Twenty-seven years after driving from New York City to Chicago in a $2,000 Honda Civic for a job that probably wouldn’t amount to much, Barack Obama, in better shape but with grayer hair, stood in the presidential suite on the top floor of the Fairmont Millennium Park hotel as flat screens announced his re-election as President of the United States...
...Since the moment Obama arrived on the national scene in 2004, the very idea of leadership has been under assault. Many of the old institutions that once anchored the American Dream have been bled of public confidence. Banks, Big Business, the news media and Congress all polled at or near record lows during his first term. Obama himself was the target of uncommon vitriol, but he has somehow managed to keep the public’s faith.
To understand how he kept his job, the best place to start is where he did. In early 2011, David Simas, a former registrar of deeds in Taunton, Mass., who had become a senior White House aide, switched on what might be called one of the largest listening posts in U.S. history. For months on end, two or three nights a week, Simas and his team secretly gathered voters in rented rooms across the swing states, eight at a time, the men separated from the women. The Obamans poked at their guinea pigs’ animal spirits, asked for confessions and played word-association games. (Among swing voters, Democrat often elicited Barack Obama, and Republican would yield words like old and backward.) Live feeds of the focus groups were shown on computer screens at campaign headquarters in Chicago. The first discovery Simas made held the keys to the kingdom. “Here is the best thing,” he said of Obama when he went back to home base. “People trust him.”
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In an age of lost authority, Obama had managed to maintain his. In group after group, the voters told the researchers they believed the President was honest, lived an admirable personal life and was trying to do the right thing. “Here’s what I heard for 18 months,” Simas says. “‘I trust his values. I think he walked into the worst situation of any President in 50 years. And you know what? I am disappointed that things haven’t turned around.’ But there was always that feeling of ‘I am willing to give this guy a second shot.’”
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