Brief Lives September 2004

The Natural

Why is Barack Obama generating more excitement among Democrats than John Kerry?

Earlier this year an East African newspaper sent a reporter to the region of Siaya, in Kenya, near Lake Victoria, where the father of a forty-three-year-old Chicago Democrat named Barack Obama was born. News that the younger Obama was emerging as one of the brightest lights in American politics had only recently reached the area. "Most people," the paper reported, "were heard wondering aloud: Wuod Kogelo dwaro golo Bush e kom." That translates as "A son of Kogelo clan is challenging President George Bush for presidency in America." So far Obama is merely a Democratic candidate for the Senate. But the Kenyans can be forgiven their mistake. Since he won an upset victory in a seven-person primary in March, Democrats have sometimes seemed more excited about Obama's future than that of the candidate who actually is challenging Bush this year.

It's not hard to see why. Obama has an irresistibly American biography and the political skills to match it. His father grew up herding goats in Kenya, but in 1959 became the first African to enroll at the University of Hawaii, where he met Barack's future mother, a white Kansan who is a distant descendant of Jefferson Davis. Two years after Barack's birth his parents separated, and thereafter he was raised in a multiracial milieu in Hawaii and Indonesia by his white grandparents and mother and his Indonesian stepfather. Educated at Columbia University and Harvard Law School, he gained national attention as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Eschewing the Supreme Court clerkships and corporate-law-firm jobs available to him, he instead toiled as a civil-rights lawyer in Chicago. In 1996 he won a state-senate seat representing part of the city's South Side, a place The Almanac of American Politics describes as "the nation's largest urban black community for nearly a century."

Despite this remarkable history, Obama's decision last year to pursue a Senate seat struck many as foolish. In 2000 he had challenged the former Black Panther Bobby Rush, by then a veteran congressman from Chicago, and been beaten badly. Nevertheless, he went up against six opponents in the Senate primary and this time garnered a stunning 53 percent of the vote. Not only did Obama overcome issues of youth and inexperience, but he resoundingly defeated the two establishment favorites: a self-funded multimillionaire and the anointed candidate of the Democratic political machine. Perhaps most impressive, he conquered many of the geographic and racial barriers that hamper minority candidates: defying the conventional wisdom that a black candidate in Illinois couldn't fare well outside Chicago, he carried the city's wealthy suburbs and middle-class "collar counties." Practically overnight the victory transformed Obama into a national political celebrity.

A few months ago I flew out to Springfield to join him for a day and see firsthand an ambitious local pol turned likely U.S. senator. I was hardly alone. A procession of national reporters was already rolling in, along with professional Democratic operatives, whom the boyish, lanky Obama has dubbed "D.C. suits." Obama seemed well up to the occasion. As we toured the capital city, he accepted congratulations, handshakes, and female attention at every turn. Asked about his sudden stardom (even many Illinois Republicans are fans), he flashed a smile and delivered a well-practiced line: "The pundits and the prognosticators presumed that a skinny guy with a funny name from the South Side of Chicago couldn't get any votes outside a pretty narrow band of the electorate. I think the primary blew those assumptions out of the water. And I think people are proud of that."

Obama can be permitted this note of self-satisfaction. Even before his original opponent, Jack Ryan, withdrew amid outrage over a sex scandal, polls put Obama comfortably ahead. Control of the Senate is at stake this fall, and the seat Obama is pursuing, currently held by the retiring Republican Peter Fitzgerald, is the one most likely to be captured by the Democrats. In fact, the party is so confident of victory that when I encountered Rahm Emanuel, an influential Democratic congressman from Chicago, he waved his hand at me and declared flatly, "The race is over." Anything can happen; but chances are that come January, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the sole current African-American member of the U.S. Senate, and only the third since Reconstruction. He has already established a path to higher office that has eluded minority politicians for generations. What would be most notable about his victory would be not that he won but how he won.

Obama's significance may be best understood statistically. More than 9,000 black elected officials currently serve in the United States, yet serious black candidates for the Senate and governorships are rare. Institutional reasons largely explain this striking disparity. The civil-rights legislation of the 1960s, which encouraged more blacks to run for elective office, produced a mature class of politicians only around the 1990s. "That's the time the first class of elected black officials had enough experience in politics where they could consider serious runs for higher office," says David Bositis, of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Since then gerrymandering has created a growing number of minority-heavy districts like the one Obama represents, which is 66 percent black.

This has helped to elect many black lawmakers, but it has also hampered their advancement. Such politicians naturally focus on issues that concern their constituents. But these issues differ markedly from—and are often at odds with—the concerns of the suburban soccer moms and rural voters who are also necessary to win statewide office. During his run against Bobby Rush, Obama once bragged, "I was one of a handful of people who voted against the entire state budget, because I thought too much money was going to the prisons." Hardly a reassuring thought to suburban voters.

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Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at The New Republic.

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