Barack Obama—delivered feet-first on Oprah’s couch and tickled on Meet the Press and then highly buffed by New Yorker editor David Remnick before the magazine editors of America—has enjoyed the best-orchestrated product reveal since the iPod.
Now Mr. Obama is the only author with two books among the top 50 sellers on Amazon.com. Two weeks after the release of The Audacity of Hope, it is in its sixth printing, with 725,000 books in print.
America can’t tell the difference between the book and the candidate. That may be because the book itself is the perfect campaign speech, and is one of the reasons why everyone keeps talking about Mr. Obama and ’08.
“Primaries are 131¼2 and 14 months away, and there are full teams in New Hampshire and Iowa already,” said pollster John Zogby. “And Hillary, who is a household word, and Kerry and Edwards and Gore, who have run before—this is the time to get the word out, and this is the trial balloon.”
The Obamamania trial balloon has gotten oohs and ahs from wonks and dreamers alike. But, with so many donors locked down by Hillary Clinton, and with a few hopelessly devoted to various non-celebrity candidates, is there affection—and wallet—enough for Mr. Obama to raise real money for a campaign? Why, yes! Yes, there is. Sort of.
“I think the execution of phase one of this rollout is obviously a huge success,” said Tom Ochs, of McMahon, Squier and Associates. (Mr. Ochs did Howard Dean’s D.N.C. chair campaign in 2005.) “He has people talking about it, and in a way that diminishes all the other candidates—except Hillary.”
That’s sort of the catch to the whole Obama thing. To think that a couple of weeks of even the most bonkers-rabid positive attention can spell the end of Mrs. Clinton, or her machine, is crazy talk. She has been at the center of all ’08 conversations, except maybe in certain parts of Nashville or in the offices of Al Gore’s Current TV.
And so just as everyone was getting a little bit sick of talking about Hillary ’08, here comes the arrival of another star lawyer—way greener, sure, but with the same capacity for workload.
By contrast with that well-oiled army of robots, Mr. Obama is downright D.I.Y. He filed chunks and chapters of his book to Crown sometimes as late as midnight and 3 a.m. People who worked with him on the project characterized his style, more or less, as delightfully unpredictable. “I’m calling from Djibouti!” Lucinda Bartley, an assistant editor at Crown, remembers him saying. “Where can I find a fax machine?”
So far, the book, and the accompanying publicity campaign, has worked very well. “I would say it has fulfilled our most optimistic best-case scenario,” said Steve Ross, senior V.P. and publisher of Crown.
“People are psyched,” Ms. Bartley said.
The escalating talk of a Presidential run “was more like icing on the cake,” Mr. Ross said.
“I know, standing next to him at that Barnes & Noble, person after person came up to him and said, ‘Please run for President, Senator Obama—the country needs you,’ and that was a small taste of the kind of public response that he’s gotten,” Mr. Ross said. “We have a publicist with him and the stories she tells, with the mobs of people chanting ‘Obama for President,’ and the pleas in their hearts and eyes, and you can hear it in their voices. He’s become the projection of their hopes and dreams—and at a time of disillusionment.”
“I could lie to you and minimize the thing,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s media consultant. “The reaction he has engendered has been extraordinary.”
As for his ’08 campaign? “I wouldn’t place a timetable on him,” Mr. Axelrod said. “All of us are mindful of the calendar, but he has some advantages that are apparent. I don’t think he has to step out on the 8th of November, and he certainly has time in the weeks and the months afterward.”
If he is running for President, what’s going on right now could be his window of opportunity. “This gives him an advantage,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. “But that advantage is about to run out. It’s not a meaningful one, and Clinton won’t have those shackles on for much longer.”
“You have four entitlement candidates,” Mr. Zogby said. “Hillary: ‘It’s my turn and a woman’s turn.’ And Al Gore, who says, ‘I won, remember me? And I’m pure on the war.’ John Kerry, who says, ‘Al Gore got 50 million votes, I got 57 million votes.’ John Edwards: ‘I ran for V.P.!’ All of a sudden, you’ve got somebody who represents 25 percent of the party because he’s African-American and represents an enthusiasm and excitement that none of those four do.”
“This race enters a whole new phase at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 8,” Ms. Duffy said.
One Week Out
On Saturday night, in the grand whale-filled room of the Museum of Natural History, steak was served. The evening was a Clinton Foundation benefit, and there was a silent auction; items included a signed Keith Richards guitar. Bill and Hillary Clinton sat at separate tables.
The press was, once again, up in some balcony. “This is definitely Barack’s big buzz moment,” said New York Times reporter Marc Santora, “and he’s got a book to sell—so I’m not even sure if he’s going to run. Colin Powell did the same thing when his book was about to come out. He sort of flirted with the idea of running but then he never ran.”
“If it came down to a face-off between Barack and Hillary, I think the Clinton people have a lot more favors they could call in,” said another reporter. “I mean, look at this event tonight. Barack couldn’t pull something like this together.”
Mr. Obama’s people don’t disagree.
“Listen, one of the great assets she’s got is 15 years of relationships, and there are a lot tracks laid if she decides to run,” Mr. Axelrod said.
“Oh yeah,” he said of Mrs. Clinton’s potential Presidential campaign. “It’s ‘just add water,’ you know?”
According to the index of Mr. Obama’s book, Mrs. Clinton is mentioned twice—once as a spouse, and another time in a group of Democrats.
In fact, she is also mentioned a third, non-indexed time. In a discussion of how Democrats are painted as weak and without guiding principles, Mr. Obama wrote, “A vote or speech by Hillary Clinton that runs against type is immediately labeled calculating.”
At the Council on Foreign Relations, at 1 p.m. on Halloween, she spoke quite well to 250 or so finance and policy wonks on the subject, largely, of Middle East policy.
Three times in his introduction, the council’s chairman, Peter Peterson, referred to her former First Lady status. Then, in her speech, Mrs. Clinton apologized to the political scientists in the room before she attacked the Bush administration’s “false choice between realism and idealism.” She said she would like to send more troops to Afghanistan.
“Hope,” Mrs. Clinton said, “is not a policy.”
She was talking about Iran and the Bush White House. Was she also dismissing an audacious young Senator and his book?
Mr. Obama is mentioned zero times in the 567 pages of Ms. Clinton’s Living History. Of course, that book is now all of three years old, well predating Mr. Obama’s national career.
Of course, that book is also peppered with the words “First Lady,” a phrase that rarely, if ever, crosses her lips now.
But The Audacity of Hope is just so much more recent. Everyone likes what’s shiny and new.
Donors Get Ready
But do they put their money there?
Between Oct. 5 and Election Day, Mr. Obama will have flown in to give support to, at minimum, 41 candidates, and at most, 50 candidates. On Halloween he was with Jim Doyle in Wisconsin. On Nov. 2, he would see Jim Webb in Virginia and Bob Menendez in New Jersey. On Nov. 3, Deval Patrick in Massachusetts; on Nov. 4, Sherrod Brown in Ohio.
And then, on Nov. 5, he will campaign with Harold Ford Jr. in the close Tennessee Senate race seen as, among other things, a bellwether of African-American electability.
“I think he’s a very exciting young person and there’s just a great, great future ahead of him, and I’m very happy about that, but I’m already strongly committed to Senator Clinton,” said Judith Hope, the former New York State Democratic Party chair.
“I have a very open mind during this process and I’ve been down this road enough times to know it’s exceedingly unpredictable,” Ms. Hope said. “It’s basically too early to rule out any candidate now.”
“In the donor community, especially in New York,” said one professional Democratic fund-raiser, “you’re going to see people hedge their bets—you’re going to see people give money to Hillary, but they’re going to spread it out too.”
“They’re all here and all very quietly meeting people and building relationships. And literally, when Nov. 7 happens, they’ll go into high gear,” said the fund-raiser.
“There are people who gave money to Mark Warner and are pissed off right now, and say, ‘Why’d we give you all that money?’ With Hillary, they’re not gonna say, ‘Uh! What a waste of money!’ because she’s so good, she’ll have that seat as long as she wants it.”
“I’m undecided,” said one New York Democratic donor. “I’m concerned about Hillary’s ability to carry it out and I’m concerned if Barack is ready.”
“There’s an inevitability and invincibility about Hillary, so this makes it kind of interesting,” she said. And: “It doesn’t look like as though people are running to be Hillary’s running mate.”
Another donor said he was decidedly in the camp of Mrs. Clinton, but did see a lot of undecideds around town. “Obama certainly has a hot hand right now, so he’s not just any other Senator, and he’s not some governor throwing his hat in the ring,” he said.
Others near the Clintons had stronger things to say about Mr. Obama.
“If the Democrats wanna lose 49 states, they can nominate Barack Obama,” said Democratic donor and Friend of Hillary John A. Catsimatidis. “He’s not ready to be President.
“I think if Hillary wants the nomination,” he said, “there’s no one in the Democratic Party that has the power to stop her.”
“I think the world of Barack Obama,” said another Democratic donor, who is committed to a non-Clinton candidate. “But I think he’s a little late to get going, and very young and unseasoned. I think he’s quite good and impressive, but I’m not going to do anything now.
“I think Hillary is very viable,” she said, “but I don’t know if she can capture the hearts and minds of the American people, I have serious doubts about that.
“I think Obama’s terrific,” she said, “and maybe if I weren’t attached to somebody, I would.”
Not everyone was ready to talk, even as the checkbooks were about to be torn apart page by page. “It’s not even November yet, and already you people are all over her,” said the secretary of one Democratic donor on Oct. 30.
Oh, but now it is.
—with additional reporting by Spencer Morgan