”

Obama broke his commitment to accept public financing for the general election, which would have restricted his campaign spending. He became the first presidential candidate to reject spending limits after Watergate.

He saw no reason why he couldn’t change his mind.

In January 2006, he appeared on Meet the Press, where he was asked by Tim Russert, “So you will not run for president or vice president in 2008?”

“I will not,” Obama said.

“What if you change your mind?” his old friend, Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago businesswoman, later asked him.

“You can always change your mind,” Obama said.

He entered the race as the underdog. Hillary was seen as the frontrunner.

The Obamans and the Clintonites

But his strategists proved superior to hers. His chief strategist, David Axelrod, and campaign manager, David Plouffe, focused on caucuses and delegate counts — 2,025 were needed to win the nomination — with a singleness of purpose missing in the Clinton camp. It was riven by infighting between Patti Solis Doyle, Hillary’s campaign manager, and Mark Penn, her chief strategist.

The nomination race calendar also favoured Obama. The race began with a caucus in Iowa, right next-door to his home state of Illinois, which he handily won.

And that threw the race wide open. Hillary won in New Hampshire. But Obama racked up 10 straight wins — from South Carolina to Wisconsin — before Hillary won again in Ohio and, more narrowly, in Texas.

Adding to her troubles was the low morale in her camp. Solis Doyle urged her to quit before the New Hampshire primary, thinking she would lose, for which Hillary later demoted her, bringing in Maggie Williams as the new campaign manager.

But the dissension continued — and then there was the press. Columnists like Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post skewered the Clintons at every turn while singing the praises of Obama. (Robinson won a Pulitzer, just as Dowd had for her Monica Lewinsky columns.)

The Clintons not unreasonably felt they were being maligned as racists.  

It’s astonishing what a close race Hillary ran despite the infighting and the bad press.

“18 million cracks in the ceiling”

Obama did not win by a landslide. Hillary and he almost evenly split the 36 million votes cast, with him just winning 150,000 more.

Hillary, who had wanted to be the first woman president, later told her adoring supporters, “Although we weren’t able to shatter that hardest, highest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.” That was the number of votes she had won.

Hillary, Bill Clinton, Obama, Biden, McCain, Palin, all showed resilience in the campaign.

Bill Clinton received comfort from an unexpected quarter when President Bush rang up to say he knew Clinton was not a racist.

The book is full of interesting nuggets like this. It mentions the friendship between McCain and the Clintons, the telephone conversations between Bush and Clinton.

The 2008 US presidential race was remarkable for its field of outstanding candidates. McCain is a war hero, Obama a brilliant writer and orator, Hillary a formidable policy wonk like her husband.

They are not ordinary politicians.

Bill Clinton wanted Al Gore to be his running mate in 1992 ever since he read Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance. He raved about it while discussing other candidates, Obama was told by his adviser, Rahm Emanuel, who had formerly worked for Clinton.

Obama chose Joe Biden, the former chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, as his running mate.

McCain’s gamble

McCain showed his independence by campaigning with his friend, the Democrat Joe Liebermann.

He wanted to run with Liebermann, and Liebermann was agreeable to the notion, raising the prospect of  genuine bipartisan platform, but it was shot down by the Republican right wing. They were not going to vote for a Democrat.

Game Change describes how McCain then picked Palin at the last minute, with hardly any vetting. The former Navy fighter pilot trusted his instincts, believed in taking chances. He saw the election as a game-changer. The raging Obamamania showed the country was in a frenzy for change, for something fresh, something new, and Palin was certainly that — an articulate former beauty queen new on the national stage, who was as eagerly embraced by the right as Obama was by the left.

She was as folksy as he was urbane. Who knows how these polar opposites might have carved up the country had the economy not collapsed?

The crash

Wall Street was shaken to its foundations when Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on September 15, 2008, triggering a financial panic across the globe. That was when Obama showed his mettle.

He was no expert on the economy, but behind the scenes he had been cultivating financial experts such as former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, former SEC chairman William Donaldson and UBS Americas chairman Robert Wolf, who was one of his biggest fundraisers. He spoke regularly to Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as the crisis struck.

The crash damaged the Republicans. Voters saw a cool, collected Obama facing a grumpy, old McCain in the televised debates. They put their faith in youth and change, tired of the old orde
r and the status quo. Obama won 53 per cent of the popular vote, the largest majority secured by a Democrat since the Texan Lyndon Johnson won 61 per cent against Barry Goldwater — also from Arizona, like McCain — in 1964.

Obama celebrated with a rousing victory speech in Chicago on November 5, 2009. Here’s the text, and here’s the  video.

The One’s last election rally

But Game Change focuses instead on his last campaign rally in Manassas, Virginia, on November 3, 2009, the day before the election.

That was the day he learnt his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, had died in Hawaii at 86.

For the first time, he wept publicly on stage — at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte — as he spoke about the woman who had raised him — he called her Toot, she called him Bear — while his mother, an anthropologist, was in Indonesia. He called his grandmother a “quiet hero”. “They’re not famous,” he said. “Their names aren’t in the newspaper. But each and every day, they work hard. They watch out for their families. They sacrifice for their families… That’s what America’s about.”

A few hours later, he was firing up the crowd at his last campaign rally in Virginia: “Fired up! Ready to go!” Game Change describes the scene:

Obama hadn’t uncorked this riff in months, but he turned on the turbochangers in Manassas and delivered it with gusto, coiling his body, bouncing up and down, sweeping his arms, tracing with his fingers in the air. By the time he got to the end — “One voice can change a room, and if it can change a room, it can change a city, and if it change a city, it can change a state, and if it can change a state, then it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world; come on, Virginia, let’s go change the world!” — the crowd let loose a roar that shook the ground beneath the feet.

Returning to the airport, Obama boarded his jet and prepared to head back to Chicago. … He thanked the reporters for having accompanied him on his astonishing ride. He gave a photographer a birthday kiss. He shook every hand on the plane.

“Okay, guys, let’s go home,” Obama said. “It will be fun to see how the story ends.”

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