The Fortunate One

By Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, November 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Fortunate One


Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman

Sure, Obama's lucky. He also relentlessly seizes his chances and makes every one of them count.

As heart-stricken Republicans tried to ex plain their unambigu ous defeat by Barack Obama, some turned to the heavens. Hurri cane Sandy, the expla nation went, stopped Mitt Romney's momen tum in its tracks, gave Obama an exquisitely timed commander-in-chief moment, and blacked out media coverage of his opponent for several crucial days.

The hurricane was merely the latest reason to wonder: have the fates been smiling on Barack Obama? It's hard to look at his stratospheric rise from obscure state senator to leader of the free world in just four years and not think that he might have benefited from a string of extremely good fortune.

True, Obama has faced plenty of obstacles in life. Unlike Mitt Romney, he was not born into great wealth; he is not a member of what Warren Buffett calls the "lucky sperm club." And his race-- not to mention a last name that is easily confused with Osama--undoubtedly hurt him with some voters as he ascended through American politics.

At the same time, think about the political luck that has come Obama's way in the last year alone: in a race framed around fears of increasing economic inequality, the president drew an opponent who evoked the Monopoly millionaire. While Obama's admen sought to portray their rival as a hopelessly out-of-touch plutocrat, Romney kept writing their copy. He tried to make a $10,000 bet during a debate, said he was "not concerned about the very poor," and blithely wrote off 47 percent of the electorate as freeloaders. As he moved to the right to secure the Republican nomination, Romney got tangled up in sexual politics, suggesting that companies could deny women contraception. He offended Hispanics with his hardline stance on immigration. And on the night of the most important speech of his career--his address at the Republican convention--the spotlight was stolen from him by a buffoonish Clint Eastwood.

Then, just as Romney was looking stronger--and more moderate--late in the campaign, Obama got an endorsement from Colin Powell, perhaps the country's most iconic centrist. As if that wasn't enough, Hurricane Sandy sparked a politically valuable bromance between the president and Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey. The storm also led to an endorsement from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg--who said that, in Sandy's wake, he wanted a president who took the problem of climate change seriously.

"Give me generals who know something about tactics and strategy," said Napoleon Bonaparte, "but best of all give me generals who are lucky." Was Barack Obama in 2012 simply a lucky general? Or was there something more at work than mere good fortune?

While Obama's rise through state and national politics was marked by key moments of serendipity, he time and again exhibited a pattern of meticulous planning--laying the groundwork for, and preparing to take full advantage of, whatever good fortune came his way. "What sets the really good politicians apart from the average ones is the ability to recognize opportunities, prepare for it, and capitalize on it," says Chris Sautter, a longtime political consultant who did early polling for Obama as he was plotting his political ascent.

As a state senator, for instance, Obama made a savvy, forward-thinking move: he managed to get the lines of his district redrawn, pushing its boundaries north into neighborhoods populated by affluent white liberals. By then, he was already eyeing a Senate seat and understood he would need a broader base of support.

In January 2003, Obama jumped into a crowded Democratic-primary race. The leading candidate, multimillionaire Blair Hull, looked like a shoo-in. That was until his divorce papers were unsealed, revealing an allegation that he'd threatened to kill his wife. The revelation was certainly an advantage for Obama--but once it happened, Obama was poised to benefit because of the broad constituency of blacks and wealthy liberals he had begun putting together as a state senator. …

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