You probably sat in a fancier conference room the last time you
refinanced or heard a pitch about life insurance. There’s a table, some
off-brand mesh office chairs, a bookcase that looks as if it had been
put together with an Allen wrench and instructions in Swedish.
reach this room, you pass through a cubicle farm lightly populated by
quiet young people. Either they have just arrived or they are just
leaving, because their desks are almost bare. The place has a vaguely
familiar feel to it, this air of transient shabbiness and
nondescriptitude. You can’t quite put your finger on it …
“It’s like the set of The Office,” someone offers.
is here that we find Barack Obama one soul-freezingly cold December
day, mentally unpacking the crate of crushing problems — some old, some
new, all ugly — that he is about to inherit as the 44th President of
the United States. Most of his hours inside the presidential-transition
office are spent in this bland and bare-bones room. You would think the
President-elect — a guy who draws 100,000 people to a speech in St.
Louis, Mo., who raises three-quarters of a billion dollars, who is
facing the toughest first year since Franklin Roosevelt’s — might merit
a leather chair. Maybe a credenza? A hutch?
But he doesn’t seem
to notice. Obama is cheerfully showing his visitors around, gripping
the souvenir basketball he received from Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens,
explaining a snapshot taken the day he played pickup with the
University of North Carolina hoops team. (“They are so big and so fast
and so strong, you know.”) Then, since those two items basically
exhaust the room’s décor, Obama sits down on one of the mesh chairs and
launches into a spoken tour of his world of woes. It’s a mind-boggling
journey, although he shows no signs of being boggled — unless you count
the increasingly prevalent salt in his salt-and-pepper hair. By now we
are all accustomed to that Obi-Wan Kenobi calm, though we may never
entirely understand it. In a soothing monotone, he highlights the
scariest hairpin turns on his itinerary, the ones that combine
difficulty with danger plus a jolt of existential risk. (See pictures
of the Civil Rights movement from Emmett Till to Barack Obama.)
is not clear that the economy’s bottomed out,” he begins,
understatedly. (The morning newspaper trumpets the worst unemployment
spike in more than 30 years.) “And so even if we take a whole host of
the right steps in terms of the economy, two years from now it may not
have fully recovered.” That worries him. Also Afghanistan: “We’re going
to have to make a series of not just military but also diplomatic moves
that fully enlist Pakistan as an ally in that region, that lessen
tensions between India and Pakistan, and then get everybody focused on
rooting out militancy in a terrain, a territory, that is very tough —
and in an enormous country that is one of the poorest and least
developed in the world. So that, I think, is going to be a very tough
“And then the third thing that keeps me up at night
is the issue of nuclear proliferation,” Obama continues, sailing on
through the horribles. “And then the final thing, just to round out my
Happy List, is climate change. All the indicators are that this is
happening faster than even the most pessimistic scientists were
anticipating a couple of years ago.”
Score that as follows: one
imploding economy, one deteriorating war in an impossible region and
two versions of Armageddon — the bang of loose nukes and the whimper of
environmental collapse. That’s just for starters; we’ll hear the
unabridged version shortly.
But first, there is a bit of
business to be dealt with, having to do with why you are reading this
story in this magazine at this time of the year. It’s unlikely that you
were surprised to see Obama’s face on the cover. He has come to
dominate the public sphere so completely that it beggars belief to
recall that half the people in America had never heard of him two years
ago — that even his campaign manager, at the outset, wasn’t sure Obama
had what it would take to win the election. He hit the American scene
like a thunderclap, upended our politics, shattered decades of
conventional wisdom and overcame centuries of the social pecking order.
Understandably, you may be thinking Obama is on the cover for these big
and flashy reasons: for ushering the country across a momentous
symbolic line, for infusing our democracy with a new intensity of
participation, for showing the world and ourselves that our most
cherished myth — the one about boundless opportunity — has plenty of
juice left in it.
On Friday, Dec. 5, the President-elect sat down with TIME managing
editor Richard Stengel, editor-at-large David Von Drehle and Time Inc.
editor-in-chief John Huey in Obama’s spartan transition offices in
Chicago to discuss his plans for the coming months, the improbability
of his victory and how he’s fighting to stay in touch with the real
world from inside the presidential bubble. Excerpts from their
What kind of mandate do you have?
Well, I think we won a decisive victory. Forty-seven percent of the
American people still voted for John McCain. And so I don’t think that
Americans want hubris from their next President. I do think we received
a strong mandate for change … It means a government that is not
ideologically driven. It means a government that is competent. It means
a government, most importantly, that is focused day in, day out on the
needs and struggles, the hopes and dreams, of ordinary people. And I
think there is a strong mandate for Washington as a whole to be
responsive to ordinary Americans in a way that it has not been for
quite some time.
When voters look at your Administration two years from now, in the
off-year election, how will they know whether you’re succeeding?
I think there are a couple of benchmarks we’ve set for ourselves during
the course of this campaign. On [domestic] policy, have we helped this
economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great
Depression? Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the
road that assure this kind of crisis doesn’t occur again? Have we
created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves?
Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care
and expanding coverage? Have we begun what will probably be a
decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? Have we
begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our
public-school systems so we can compete in the 21st century? That’s on
the domestic front.
On foreign policy, have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way,
put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands
of our security and our Constitution? Have we rebuilt alliances around
the world effectively? Have I drawn down U.S. troops out of Iraq, and
have we strengthened our approach in Afghanistan — not just militarily
but also diplomatically and in terms of development? And have we been
able to reinvigorate international institutions to deal with
transnational threats, like climate change, that we can’t solve on our
And outside of specific policy measures, two years from now, I want the
American people to be able to say, “Government’s not perfect; there are
some things Obama does that get on my nerves. But you know what? I feel
like the government’s working for me. I feel like it’s accountable. I
feel like it’s transparent. I feel that I am well informed about what
government actions are being taken. I feel that this is a President and
an Administration that admits when it makes mistakes and adapts itself
to new information, that believes in making decisions based on facts
and on science as opposed to what is politically expedient.” Those are
some of the intangibles that I hope people two years from now can claim.
When you look at the economic issues that you ran on in the campaign,
does [all the bad financial news] change your priorities about how
quickly you’ve got to act on, say, jobs vs. energy?
Fortunately, most of the proposals that we made apply not only to our
long-term economic growth but also fit well into what we need to do
short term to get the economy back on track. I have talked during the
campaign about the need to rebuild our infrastructure, and that
obviously gives us an opportunity to create jobs and drive demand at a
time when the economy desperately needs jobs and demand. I’ve talked
about a tax cut for 95% of working families, and that fits into a
stimulus package, and we can get that money out into people’s pockets
fairly quickly. I’ve talked about the need for us to contain
health-care costs, and it turns out there’s some spending that has to
be done on information technology, for example, that we can do fairly
swiftly. So there’s no doubt that most of the priorities that I had are
ones that will serve our short-term economic needs as well as our
long-term economic needs.
The drop in oil prices, I do think, makes the conversation about energy
more difficult, not less necessary. More than ever, I think, a
wholesale investment in transforming our economy — from retrofitting
buildings so that they’re energy-efficient to changing our
transportation patterns and thinking about how to rebuild our
electricity grid — those are all things that we’re going to need now
more than ever. But with people not paying $4 a gallon for gas, it
means it drops on their priority list. And that makes the politics of
it tougher than it might have been six months ago.
So how long and how deep a recession should the American public be ready for?
I don’t have a crystal ball, and economists are all over the map on
this. I think we should anticipate that 2009 is going to be a tough
year. And if we make some good choices, I’m confident that we can limit
some of the damage in 2009 and that in 2010 we can start seeing an
upward trajectory on the economy. But this is a difficult hole that
we’ve dug ourselves into. You know, Japan found itself in a somewhat
similar situation in the ’90s, made some poor decisions, didn’t
squarely face some of the problems in its banking system and, despite
significant stimulus, still saw this thing drag on for almost a decade.
On the other hand, you’ve got countries like Sweden that went through
this and acted forcefully and boldly and in two years were back on
track and were growing at a really healthy clip. So the decisions we
make are going to have an impact on it. But next year’s going to be
My father Fraser Robinson and my basketball coach at Princeton,
Hall of Famer Pete Carril, used to say the same thing: “On the court,
you can tell who’s a selfish jerk.” And let’s just say they used a less
printable word than jerk.
When Michelle started dating Barack Obama, she finally had
someone serious enough to bring home to meet the family. As it turned
out, he had played basketball in high school and kind of thought he was
pretty good. My sister said, “I want you to take him to play, to see
what type of guy he is when he’s not around me.” So I invited Barack to
play pickup hoops with a few friends of mine in Chicago. Some of these
guys played in college, some didn’t, but they were all pretty good
players. I like to think I was the first guy to vet him. (See pictures of Barack Obama’s family tree.)
I was very nervous because I had already met Barack a few times
and liked him a lot. My sister didn’t have many long-term boyfriends.
So I was thinking, This guy seems like a pretty good guy; I hope he
makes it. I was rooting for him. But here I am with this
responsibility: if he turns out to be a, er, jerk, I’ve got to be the
one to tell her.
He handled everything perfectly. We played a hard
five-on-five, so there were definitely potholes for him to fall into.
He wasn’t the best guy out there, but he wasn’t the worst guy. I liked
the fact that he was confident but wasn’t cocky or talking trash.
Barack was very team-oriented, very unselfish. He fit in like he was
one of us — he wasn’t trying to be president of the Harvard Law Review.
But the best part about it was that when we were on the same team, he
did not pass me the ball every single time. He wasn’t trying to suck up
to my sister through me. I thought, You know, I like that. I was
relieved to give my sister the good news: “Your boy is straight, and he
can ball.” (See pictures of Obama’s college years.)
People always ask me to describe my brother-in-law’s game. Well,
he has a very nice outside shot that has gotten better over the years,
because as we get older, we can’t go to the basket as easily. He’s very
thin, but he’s not weak. You can tell the guy has played. He is
extremely left-handed. Most left-handed guys are quicker going to their
right. Well, he’s better going to his left. I’ll have to work on that
Basketball is very therapeutic for Barack. He’s always in a
great mood before and after he’s played. He looks forward to it. About
40 of us played on Election Day in Chicago, and there was an unspoken
nonaggression pact. Not only was everyone afraid of giving Barack a fat
lip before a possible victory speech to the entire world, but also, no
one there wanted to sprain an ankle or something. We all wanted to
participate, pain-free, in whatever might take place later that night.
We set up four teams and played a round-robin tournament. Let’s just
say Barack fared better on election night than he did in hoops earlier
What does Barack’s game say about the man, about the way he’s
going to lead this country through these very trying times? Well, he’s
competitive yet inclusive. He’s unselfish, which, where I come from, is
the greatest compliment you can give both a player and a leader. And
he’s consistent. You’ve got a guy at the top who ran a campaign — and
who is going to run a government — in a classy, efficient and
considerate manner. That’s the same guy I got to know playing hoops
when he was dating my sister.
There’s been a lot of talk about Barack’s building a
basketball court somewhere in his new home. I sure hope he does. I’d
love to tell people I played hoops in the White House. Plus it would be
great, from a national health-care perspective, to see the President
working out on a regular basis. People may say, Look, if the President
is playing ball three times a week — or however much he ends up
playing; I know he’ll be pretty busy — maybe I can go out there and do
something for my health too. And how cool would it be to hear about
some piece of legislation that was sealed after a pickup game between
Democrats and Republicans? That would really make me proud as a
ballplayer, a coach and a U.S. citizen. You can tell I’m lobbying for
Your ball, Mr. President. I know you’re going to drain the big shots.
Robinson, Obama’s brother-in-law, was a two-time Ivy League
Player of the Year at Princeton in the early 1980s. He is now the head
men’s basketball coach at Oregon State University
If Facebook had existed back in 1980, when Barack Obama was a
freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles, we’d all be familiar
with photos of him arcing a jump shot on the basketball court or giving
an early speech at a student rally.
If only. Instead, 28 years later, a series of 36 photographs
taken in 1980 by his fellow student Lisa Jack gives a sense of the
20-year-old Barry Obama in search of self. Jack, now a psychologist,
never realized her dream of becoming a photographer. But she recently
unearthed the cellophane-wrapped negatives in her basement and dusted
them off for publication. “I’m not political,” Jack says. “[But] these
are historical photos, and they should be shared.” (See pictures of Barack Obama’s college years.)
Jack met Obama, she recalls, through a friend of a friend who
thought he’d make a good subject for her black-and-white portraits. She
doesn’t remember much about first encountering him at the Cooler, a
campus snack shop. “He was really cute,” she says. “What else does a
20-year-old girl remember?” But they soon set a date for a shoot at
Jack’s apartment, a “decrepit old place” a block from campus.
Obama showed up with a cigarette in his hand and a leather
jacket on his back, a look common in the crowd he hung with at the time
— described in his autobiography Dreams from My Father as politically
minded black students, internationals, Chicanos, “Marxist professors
and structural feminists and punk-rock performance poets.” With his
friends, Obama discussed neocolonialism and patriarchy in late-night
bull sessions, but at the photo shoot, Obama and Jack stuck to small
talk about where they grew up — Hawaii and New York, respectively — and
how they liked school. If Obama was already thinking of the move he
would soon make to Jack’s home state to study at Columbia University,
he didn’t let on.
But through the photos, Jack recalls, her subject revealed
more of himself. “He was a little nervous,” she says. “You can see he’s
just posing, initially, and as the shoot goes on, he starts to come
out.” Even in Jack’s apartment, amid the trappings of scrappy
college-student squalor — a nylon plaid love seat hauled from the side
of the road, an overturned shopping cart instead of an end table and a
lime green shag carpet badly in need of cleaning — the future pol added
a touch of glamour. “He was very charismatic even then,” says Jack.
Outside of a few chance encounters on campus and one after
graduation, the photographer and the future President lost touch. But
on a sightseeing tour of the Capitol in 2005, Jack spotted him emerging
from a legislative session and yelled hello. “He knew exactly who I
was, even after all this time,” she says. “I was amazed.”
A few more years passed, however, before Jack dug up the
negatives. Talking politics with friends in her living room in early
2008, Jack mentioned knowing Obama in college. Finding them skeptical,
Jack decided to track down the photos and “prove them wrong.” “If I
hadn’t been dared, I’d have never gone to look for them,” says Jack.
“They just sat there to be discovered after I died.”
After descending the stairs to the “junk room,” chockablock
with bank statements, old softball mitts, New Year’s 2000 paraphernalia
and her college record collection — Benatar, Bowie, Dylan — Jack pulled
out a blue binder she had saved through nine moves to new homes. It
contained all her negatives from college. The images of Obama “blew me
away,” she says. “I had no idea I’d taken a full roll of film.” Jack
eventually put the negatives in a safety-deposit box, planning to sit
on them until after the election, when there would be no chance they
could be used for political purposes.
Today, Jack says, she hopes the photos reveal a “spirit of fun
and thoughtfulness” in a man who can seem to some like an enigma.
Still, she says she never thought they would have much life outside her
darkroom. “Certainly,” she says, “I didn’t expect this.”
His shirtsleeves were rolled up, and he flipped me a dog-eared
basketball autographed by Lenny Wilkens. Should I pass it back, like
it’s a give-and-go? Or does one not do that with a President-elect? I
decided simply to hand it back. We then sat down for our Person of the
Year interview at Obama’s modest transition headquarters in Chicago.
Like a skilled point guard, Obama stayed focused, concentrating on the
big issues confronting him and the American people.
David Von Drehle’s masterly story on our Person of the Year
not only sketches out what’s on Obama’s mind but also reveals new
details about how and when he realized that his first 100 days had to
start on Nov. 5, the day after voters elected him to become the 44th
President of the United States and the first African American to hold
the office. Von Drehle also tells us — with Obama’s help — how we
should hold the new President accountable. Beyond his mastery of the
issues, Obama revealed a more personal note: a slightly rueful sense
that the world was tightening around him, that he would no longer be
able to take a walk or shop for groceries. He seemed to be girding
himself for the loss of being simply a regular citizen.
Our cover portrait is by the street artist Shepard Fairey,
whose roots are in the skateboarding world and whose early poster of
then Senator Obama became the great populist image of the campaign.
With this cover, Fairey has now created a new iconic image of the
President-elect — a rich, multilayered poster that echoes but then
expands on his original.
In keeping with the theme of citizen art, we open our Person
of the Year package with a dazzling array of images culled from those
created by thousands of individuals from around the world and posted on
the image-sharing site Flickr. Obama always said his candidacy was not
about him, but “you,” and now, along with Flickr, we’re helping give
“you” a voice. The presentation of these images in the magazine
reflects the extraordinary work of Time deputy picture editor Dietmar
Liz-Lepiorz, deputy art director D.W. Pine, reporter Jeninne Lee-St.
John and picture-desk assistant Diana Suryakusuma. I also want to thank
assistant managing editor Michael Duffy and deputy managing editor Adi
Ignatius for doing the heavy lifting on this issue. (See pictures of Obama on Flickr.)
The pictures of Barack Obama, from when he was a freshman at Occidental College,
are far from street art. In fact, the negatives sat in a binder for
nearly 30 years in the home of Lisa Jack, who took the photos of her
then classmate Barry Obama. They are striking images of the young man
who, as Obama says in Dreams from My Father, was still finding himself at Occidental.
Finally, make sure you read Craig Robinson’s delightful memoir
about his brother-in-law’s skills on the basketball court. Robinson’s
sister Michelle asked him to vet her new boyfriend in a pickup game
nearly 20 years ago. Robinson, now the head basketball coach at Oregon
State University, was a star at Princeton under the great Pete Carril
(I played for Pete too, but much earlier and rode the bench), who
believed you could tell a person’s character by how he played on the
court. Robinson was relieved to discover that his future brother-in-law
was a team player.