It was a late Sunday afternoon in September 2008, and senior aides to Barack Obama were gathered at his presidential campaign headquarters in Chicago. Their latest polling showed that Mr. Obama, the Democratic nominee, had lost his lead over his opponent, Senator John McCain, since the Republican convention. They were worried.
Two hours into the meeting, Mr. Obama walked in the door. Henry M. Paulson, the secretary of the Treasury, had just alerted him of bad economic news that would become public in the coming hours, Mr. Obama told his aides. “The world is going to change and whatever you guys are working on is going to be different tomorrow,” he said, according to participants.
Early the next morning, Lehman Brothers, one of the nation’s most prominent securities firms, filed for bankruptcy. The collapse shook the nation’s financial industry and sent the stock market into free fall. Overnight, with the election less than two months away, a historic economic crisis transformed America’s presidential race, testing both candidates on who best could lead the nation to recovery.
With its staggering death toll, surging unemployment and economic devastation, the Covid-19 crisis confronting the nation today is far more cataclysmic than the 2008 meltdown. But Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain faced a series of choices — on leadership, empathy and tone, on executing political strategy and navigating fast-moving events on Wall Street, Main Street and Washington — that are relevant and even illuminating as President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. try to navigate another campaign playing out against the backdrop of a national emergency.
After the Lehman bankruptcy on Sept. 15, over the crush of the next 14 days, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama were forced to respond to a crisis in real time. It involved a complex unraveling on Wall Street, the anxieties of millions of Americans seeing huge losses in their retirement accounts, and the polarized politics of the White House and Capitol Hill. There was little time for polling or focus groups, aides to both campaigns said, and decisions were made on instinct.
These were the 14 days that decided the 2008 race and assured Mr. Obama’s election as the next president, in the view of both the McCain and Obama camps.
“The race changed on a dime,” said David Plouffe, who was Mr. Obama’s campaign manager. “It became, who did the American people trust to dig us out of a crisis? And that’s going to be the same here.”
Once again, virtually all other issues have given way to which candidate can communicate, manage and reassure an alarmed public. With five months to the November election and no end to the coronavirus in sight, the 2020 race is demanding not only a sophisticated policy response from Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden, but also a display of confidence, competence and steady temperament. The crisis has almost certainly changed what at least some voters will consider in judging the candidates.
For Mr. Trump, the pressure is to lay out a course for the nation while also shifting public focus to his opponent, Mr. Biden, as the president tries to display the kind of empathy in times of suffering that has often eluded him over his years in public life. For Mr. Biden, the challenge is presenting himself as capable of leading, while deprived of any platform of authority or easy avenues with which to demonstrate his ability, as he quarantines himself at home in Delaware.
The need to prove their readiness in a crisis, take positions on tough issues and speak deftly — all were true in 2008, too.
As the fall campaign began, Mr. Obama was running as a face of reform in Washington. The first-term senator from Illinois pledged to enact national health care, and attacked Mr. McCain for supporting the war in Iraq. He tied Mr. McCain to the unpopular Republican president, George W. Bush, and an economy that was already in distress.
But almost immediately, the crisis threatened to highlight one of Mr. Obama’s biggest weaknesses: a lack of experience compared with a six-term senator from Arizona. And Mr. Obama, as a senator and the leader of his party, would most likely have to vote on a Wall Street bailout that could undercut his stance as a candidate campaigning against special interests.
Mr. McCain was running on a pledge to cut taxes, spending and governmental regulation. And Mr. McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, presented himself a national security expert running against a media celebrity without the experience to run a White House.
But now, Mr. McCain was forced to talk abut the complexities of the economy, an issue he was never comfortable with, and defend his advocacy of Wall Street deregulation. And Mr. McCain’s instinctive and irreverent style — which had always been part of his appeal as a senator in Washington — damaged him as a candidate running during a crisis. He responded rapidly and rashly, in the view of his aides, ultimately undercutting any hope of portraying Mr. Obama as too young to lead in an emergency.
“We might have won,” said Charlie Black, a senior strategist for Mr. McCain, as he recalled the Wall Street collapse. “This made it not a close call.”
Rick Davis, another senior McCain aide, said Mr. Trump’s campaign should pay heed to the 2008 experience.
“This is it,” he said. “I saw what happens when an issue galvanizes the American public. You can talk about anything else you want. We could have had a shooting war in the Gulf in the middle of the financial crisis and nobody would have cared.”
A ‘ka-boom’ comment
Mr. Obama entered the fall with a historical advantage over Mr. McCain. Since Franklin D. Roosevelt, only one party had won the White House three times in a row. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted the weekend before the Lehman Brothers collapse found 68 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Mr. Bush was conducting his job, and 81 percent thought the nation was heading in the wrong direction. Unemployment hit 6.1 percent in August, a five-year high.
But Mr. McCain was a popular leader of his party; Mr. Obama’s political résumé was thin. And he was seeking to become the nation’s first African-American president.
“We thought we had a steady advantage in the battleground states, but it was not outsized,” Mr. Plouffe said. “There were only so many bricks you could put on the wagon. This young candidate, hasn’t been in Washington long, was in the State Senate only four years ago. Fresh face, but now we are in a national crisis. Is that going to be too many bricks on the wagon?”
But Mr. McCain seemed unsteady from that very first day when, after an already scheduled meeting with financial advisers in New York, he flew to Florida to address the meltdown.
“People are frightened by these events,” he said. “Our economy, I think still, the fundamentals of our economy are strong.”
The remark reflected what he had heard that morning and what he had said before. But candidates are often judged by their performance under fire, how they respond to unanticipated events, since that is a big part of being president. And in the context of the day, the “fundamentals of our economy” remark seemed a serious misstep that suggested Mr. McCain was unable to grasp the gravity of the crisis.
“Did he just say the fundamentals of the economy are strong?” McCain’s close friend and senior adviser Mark Salter said as he watched the speech at campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va. Mr. Black’s stomach fell. “It didn’t fit the moment,” Mr. Black said.
Another senior adviser, Steve Schmidt, was more dire. “The race was over at that moment,” he said. “It was done. Over. Ka-Boom.”
When Daniel Pfeiffer, who was Mr. Obama’s communications director, heard Mr. McCain on television, he raced to Mr. Plouffe’s office to alert him, and an advertisement using Mr. McCain’s words was finished within hours.
“It allowed us to begin to play alternative president in a world of who can handle this crisis better,” said Robert Gibbs, the campaign spokesman, who would become the White House press secretary.
Mr. Obama addressed it that afternoon in Pueblo, Colo. “Senator McCain, what economy are you talking about?” he said.
Mr. McCain backtracked quickly. By the next morning, in a round of talk show appearances, he was calling the economic situation a “total crisis” and denouncing “greed” on Wall Street.
That week, the U.S. took control of the American International Group in an $85 billion bailout to prevent it from collapsing. Mr. McCain was warned by business leaders that unless Congress intervened, Americans would be unable to draw money from cash machines, Mr. Schmidt said.
But even with all of Mr. McCain’s difficulties, Mr. Obama’s advisers worried voters would return to safer harbors.
“Our immediate question was, is that going to change the threshold for Obama to win?” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “It could fundamentally change how willing people were to take a risk.”
The Republican candidate had an opportunity to define his opponent, but, trapped by his own record, he could not seize it. He had long been a foe of governmental regulation. Now, Mr. McCain demanded regulations to crack down on Wall Street. He called for the removal of Christopher Cox, Mr. Bush’s appointee as chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
None of it seemed to work. Mr. Davis felt that every time he saw Mr. McCain on television giving a speech, there would be a ticker on the lower corner of the screen showing the downward arrow of a market declining by the minute.
Erratic vs. unifying
Nine days after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a Washington Post-ABC News Poll showed Mr. Obama had gained his first clear lead in the general election campaign. Mr. Schmidt proposed that Mr. McCain leave the campaign trail to join the White House and congressional leaders struggling to pass a bailout and challenge Mr. Obama to join.
“Our numbers were in free fall,” Mr. Schmidt said. “The only chance that all of us agreed on was that maybe if this passed, it stabilizes things and there’s some sense of normalcy before the election.” Mr. Davis thought it was a mistake. “I was like, no!” Mr. Davis said. “Nobody goes to Washington during a presidential campaign.”
The Republican candidate loved the idea of an unconventional gambit, aides said. He called Mr. Obama and proposed they go to Washington and postpone a debate set for that Friday in Mississippi.
Before Mr. Obama had a chance to respond, Mr. McCain announced on television that he was returning to Washington and suspending his campaign. Mr. McCain’s advisers were caught off guard and Mr. Obama felt ambushed; he told aides Mr. McCain never mentioned suspending the campaign.
Mr. Obama’s campaign advisers assembled in a hotel room near Tampa, where he had gone for debate preparation. “It was such a fast-moving situation,” Mr. Plouffe said. “Maybe people want us to suspend the campaign? We didn’t know. For all the data and polling and machinery, usually campaigns come down to these moments you can’t plan for.”
Mr. Obama agreed to return for a White House meeting but would not suspend his campaign. “Presidents are going to have to deal with more than one thing at a time,” he said.
Mr. Bush called the meeting at Mr. McCain’s request, but told aides he never understood the reason. And Mr. McCain sat silently through most of it, yielding his time to other Republicans and Mr. Obama. The meeting only intensified the stalemate and Democrats seized on Mr. McCain’s demeanor to portray him as erratic in a time of crisis.
Mr. Black told Mr. McCain he would not be able to skip the next day’s debate. The debate was supposed to be about foreign policy, but the two candidates were questioned from the start about the crisis. Mr. McCain again struggled to explain what he would do.
Mr. McCain returned to the campaign trail. He was on the airport tarmac in Columbus, Ohio, that Monday as a bailout vote began in the House. He asked the pilot to delay the takeoff when he realized that Republicans were voting overwhelmingly against the bill.
“The damn thing went down,” said Mr. Black, who was with Mr. McCain. “Oh my gosh. And House Republicans did it. Bush was being blamed for it. The first time it occurred to me that we might not win this thing was when the House failed to pass the stimulus package.”
The Dow fell 7 percent that day alone; by the time Congress passed the $700 billion bailout later that week, it was too late to help Mr. McCain.
If the Republican failed at the test of presidential leadership during this crisis, in the view of many voters, the Democrat — for all the criticism of him of being emotionally detached and inexperienced — seemed to settle on a tone of assurance and command. Aides to Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama say finding that tone during a much graver crisis is the biggest obstacle Mr. Trump faces today.
“People want a unifying figure,” said David Axelrod, who was the Obama campaign’s senior strategist. “In a crisis, people want to see public officials work together. This is not a situation that favors Trump. The divisive, nasty politics that are the hallmarks of Trump are not what the country is looking for in the midst of a crisis.”
Mr. Davis said there was probably little Mr. McCain could have done in 2008 — and there is little Mr. Trump can do now.
“I mean, what are you going to do?” he said. “No ad was going to change any of this. One speech isn’t going to change this. I’m sure the Trump guys are confronting the same thing: How do you get ahead in Michigan when you have a pandemic going on?”