2012 Person of the Year: Barack Obama, the President

The campaign wasn’t pretty, and the economy worse. but he reasserted himself as a potent architect for a changing America

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Nadav Kander for TIME
Nadav Kander for TIME

In an age of lost authority, Obama had managed to maintain his. In group after group, the voters told the researchers they believed the President was honest, lived an admirable personal life and was trying to do the right thing. “Here’s what I heard for 18 months,” Simas says. “‘I trust his values. I think he walked into the worst situation of any President in 50 years. And you know what? I am disappointed that things haven’t turned around.’ But there was always that feeling of ‘I am willing to give this guy a second shot.’”

In different rooms, behind different one-way mirrors, Republicans made the same discovery. “There was almost nothing that would stick to this guy, because they just liked him personally,” Katie Packer Gage, Romney’s deputy campaign manager, said after the election. Most of those who had voted for Obama in 2008 were still proud of that vote and did not see the President as partisan or ideological. When Republicans channeled their party’s many furies, attacking Obama as an extremist, it backfired among swing-state voters. “The kind of traditional negative campaign that the Obama campaign did was not available to our side,” explained Steven Law, who oversaw more than $100 million in anti-Obama advertising for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS.

(VIDEO: Four Years of Speeches, One Signature Phrase)

So even before the first ad ran, Obama had an edge and a way of framing the race. While Romney tried to focus on Obama’s weak economic record, Obama made his race about confidence. The most important poll question in Chicago was, Which candidate is looking out for voters like you? “What we saw these undecided voters doing for literally a year,” Simas says, “looking at two very different people outside fundamental message, tactics and strategy, is, they were making a very trust-based assessment between Obama and Romney.”

This became the through line of the brutal and at times unfair Obama attacks on Romney — the cracks about car elevators, the specious mention of his potentially felonious Securities and Exchange Commission filings, the false claim that he supported an abortion ban without a rape exception, the endless harping on a Swiss bank account once held in his wife’s name. It all spoke to a central message built around trust: One man, despite his failures, had voters like you in mind. The other man, by contrast, knew how to make a lot of money for people you will never meet.

Bjarne Jonasson for TIME

The Geek Squad: from left: Michael Slaby, a veteran of the 2008 effort, hired the tech and data teams and kept them on track; Chris Wegrzyn built the infrastructure and software behind the massive data operation; Teddy Goff, the digital director, ran social-media, online and mobile outreach; Joe Rospars, the architect of online fundraising for Howard Dean in 2004 and Obama in 2008, oversaw digital efforts; Marie Ewald focused on e-mail fundraising, helping raise $690 million online

(The Data Miners: Tech Secrets From Obama’s Re-Election Geek Squad)

Of course, Romney turned out to be Obama’s biggest ally in that narrative. But back at campaign headquarters, Simas slapped a poster on his office wall that told an even bigger story. It had three lines: two showing the rise of per capita GDP and productivity in the U.S. since 1992 and one flat line showing household income. He opened all his presentations with the same chart. “Above it was just a phrase from a focus group — ‘I’m working harder and falling behind,’” Simas says. “That was the North Star. Everything we did and everything we said was derivative of that sentiment.” The words of the faceless focus-group participant passed from the rented room to the computer screens in Chicago and eventually right into the President’s stump speech. “As long as there are families who are working harder and harder but falling further behind,” Obama told crowds, “our work is not yet done.”

Message is one thing. but in modern presidential politics, it can’t go very far without a machine, and the machine is what really made Obama cry — first at his final rally, in Des Moines, Iowa, and then at his headquarters the day after the election. Appropriately enough for a campaign that redefined the limits of viral politics, the second set of tears became a YouTube sensation, seen some 9 million times in the weeks after the election, more than any other campaign video of the cycle.

You can see him walk to a microphone, looking easy and confident, chewing his gum. He starts telling the story of his first years as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, when he was 25 and trying to find his way, with little success. “It’s not that you guys actually remind me of myself,” he says to the young staff before him. “It’s the fact that you are so much better than I was in so many ways. You’re smarter, and you’re better organized, and you’re more effective … Even before last night’s results, I felt that the work that I had done in running for office had come full circle,” he continues, “because what you guys have done means the work that I am doing is important. I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of all of you.” Then he breaks down. Tears well and drop.

Obama didn’t have to do much to build this machine the second time around. The same obsessive staff, who had never really left his circle, returned with the same set of techniques, a mixture of old-school community organizing and high-tech social networking: one-on-one conversations with supporters, repeat telephone calls, staffers focused only on organizing volunteers, registration drives where no presidential campaign had tried registration before. But Obama was also obsessed. On a tour through Iowa in September, his state director, Brad Anderson, told him that the campaign had arranged for an early-vote location at a Latino grocery store. “The President loved that,” says Plouffe, who traveled with him. “The Latino community in Iowa is relatively small, but we were trying to harvest every vote possible.” The President even got to play shop foreman at times, as if he were back in the projects overseeing voter-registration teams. A couple of days before the election, he confronted a salaried staffer at a staging office in Ohio who asked the President for a photo. “You’re a field organizer,” Obama replied reproachfully, citing the well-known rule that staff’s first job is to organize others. “You gotta be looking out for your volunteers.”

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