Obama takes recent U.S. crises in stride

CHICAGO -- The keys to Barack Obama's decisive victory — and clues for how he will conduct himself as the 44th president — emerged amid his unexpected defeat in the New Hampshire Democratic primary.

Obama was in Nashua, N.H., on Jan. 8, awaiting returns that he thought would put him on a clear path to his party's nomination. The Illinois senator already had won the Iowa caucuses, and pre-election polls showed him with a 10-point lead over rival Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If he won, the New York senator would be weakened. Instead, political adviser David Axelrod had to tell Obama: "We're going to fall a few points short."

In his speech that night, Obama made the case for change and gave what had been written as his victory address. He took the crowd from downcast to electrified with the chant that became his campaign signature: "Yes, we can."

On his 21-month roller-coaster ride to the White House, Obama repeatedly turned setbacks into triumphs and crises into learning opportunities. Disappointment was never his enemy. "Everytime we've been knocked down, he's been the one who picked us up," Axelrod said. "That's a great quality to have in a president."

Obama's religion and patriotism were questioned repeatedly, and the explosive issues of race and gender simmered just below the surface. He "never took the bait," American University political scientist James Thurber said.

Along the way, Obama transformed the use of the Internet as a fundraising tool, helping him tap more than 3 million donors and bring in $640 million as of Oct. 15. The money advantage over Republican nominee John McCain, who was limited by the $84.1 million he accepted in taxpayer funds, allowed Obama to mount effective ground operations in "red" states such as Montana and Indiana and flood the airwaves with his message.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said "machinery doesn't mean anything if it isn't backed up by a great candidate."

In the end, what most set Obama apart from McCain and his Democratic competitors was his discipline. Some ways Obama displayed that and other keys to victory:

Holding course

McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate surprised the Obama camp.

The governor with only 20 months in office was criticized in an Obama campaign statement as unqualified. Obama himself had been elected to the Senate from Illinois in 2004.

Obama, however, remembered how his own criticisms of Clinton during the primaries sometimes backfired, and he took a much more positive tone about Palin.

Patrick Oxford, a business partner and political adviser to former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, sees Obama's refusal to overreact as a crucial decision. By avoiding an argument about Palin's gender and qualifications, Oxford said, Obama was able to focus voters on the fall presidential debates and the sagging economy.

"Before Palin, he was riding high and, candidly, acting like it," Oxford said. "Palin 'unhorsed' him for 10 days and seemed to get him to focus on what he really needed to do — settle down, listen, act presidential, be positive. And to his credit, he did so with incredible discipline."

Taking the chance

When Obama began mulling a bid for the presidency two years ago, there were plenty of reasons for him to say no. Now 47, he was young and known as a gifted orator, for his 2004 keynote to the Democratic convention. Most of all, he was not white in a country where race relations are still fractious and minorities have not risen to many high elected offices.

"My life was really good," Obama told USA TODAY last week.

Obama, however, was a hot commodity. The Democratic candidates he helped elect to Congress in 2006 were struck by what Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., called "the intensity and electricity" of the crowds Obama drew to their rallies. Obama and his advisers sensed it, too, and first met the day after the 2006 elections to discuss mounting a presidential campaign.

Obama sought the advice of Democratic elders such as Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts — a move that would pay off later when Kennedy endorsed him in January.That move provided the first big break among the party establishment lined up behind former first lady Clinton.

Still, no African-American candidate had ever won a major party's presidential nomination. Unlike politicians who "thought white voters would reject them," Obama took a chance, said former Massachusetts senator and Republican Ed Brooke, the first African American elected to the Senate in 1968. "You can't win unless you run."

Keeping the faith

The primaries dragged on longer than many Democrats expected, exposing Obama's vulnerabilities with white working-class voters and Hispanics who preferred Clinton. (He won both groups Tuesday over McCain.) After tough losses to Clinton in the Ohio and Texas primaries in March, Obama met with his campaign advisers for more than two hours to discuss what had gone wrong and how to fix it.

Axelrod recalls how Obama never raised his voice, not even about spending $20 million on the losing effort. Also key, Axelrod said, was that Obama offered encouragement to his staff. "He went from desk to desk and talked to everyone," he said.

Obama's durability paid off, said Thurber of American University, and reinforced one of the Democrat's campaign messages. "At many points in the campaign, he was a steady hand at the tiller," he said.

Bending to reality

After months in which he had avoided the issue of race, Obama decided he wanted to talk about it after incendiary sermons by his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, dominated cable news.

Obama penned the impassioned address he delivered March 18 in Philadelphia, trying to explain Wright's anger to all races. The speech drew raves, but Wright made a blistering appearance at the National Press Club in Washington in which, among other things, he blamed the government for the spread of AIDS among blacks. Obama eventually denounced Wright.

A few weeks after Obama's public break with Wright, Obama made another politically pragmatic move aimed at squelching the idea he did not share mainstream American values. In April, Obama met a veteran during a Pennsylvania rally who gave him a flag pin. The senator never took it off.

Earlier, Obama had defended his decision not to wear such a pin. "My attitude was my patriotism is what's in my heart," he told USA TODAY in a June interview.

As rumors persisted on the Internet about his patriotism, Obama said he decided his scruples were costing him.

"I just wanted to make sure that nobody was confused," he said of his change of heart.