Mark Ambinder tells the story of Obama's entry into the presidential race in The Atlantic. He didn't make the decision until January last year. Before that he had presidential ambitions, but he appears to have come to the Senate with a sense of humility and disciplined patience, prepared to wait his turn, presumably after the Clinton power machine had come and gone.
That plan, if it ever got articulated, had to be put aside.
What caused Obama to suddenly decide to run? The conventional explanation is that Democrats implored him to. “It was the closest thing to a draft that I’ve seen in my years of participating in politics,” Axelrod told me.
The story reads like a novella.
In the spring of 2006, the presidency was clearly on Obama’s mind when he told his friend Martha Minow that his wife would have to give her assent to a run. “Michelle was the boss, and he said he couldn’t do it unless she agreed,” Minow told me. At the time, one of Michelle Obama’s friends told me that she worried her husband would be targeted by white supremacists and wind up a martyr like Robert F. Kennedy. She also worried that his advisers were pushing him too hard to consider a run and, knowing her husband’s healthy ego, that he wasn’t in the proper frame of mind to think seriously about it.
When Obama went on tour in the fall of 2006 to promote his second book, The Audacity of Hope, some of his friends encouraged him to be open about his presidential ruminations. The result was a sustained wave of national publicity. Time put Obama on the cover with the headline “Why Barack Obama Could Be the Next President.” The public responded, too. An appearance in Seattle sold out in two hours, leaving scalpers to profit from Obama’s popularity. Appearing on Meet the Press in October, when Tim Russert played a clip from the January 2006 show in which Obama had said he wouldn’t run, Obama simply responded that he had begun to think seriously about it.
On November 8, the day after Democrats took control of Congress, Obama, his wife, and his brain trust crowded into a fourth-floor conference room in the brick building in Chicago’s Loop that houses Axelrod’s consulting firm. “I want you to show me how you’re going to do this,” Michelle Obama said, according to an aide. “You need to show me that this is not going to be a bullshit fly-by-night campaign.” A month later, at an all-day meeting in Chicago billed as “the Summit,” the would-be campaign manager, David Plouffe, returned with a budget, an outline of early strategy, and a list of tasks to be accomplished before any campaign could begin. The conversation in the second meeting “had an existential quality to it,” according to a participant. “Why do you want to do this? What does this mean for us? What’s our motivation? What will get us through the hard times?”