'Times' Reporter Examines Obama's Path To Office

This story was written by Joseph Zaleski, The Heights
The weeks following Barack Obama's election and his ascent to the status of president-elect have been filled with excitement and speculation regarding the development of his administration. To make some sense of this past election and the first term of an Obama White House, the Quality of Student Life Committee invited New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny to the Boston College campus on Tuesday as a part of its Be Current Lecture Series.

Zeleny is a correspondent in the Washington Bureau of The Times, and he has been covering Obama since 2001 when the two first met. Zeleny reported on Obama's 2004 Senate bid with the Chicago Tribune and then wrote about Obama's subsequent presidential campaign from the time he announced his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., in February 2007 up to his victory speech in Grant Park just a few weeks ago. "Talk about a front seat to history," Zeleny said, "even though I was often sitting about 30 rows behind him on a plane looking at the back of his head."

Zeleny noted that although presidential campaigns are often driven, and sometimes commandeered, by the mainstream media, "this campaign was really about the voters and their issues." Concerns about the economy and foreign policy, rather than scandals and negative advertising, fueled both stump speeches and debates. Even though both candidates addressed these issues, Obama won the election with an outstanding majority of electoral votes.

Zeleny attributed this to three factors: that Obama was able to capture the enthusiasm of supporterssomething that became apparent after his first quarter fundraising report, that he ran a better and more organized campaign than McCain, and that it was just a tough year to be a candidate in the Republican Party.

Obama's victory, however, was never a foregone conclusion. In fact, Zeleny noted that he did not believe Obama would be running for president, even in 2005 when the two men visited Boston College for Obama's keynote address at the First Year Convocation.

Obama's freshness as a politician, however, gave him an upper hand. When the campaign began to stall, Obama "blew up the Iowa caucus system" by opening between 50 and 60 offices in the state; this became a model for the rest of the primary season. "This was a way to get people together and communicate with one another everything in this campaign was a test pattern," Zeleny said. If a new strategy worked, the campaign would use it again until it began to fizzle.

Even Obama's early defeats seem to have helped him win in November. When the campaign lost the New Hampshire primary to Senator Hillary Clinton in January of this year, many in the Obama camp were shocked. Yet Zeleny noted that the few extra months of hard campaigning that this served to change Obama from a fresh-faced provincial senator to a serious national candidate for the highest office in the country. Zeleny watched this transformation firsthand on the road. In the early years, Obama made himself available for questioning and interviews, but Obama was "very, very, very guarded" during the last stretch of this campaign. "He's in a different role; he's in a different movie now," Zeleny said.

A benchmark for this shift came this summer when Zeleny traveled to the Middle East and Europe with the Obama campaign. Zeleny said that when Obama walked across Downing Street in London, hundreds of onlookers and reporters clogged the street to catch a glimpse of the candidate; a far cry from the handful of reporters who waited for Obama on Downing Street during a trip we made just a few years earlier. "He still looked the same, but everything was different," Zeleny said.

Instead of speaking directly with the mainstream media, Obama deftly managed himself by having reporters get their informaton from chief strategist David Axelrod or campaign manager David Plouffe. Obama, however, bridged a communication gap by directly contacting his supporters through his Web site, e-mail, or YouTube. Now that Obama has been elected president, security concerns may restrict his adroit use of alternative communication, and as Zeleny noted in a recent article, Obama may be forced to surrender his precious BlackBerry.

Zeleny has been everywhere with Obamafrom Iraq, to Illinois, to the back of an airplane playing Taboo about 30,000 feet above the ground, a relationship Zeleny said he looks forward to continue developing as he covers the now president-elect over the next four years.

The Be Current campaign was launched by the Quality of Student Life Committee in 2003 to "further enhance the academic climate at Boston College," according to its Web site. The campaign provides the BC campus with over 500 copies of The New York Times and The Boston Globe and 50 copies of USA Today. In addition, the QSLC has brought a New York Times reporter to campus every year for the past four years to discuss a pertinent national or international issue.