By: Peter Moore, Photographs by: Frank W. Ockenfels III
Name: Barack Obama
Occupation: Next president of the United States of America.
Okay, what have you got?"
Barack Obama is leaning across the table in O-Force One -- his campaign plane -- and fixing me with a gaze that says game on.
"Are you too skinny to be president?" I ask him.
It's August 4, the candidate's 47th birthday, but nobody's breaking out party hats. Maybe because we're high above Ohio, a battleground that will decide if this man will win the presidency -- or become election history's biggest-ever footnote.
I'd heard the charge from several quarters: A tall, slim guy's refusal to eat junk on the campaign trail might cut him off from the drive-thru electorate.
In fact, commentators and the press had been railing against Obama just a few days before: The average guy simply doesn't have 90 minutes to spend in the gym. But the senator won't take the bait: "Well, I wish I was getting a 90-minute workout," he says. "Most of my workouts have to come before my day starts. There's always a tradeoff between sleep and working out. Usually I get in about 45 minutes, 6 days a week. I'll lift one day and do cardio the next."
But what about the yammering that being fit is elitist?
"I don't think most people think it is. It's just the nature of the politics that [pundits] need something to talk about. A tried-and-true strategy in politics is to try and take a strength and turn it into a weakness."
If critics really want to take on some of Obama's strengths, there's quite a list to work through. Even if you now have "McCain-Palin" tattooed on your butt, you have to grant the man two things: He has accomplished a meteoric rise to the verge of vast power, and he's managing an innovative political organization that has energized millions of people and raised even more millions of dollars. And regardless of where you stand on his fitness to be president, he has the fitness part of it down pat.
Every life is, or should be, a campaign of sorts -- to clarify your thinking on the big questions, to recruit allies, to learn to take the right risks, and to balance your work and home life in a way that elevates both. Apologists for the overweight, take note: Fitness isn't elitism. It's a key to success. If you really want to succeed in your career and in your relationships, you need to carve out time to take care of your body as well.
And on those grounds you can learn a lot from Barack Obama, even if you don't flick the lever for him in a few weeks.
The senator's birthday "celebration" had gotten off to an awkward start earlier that morning. Obama showed up set to deliver a speech on energy policy in Lansing, Michigan, but when he hit the stage, the adoring crowd had something else in mind: All 2,000 people chimed in with "Happy Birthday to You."
But as his well-wishers reached the naming moment in the song -- the part where Marilyn Monroe, draped over a piano, had lustily crooned "Mr. President" to JFK -- they went strangely mute, not knowing what to call him. So for five beats, nothing came out of their mouths.
Happy birthday, Mr. Question Mark, and many happy returns.
And isn't that about right? For all the media spotlight on Obama since his landmark speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, we're still asking questions like Who is he? What does he believe? Where is he coming from? And what does he have to teach me?
Lesson 1: Learn from your father, even if he wasn't a good oneBarack Obama's life story, starting with his father's departure when he was 2 years old, is the equivalent of a doctoral program in abandonment, dislocation, and healing. And the last of these can come about only when you truly come to terms with the first two. As Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, makes abundantly clear, he was one twentysomething who took the time to understand exactly what it meant that his father left the family.
During our interview, I cite the complex relationship between Bush I and Bush II, and ask if his absent father would have an impact on an Obama presidency. "I would like to think that most of the issues related to my father have been resolved," he says, pointedly. "That's part of what writing Dreams from My Father was about: understanding him, his own personal tragedy. He wasn't a presence in my life, he was an idea that I had to wrestle with for a long time.
"Somebody once said that every man is either trying to live up to his dad's expectations or make up for his dad's mistakes. And I'm sure I was doing a little bit of both. But I feel that somewhere in my late 20s or early 30s I sort of figured out what his absence had meant. It is part of what I think has made me a pretty good dad. I don't think it would have too much of an impact on my decision-making as president. There's no doubt that it has contributed to my drive. I might not be here had it not been for that absent father prodding me early in life."
Lesson 2: Be there for your family, even if you're not aroundI wondered if his wife, Michelle, and their two children, Malia and Sasha, might join him on the day's trip, to participate in the blow-out-the-candles moment. But Obama had boarded the plane with Secret Service and campaign staffers, not family members. So he himself is something of an absentee father on his big day. I ask him about it.
"Yesterday was the birthday celebration," he tells me. "We get everything in, just not always on schedule when it's supposed to happen. Yesterday I sat on a lounge chair in a friend's backyard, watching my girls and Michelle dance. It was as nice a moment as I've had in a long time.
"I don't miss the important things. I haven't missed a dance recital. I haven't missed a parent-teacher conference. But there are some things I do miss, and those are some of the tradeoffs you make.
"But, look, there's no question there are sacrifices involved here. I'd like to say that quality time replaces quantity, but sometimes it doesn't. You know, a lot of the best moments of family life happen spontaneously. If you have less time to devote to them, there are fewer of those moments. What I've been able to do is create a zone of normalcy for my kids. Michelle's been wonderful about that. I have been able to transmit to them my absolute interest in them and my absolute love for them."
Lesson 3: Make the future your focusAnother loss in the Obama family: the way a child's life changes in the glare of campaign lights. The senator notes that his daughters were young -- 5 and 8 -- when he had to explain the upheaval that was about to shake their family. He may as well have been talking about his plans to file income taxes. The kids cut to the really important stuff: "Their main concern was, 'When are we going to get a dog?' They did ask about what they called 'secret people,' which were the Secret Service folks. 'Are we going to have to have these people with sunglasses and earpieces following us around all the time?' And I told them, well, not right away. They've adjusted wonderfully. And I've tried to make sure that they haven't had to participate too much in the political process.
"The pledge is" -- he can't help making campaign promises, even to his kids -- "they'll get their dog, win or lose."
Lesson 4: Turn early lessons into big successesSarah Palin might not be too impressed with Obama's days as a community organizer, but he built that modest beginning -- putting together coalitions of voters across Chicago -- into the current grass-roots organization that's unlike anything our electoral process has ever seen. It's a classic example of applying a lesson learned on a small scale to the biggest challenge of a lifetime.
Clearly, he knows how to manage groups. By the time your outfit has its own plane, it'd better have a solid pilot.
"I'm part of an organization," he says, "and one of the things I really try to push in the organization is to make sure that everybody is focused on the two or three things that are really going to be game changers. I ask them to design my schedule in a way that focuses not just on what's coming at us, but on being active instead of reactive. I think we've been pretty successful. I don't spend a lot of time returning phone calls or e-mails. If somebody needs something, most of the time there's somebody else who can handle it. Eliminating TV has been helpful." Wait, a confession: "I'm still a sucker for SportsCenter," he notes.
No distractions until SportsCenter comes on? No wonder he seems so calm all the time.
The goal of his organization, he says, is to clear time for job number 1: "The most difficult thing is to carve out time to think, which is probably the most important time for somebody who's trying to shift an organization, or in this case, the country, as opposed to doing the same things that have been done before. And I find that time slips away."
Lesson 5: The government isn't your nursemaidThe organization theme comes up again when I raise a pet peeve of this magazine: That the U.S. government maintains at least seven offices devoted to women's health, but no office of men's health. This despite the fact that men die earlier than women do of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. I'm hoping to enlist him in the battle.
"I'm not sure we need an office," he says. "We need to have an awareness built in throughout various agencies charged with improving health. I'll give you a specific example. My grandfather died of prostate cancer. As men age, regular checkups are critical. But it's hard to get them to go in for that mildly unpleasant checkup. Increasing awareness of the difference it could make shouldn't just be the activity of the Department of Health and Human Services."
And then he launches into a story involving a friend of his. It's a theme he returns to again and again as we talk: a world peopled with friends who taught him lessons, reminded him of what was important, reproached him in a useful way.
"A good friend of mine who was the head of the Illinois department of public health designed this wonderful program targeting black men, where health information was provided through barbershops. The idea was that a lot of black men underutilize doctors and don't talk about health much. But they go to the barbershop, and that's where they kind of let loose. The department designed programs where clinics at different barbershops would provide various health screenings, talk about prevention. Those kinds of strategies have to be developed and targeted, perhaps, because a lot of the time we're more resistant to going to doctors. That kind of thinking should be embedded in a lot of the work we're doing."
Lesson 6: Quit smoking (as often as you need to)For all of Obama's physical credentials, he's carried around the ultimate health taboo -- smoking -- for most of his adult life. And he inhaled, all right. Then word came that he'd quit smoking.
"There wasn't some dramatic moment," he says. "Michelle had been putting pressure on me for a while. I was never really a heavy smoker. Probably at my peak I was smoking seven or eight a day. More typical was three. So it wasn't a huge challenge with huge withdrawal symptoms. There have been a couple of times during the campaign when I fell off the wagon and bummed one, and I had to kick it again. But I figure, seeing as I'm running for president, I need to cut myself a little slack."
He does have advice for people, like him, who are wrestling with the dependency. "Eliminate certain key connections -- that first cigarette in the morning, or after a meal, or with a drink. If you can eliminate those triggers, that should help."
Lesson 7: Show others the way to common groundWhen you're a Kenya-Kansas hybrid, you either drive yourself nuts trying to sort out your identity or you find common ground among opposites. By all accounts, that nose for synthesis is why Obama's classmates selected him to be president of the Harvard Law Review. Neither the liberals nor the conservatives had the votes to elect their chosen candidate. But in Obama, both groups saw a guy who would give their side a fair shake. And he did.
Years later, Robert Putnam, a social scientist and political theorist, hosted seminars at Harvard's Kennedy School on how to rebuild the country's broken sense of community. He recruited an obscure Illinois state senator named Barack Obama to participate, along with bank presidents, entrepreneurs, and such better-known figures as religious-right strategist Ralph Reed and former Clintonista George Stephanopoulos.
"Barack Obama was one of the youngest in the group," Putnam told me. "At the beginning of our sessions, he stood back a little bit, listening to the others. But often around noon, you'd hear him say, 'Well I hear Jane saying this, and Joe saying that, but both Jane and Joe would probably agree on this more fundamental point.' Now, these were big-ego people he was dealing with, but he made his mark. It's a skill the country needs now: An emphasis on synthesis, not divisiveness."
Lesson 8: If you want to avoid disappointing others, don't disappoint yourselfNo surprise here. It's something he's thought about a lot: "I always try to make sure that my expectations are higher than those of the people around me," he says. "A lot of people have a lot at stake in this election. The American people are having a tough time. And I never want people to feel as if I've overpromised to them. I try to explain in a real honest way how difficult some of the changes I'm talking about will be. But I never want the effect to be that I'm not working as hard as I can on their behalf . . . that I'm not continually trying to improve. I'm actually glad for the high expectations. One of the interesting things about a campaign like this is that it really does push you to the limit and then some. And it turns out that you have more in your reservoir than you expected."
And at the beginning of August, he has plenty more testing to go through.
"I do," he replies. "I've got 3 more months, and then it gets harder."
Lesson 9: Don't let 'em see you sweatOne of the sillier controversies in the campaign broke in the middle of a heat wave last summer: Did Barack Obama sweat? Ever?
An AP wire story went out, accompanied by head scratching from members of the press, about people being unable to recall a single instance of campaign-trail perspiration. One day, his dry demeanor was even cited as evidence that he was using the cover of a workout to interview veep candidates in a Chicago gym. Nobody seemed to consider that he sweats less because he's in such good shape. It's obvious he's an athlete from his physical grace alone.
The way a guy carries himself can tell you a lot about him. For instance, Ronald Reagan brought about morning in America by having a demeanor sunny enough to dispel the early-'80s gloom all by himself. As for Obama, he does move like a silky small forward, which is part of his appeal. I witnessed a showcase of his physical skills upon our arrival in Lansing, as he executed the perfect plane dismount while waving at the Secret Service guys.
And I've reviewed his action on the basketball court: a fluid, high-pressure three-pointer while visiting troops in Kuwait; a recent YouTube clip of him during a 3-on-3 game, demonstrating equal facility with the drive, the step-back jumper, and the dish. When he's in the thick of the action, everybody on the court is involved.
Robert Putnam wrote a book called Bowling Alone in which he built a case that Americans have become isolated and American society fractured. For me, the book title conjures an image of the weird, haunted, solitary Richard Nixon repairing to the White House bowling alley at midnight to chase his demons and roll a few lonely frames. But bowling, alone or otherwise, isn't Obama's game.
When I first met the candidate, I observed to him that the White House grounds are equipped for basketball, but it's only a half-court setup, too cramped for the full-court game he possesses, and in any case, unavailable in rough weather.
Obama was quick to propose substantive change in Washington.
"We're going to do a thorough evaluation," he said in mock officialspeak, "but it may need an upgrade. The bowling alley, I understand, offers us some potential for expansion."
Of course: an indoor basketball court. Instead of bowling alone, he's itching to play the team game.
Check out Obama in YouTube "Unbelievable McCain Vs. Obama Dance-Off" & "Barack Obama & Hillary Clinton - Umbrella Music Video" very funny!