Obama brought cool campaign persona to healthcare battle's toughest days

President Barack Obama and Democrats missed repeated deadlines, fought back cries of "death panels" and watched healthcare reform nearly die more than a dozen times.

Through it all, Obama was the steady captain of the ship, his top aides say, a role the president has played since the early days of the 2008 presidential campaign.

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The president, through his long campaign and his first 14 months in office, has shown few glimpses into his inner decision-making process, but the image he presents to the country and to the world is one of a calm and steady leader who refuses to get bogged down in day-to-day skirmishes.

While Obama is famous for his "fired up" campaign-style speeches, his daily frustrations are rarely evident because the president is always thinking about the bigger picture, aides say.

"He's able to swim past that frustration and focus on the larger view," said press secretary Robert Gibbs.

And it all started on the campaign trail, aides say.

After an early win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, Obama appeared poised to repeat himself in New Hampshire. But after losing to then-rival Hillary Rodham Clinton, it was Obama who insisted the loss would benefit his team in the long run.

"I remember distinctly the next morning him telling a group of donors that he thought in the end, New Hampshire would be a good thing," Gibbs said.

Gibbs and other Democrats think Obama took that same approach to the protracted, intensely vitriolic healthcare debate that ended in victory last week.

In a sense, Gibbs said, Obama focuses on the larger view and long-term picture while delegating his anger or outrage over daily partisan and pundit attacks to Gibbs or White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and others.

"I'm not as good at compartmentalizing it as him," Gibbs told The Hill. "None of us are."

What's more, Obama is the calming presence who keeps his staff focused, a noticeably more relaxed Gibbs said in an interview in his West Wing office. With his feet on his desk, Gibbs noted it is helpful during heady times "when you see the leader of the operation is not freaked out."

One senior administration official said Obama's calm during critical and troubled times can be jarring to a West Wing that is living and dying by the minutia of daily Washington warfare. Even to a veteran political soldier like Emanuel.

"I remember early on, one time when it was bad, Rahm said to me, 'Why's [Obama] so calm?'" the official said. "In some ways, it's unnervingly so."

To be sure, Obama ratcheted up his rhetorical fire at Republicans as the debate raged on, and in recent television interviews, he certainly appeared to wear a face of frustration. And the president came under criticism from the White House press corps for almost completely avoiding press conferences when the debate was at its hottest.

But by and large, Obama appeared neither too high nor too low even as his poll numbers and signature domestic agenda item were sinking.

And the president had no shortage of friends to help him worry or convince him that he was drowning in the deep end of an initiative that crippled the first term of former President Bill Clinton and put many Democrats into early retirement during the 1994 midterm election.

What Democrats do best is worry. And there was no shortage of allies coming to Obama as the healthcare debate dragged on, warning him that it was bad for his administration, bad for the party and bad for his poll numbers, Gibbs said.

"Most of it comes from the Hill," Gibbs acknowledged. "Usually those responses would be met by the president telling someone's [health insurance] story."

Ross Baker, an expert on the presidency and a political science professor at Rutgers University, said that what is telling about Obama's style is that despite hours of persuading lawmakers, there were no reports of intimidation or political threats.

"I have not heard of anybody who really felt they were being coerced," Baker said.

By contrast, during the reign of former Republican Majority Leader Tom DeLay in the early days of the George W. Bush administration, Republican lawmakers "really walked out of those DeLay sessions feeling like they'd been worked over by an experienced police interrogator."

Baker said that might well be the role that Emanuel is playing, but if the famously firey tempered chief of staff is playing bad cop, then it is all the more easy for Obama to play good cop.

"Obama's not just the good cop, he's a good chief of police," Baker said.

Gibbs conceded that Obama is not immune to natural anger or frustration when his opponents fire away, but even in those moments, Obama is able to take a longer view of the situation.

"I think he realizes there's a lot of us to worry about the short view," Gibbs said.

Even so, Gibbs said Obama did bristle in the days leading up to the healthcare vote when reports began to emerge about infighting in the White House and the role Emanuel was playing.

"He did not like that stuff," Gibbs said.

The president, Gibbs said, is a big believer that the team sails as a whole to "a new world or all rest comfortably together on the bottom of the ocean floor."

But Baker said while Obama "certainly comes across as Cool Hand Luke," the president, who admits to still struggling with a cigarette addiction, could very well be a picture of stress behind closed doors.

"We don't know whether he's a pack-a-day man," Baker said. "That's the thing we're not seeing."