NPR

Even-Keeled Obama Built Image On Bridging Divides

Correction: The story incorrectly stated that Obama was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He was actually the Law Review's first black president.

Barack Obama's temperament is famously unflappable. He has reacted with characteristic cool and caution to the Wall Street financial crisis, holding back at times while his rival charged ahead.

His campaign mantra is "No Drama Obama."

Top Obama strategist, David Axelrod, described a staff meeting after the campaign's crushing loss in the Ohio and Texas primaries:

All Things Considered also looked at Republican John McCain's temperament in advance of the first presidential debate.

"As he walked out the door, he turned around and said, 'You know, I'm not yelling at anybody here,'" Axelrod remembers. "'I could,' he said, 'after spending $20 million and losing two primaries.' He said, 'But I'm not.' And he laughed and walked out the door."

Political strategists have been looking at both candidates' temperaments going into Friday's first debate to try to guess how they will interact with one another.

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

"I think both by training and disposition. I understand where we need to take the country," he said on 60 Minutes last Sunday. "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, and a sense of common direction."

Spirit Of Collaboration

Obama has built his public image around his ability to bridge divisions — racial, ideological or generational. And that was his reputation, even at Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the Law Review.

"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," said former classmate, Brad Berenson, who served on the review with Obama.

"He did not generally take sides in these disputes," said Berenson, a staunch conservative who went on to work in the White House for President Bush. "He cast himself more in the role of mediator and conciliator. He would make a decision when he had to, when someone had to break the tie. But he always tried to do it in a way that left people feeling as content and as fairly dealt with as possible."

Obama was always a negotiator, not a challenger. He wrote about this trait in his memoir, Dreams From My Father:

"People were satisfied so long as you are courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves," he wrote. "They were more than satisfied; they were relieved — such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black who didn't seem angry all the time."

Obama's close friend Deval Patrick is the first black governor of Massachusetts.

"Part of the experience of dealing with race is learning sometimes that you have to put others at ease before you can engage on anything else," Patrick said. "[Obama] is so much about not being put in a box. It's not having people's predispositions or suppositions about who you are, what you think, how you'll behave so cloud the ability to actually engage with people. And I think that's a learned behavior, very broad-life experience, professional experience. He has adapted, and I think others in that so-called class of new black leaders have as well."

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

His sister, Maya Soetoro Ng, says he is the same in private as he is in public.

"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," she said.

'Coolness' On The Campaign Trail

Obama's even keel sometimes comes across as aloof or even cold, as it did toObama's even keel sometimes comes across as aloof or even cold, as it did to many who watched the New Hampshire primary debate with New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Then, he told Clinton that she was "likable enough."

Clinton rode the backlash of sympathy over that cutting remark 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 too-cool-for-school celebrity and an elitist — someone who, as Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin charged, condescended to small town voters when he called them bitter at a private fundraiser.

Princeton political scientist Fred Greenstein says that Obama's strengths are his "extraordinary fluency," including "his acuteness of mind, his capacity to handle subtleties."

"I think his weakness is that he seems to float above the fray," Greenstein adds. "It's almost as if, when the Republicans unleashed very hostile or unfair attacks on him, as if he kind of looked on that with clinical detachment at first. Like a botanist looking at some very unusual specimen."

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

"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 the attack ads and smear campaigns?" Grasso asked.

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.

"I have to explain to people, I'm skinny, but I'm tough," Obama told the audience at a campaign rally in Maryland earlier this year.

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

"Don't mess with me! Let 'em bring it on. Who they got? John McCain?" he said.

In Oxford, Miss., on Friday, if his opponent shows up, Obama will get his wish to go one-on-one with McCain.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF OBAMA ACCEPTANCE SPEECH)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "60 MINUTES")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "60 MINUTES")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEMOIR "DREAMS FOR MY FATHER")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY DEBATE)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW HAMPSHIRE TOWN MEETING)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMOCRATIC CAMPAIGN RALLY, MARYLAND)

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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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