Be Logical, Captain!

After the Register put a video of the editorial board meeting online, The Washington Post wrote about it under the headline, “McCain: The Angry Warrior?” In an article headlined “Anger vs. Steadiness” in Time this week, Joe Klein called Mr. McCain “pinched,” while Mr. Obama was the “least angry man” who has kept his head throughout one of the most exhausting, and brutal, years of continuous campaigning in memory. In a cover story called “Mr. Cool vs. Mr. Hot,” Newsweek did the same. Mr. Obama was “precise, occasionally withdrawn and methodical,” while “[w]atching McCain swoop and veer over the past two weeks has been enough to induce vertigo.”

The Obama campaign has been delighted to watch this view hardening, however belatedly, into conventional wisdom.

“If there is one thing that has to be said about our campaign is that it has been a consistent campaign,” said David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s chief strategist. “There is some uncertainty of where Senator McCain is at, because he has been going from pillar to post, from the economy’s fundamentally strong to days later, and hours later, perhaps, saying that we are in crisis. That doesn’t inspire trust or credibility in your message.”

Mr. Axelrod was talking to The Observer in a hallway outside a media center at Washington University in St. Louis before the Oct. 2 vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Ms. Palin, during which Mr. Biden, even on his best behavior, exhibited more emotion, sentiment and fire than his running mate ever has.

Mr. Axelrod said, “We’re facing some really significant challenges in this country and the ability to deal with them with a kind of centeredness and consistency and poise I think is going to be important. People sense that and we have seen it in the last two weeks.”

Some of Mr. Obama’s other surrogates, in the hours after the debate, also talked up the process-based contrast between the campaigns.

“There has been only one candidate in this cycle who has never had any drama,” Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri told The Observer. “There have never been any backbiting or public leaks, there has never been any time that they ran out of money and had a financial crisis. The irony is the McCain people want to say that Barack Obama is risky. Hello? Look in the mirror.”

“This is the best-run campaign that has ever existed,” Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico flatly proclaimed to The Observer. “They don’t have management by consensus. They make a decision and they stick to it.”

The campaign has certainly managed to present itself that way, even in the face of actual substantive changes of position. As when Mr. Obama broke a promise to accept public funding and the spending limits that come with them, or when he relaxed his opposition to off-shore drilling. The shifts were presented, with a minimum of facade, as strategic decisions, taken to adjust for changed circumstances. Opprobrium arrived, was endured and then dissipated.

More often, though, the campaign’s finest moments have been its most aggressively passive ones.

When, in April of this year, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain both came out in favor of a federal gas-tax holiday, Mr. Obama refused to go along with it, calling the measure out as the election-time gimmick it was. He maintained his position, when both the Clinton campaign and then the McCain campaign thought they had him in a blunder, on an easily demagogue-able (and perhaps improvised) pledge to meet without precondition with leaders of hostile nations. And most recently, when Mr. McCain announced the suspension of his campaign in order to parachute into Washington for the bailout-legislation negotiations, Mr. Obama kept campaigning.

 

THAT’S JUST THE WAY he is, say some longtime associates.

“There was a sense of centeredness and calm about him from the very beginning that was really one of his most impressive features,” said Laurence Tribe, a professor of Constitutional law for whom Mr. Obama served as a research assistant at Harvard Law School. “I’ve never asked Barack this, but I think he must meditate or something.”

Mr. Tribe recalled a tempestuous year at the law school, a racially charged controversy erupted over the proposed hiring of a black female professor.

“Barack, being African-American, was right in the middle of it, with people tearing at him from both sides,” said Mr. Tribe, who at the time assigned Mr. Obama to help research a paper he was writing about the application of Einstein’s theories to law called “The Curvature of Constitutional Space: What Lawyers Can Learn From Modern Physics.” “He had some crisis of some sort; I don’t remember if it was personal or if other students were disagreeing with him about something. I was amazed that he could deal with these very abstract ideas and then calmly return a call and get into a completely different gear.”

Decades later, as Mr. Obama competed in debates against Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Tribe—an early Obama supporter—said he would send e-mails saying, “Barack I thought you should have done this or that.”

“And he wrote back saying, ‘You may be right, but wait. I grow,’” Mr. Tribe said.

Orin Kramer, one of Mr. Obama’s most influential fund-raisers, recalled first having lunch with him in the winter of 2004, when he was running, from behind, in a U.S. Senate primary in Illinois.