Correction Appended: March 7, 2008
Not long after Michelle Robinson started getting serious about the tall, skinny law student she was dating, she asked her brother Craig, a former basketball star at Princeton and now the head coach at Brown, to hoop it up with him, one on one. "She had heard our father and me talk about how you can tell a lot about a person's personality based on how they play," says Craig, recalling his first game against Barack Obama. "Especially when they're tired."
The two men played then and have played whenever possible ever since. Especially on primary days, when campaigns go silent until the results come in, Obama slips away to a gym though it tells you something about him that he usually doesn't let anyone watch. On Tuesday, Team Obama found the Concord Athletic Club near the San Antonio airport, where he played five on five with aides and his Secret Service detail. He is captain, coach and referee all at once, signaling teammates to set up plays. A lefty, Obama keeps opponents off balance: fake right, then go left with a very quick crossover dribble and a finish to the basket with his left hand. His instinct is to play opponents very close though nowadays, says Craig Robinson, "everybody's being real careful not to give him a fat lip or something that would show up when he's on TV." After a couple of hours, having won three of four games, Obama wanted to keep playing. "Every once in a while," he says, smiling, "this 46-year-old body pulls out some moves."
But as he was tapping into his inner 19-year-old, Hillary Clinton was winning three states out of four on the charge that Obama just wasn't man enough to protect the country from its enemies, foreign and domestic. In her mockery of Obama for his pretty speeches and airy promises, Clinton's subtext was always clear: you may like the music, but this guy is nowhere near tough enough for this job. It was a charge made explicit by the Red Phone ad, whose very existence testified to her own toughness: I'm prepared to do anything, including hand John McCain a grenade, to win this thing. She played on the guilty conscience of the national press corps, recasting herself as the vilified victim and Obama as the bubble-wrapped ingenue.
But you don't rise in Chicago politics or come this far this fast in a national race by being soft, naive or scared of a fight. What has distinguished Obama in this campaign is how hard he has battled without appearing to do so. The message that moves the crowds at his rallies is made possible by many layers of calculation underneath. His mild manner belies fierce self-control. The frequent self-mocking conceals a stubborn self-confidence. He not only plays hard; he plays to win, rubs it in sometimes if he does and takes losses hard. "He is," says a friend who has known his share of strivers, "one of the most competitive people I've ever met."
And he knows what game he's playing now. Talking to TIME the morning after the latest primaries, he promised that there would be no double standards. "If she continues, as over the last week, to bring up real estate transactions and the character of our supporters who have provided donations to our campaign, then we will make certain that she has to answer those same questions with respect to herself, her husband and her campaign," he said.
If Obama's history is any guide, losses tend to speed him up, not slow him down. As a state senator in 2000, he took on the Cook County machine to challenge a sitting four-term Congressman and lost a pre-emptive strike against the political establishment and a cocky signal that he wasn't going to wait his turn. Valerie Jarrett, a friend and now a top adviser, recalls hosting a small brunch at her house at the end of 2002, when Obama was weighing a bid for the U.S. Senate. "It was Michelle, Barack, myself and maybe two or three others," she says. "All of us came in lockstep to convince him not to run. For all of our arguments, he had a [counter] argument ... and by the end of brunch, he'd convinced me to chair his finance committee." She remembers warning him, "'You could lose, and if you lose, you've lost two races in a row you're done.' And he looked at me and said, 'If I'm prepared to take that risk, aren't you?'"
The Game Plan
In his memoir, Obama recalls a tactic he learned as a black teenager in a white world. "People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves," he writes. "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."
But as the Obama campaign unfolded in 2007, the charge wasn't that he was too angry but that he wasn't angry enough. His party's more inflamed activists wanted a candidate who would burn bridges, not build them. If primaries are about winning the base, Obama's conciliatory approach could not have been more out of tune, and by last summer, he looked as if he might fizzle. His crowds were huge, and the money rolled in, but weeks went by, and he couldn't get traction. In debates, he seemed not to know what he was doing. "You could say he wasn't very good at debates," said a longtime supporter, "but that would be nice. He was just bad at it." Come September, he was trailing Clinton by about 2 to 1 in most surveys.
To the pros, the fix was obvious: "All of the experienced hands gave the same advice: 'You gotta get down, get dirty, get tough,'" said one, who echoed them too. But Obama pushed back, more willing to fight his advisers than to fight his opponents. A heated showdown in Chicago, attended by a core group of only half a dozen or so, took place over Labor Day weekend. "But he wouldn't do it," says one of the attendees. "Against all punditry, against the advice, against the history ... It shows he understood his persona and the qualities that were implicit in it." And he understood what he stood to lose if he changed his game. "If I gotta kneecap her," he told them, "I'm not gonna go there."
This wasn't decency or chivalry at work; it was an understanding that the rationale for his campaign would fade if he became just another grubby politician or angry black man.
But that moment of truth came when he was still establishing his brand; the politics of hope brought him a long way, but the calculations have changed. Obama will continue to tie Clinton to McCain and other Republicans for voting for the Iraq war and liken her experience to that of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. "I'm going to be interested in finding out what exactly she thinks makes her particularly well prepared, for example, on foreign policy," he told TIME on Wednesday. When her aides are asked, he notes, they cite, of all things, a speech, the one she gave on human rights in China in 1995. "Has she negotiated any treaties? When she traveled to these 80 countries, was she involved in policymaking? If so, what? My suspicion is that you're not going to get a bunch of particularly impressive answers." Meanwhile, Camp Obama is pressing for Clinton to release her tax returns, make public her vast, unseen records from her days as First Lady and peel back the secrecy surrounding who has given what to the Clinton Library. And Obama's campaign leveled its own charges at reporters for buying into the Clinton line that media coverage of Obama has been soft. "He has to find a way to bring out the contrasts without becoming a political attack dog," said a longtime Obama backer. "There's plenty of grist there."