By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 17, 2008; Page A01
Early in 2005, Barack Obama met with half a dozen advisers in Washington to plot strategy. Some of those who participated remember that the group focused less on the details of Obama’s new job as the junior senator from Illinois than on managing his overall political image. He wanted to run for governor, maybe even president, someday, and preparing required a risky choice between two approaches to Washington.
Obama arrived as a celebrity, a best-selling author whose keynote speech was the only moment Democrats wanted to remember from their 2004 convention. He could capitalize on that reputation by speaking out against the Iraq war, scheduling prime-time television interviews and seizing control of high-profile bills. He could, as one Chicago friend suggested, “go in, do your thing and take the place by storm.”
Or, others advised, Obama could assume the typical role of a freshman senator, maneuvering with deference and humility. By endearing himself to Washington’s elite, he could build the foundation for his future.
“I think it’s important to take it slow,” Obama told his advisers. “I want to be liked.”
The result of those meetings was a kind of road map for the months ahead — a document his advisers called the “strategic plan.” Its creation testified to the focus and self-discipline that are part of Obama’s nature. While designed to outline Obama’s first 16 months in the U.S. Senate, its central tenets have delivered him to the brink of the presidency: Seek advice. Listen. Make cautious decisions. Strive for consensus.
But above all, the plan reminded Obama to manage his image and cultivate his political future. He came to the Senate with an inkling that he might seek the presidency, friends said, but his ambition and self-confidence compelled him to run much earlier than he had anticipated. By August 2006, a little more than 18 months after arriving in Washington, he began asking people he had barely met what they knew about New Hampshire and Iowa.