In a Crisis, Obama Is Cool Under Pressure

How Obama handles everything from healthcare to the war in Afghanistan could define his presidency.

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President Obama never billed himself as a crisis leader. When he started his campaign for the White House, his message was not about his ability to make tough decisions under adverse conditions but about gauzy promises of transformational change and the restorative power of hope. Obama had virtually no executive experience, and, as his critics pointed out, there were serious questions about whether his background as a community organizer in Chicago, a state legislator, and, briefly, a U.S. senator had adequately prepared him for the toughest job in the world.

But since his election, Obama has been forced by circumstances to deal with one calamity after another. He is the rare president whose fate was to be plunged immediately into a vast maelstrom of bad news, and for week after seemingly endless week, he never got a breather. There was the financial meltdown that almost paralyzed the economy. The near collapse of the mortgage industry. The death spiral of the automakers. The recession that sent unemployment through the roof. Somali pirates who took an American hostage. The ongoing threat of terrorism. And, of course, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

[Read an exclusive interview with Obama.]

Through it all, Obama demonstrated many of the leadership traits that served previous crisis presidents well, such as poise and the willingness to make quick, bold judgments and not brood about them. But Obama's actions have also raised lingering questions about whether his decisions were hastily conceived and relied too much on government money and power. In fact, since he took office in January, Obama has begun the biggest surge of federal activism in many years, including vast spending to stimulate the economy and other programs to rescue the financial, mortgage, and auto industries. His foreign policy seems to be a confusing pastiche of feel-good calls for cooperation combined with tough rhetoric toward the rogue nations of Iran and North Korea. Just as important, Obama has taken different approaches to the wars he inherited, slowly withdrawing from Iraq as he promised during his campaign but starting a buildup in Afghanistan.

Calm and confident. Yet overall, no matter what one thinks of his specific policies, Obama has turned out to be a more sure-footed leader under pressure than his critics had anticipated, and even better than his supporters expected. "He has a set of personal qualities that lend themselves to execu-tive leadership—that sense of calm, that sense of confidence, that penetrating intelligence, the ability to pick through complex problems, and a willingness to trust others," says David Axelrod, a White House senior adviser and longtime Obama confidant. "He understands that his job is principally about making decisions and living with those decisions, and he is comfortable with that."

Axelrod sees two types of decisions that every president faces: "You have sustained, long-term challenges like the wars, and then you have short-term issues that arise."

In a recent interview in the Oval Office, Obama, seated under a portrait of George Washington, explained what is behind his decision-making process. He says that he draws on methods that have helped him succeed in the past, such as assembling the best advisers, listening to their counsel, and encouraging dissent. But at the same time he added, "I don't think anything prepares you for the presidency."

Obama said he tries to base his judgments on "information and not emotions" and echoed past commanders in chief when he noted, "I think wartime issues are always of a different nature because they're life and death." He talked somberly about meeting with wounded soldiers and the families of those killed in action, and, lowering his voice, said almost sternly, "They are paying the ultimate price for our security, and so you'd better get those decisions right. And I feel a much greater weight when it comes to questions of war."

All the while, Obama has used three principles to guide him through the tumultuous times, his advisers say. First and foremost, he tries to come up with practical solutions that have a high probability of success. Second, he wants to exhibit confidence at all times to reassure the country that he will do the right thing. Third, he seeks to communicate his vision in a compelling way, using all the tools afforded by the modern media, from the Internet to prime-time news conferences and appearances on late-night TV talk shows.