Brief Lives September 2004

The Natural

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

Many minority candidates have had such narrow appeal that only a fluke will get them elected to higher office. This was essentially true for the most recent black senator, Carol Moseley Braun, who also hailed from Illinois. Moseley Braun slipped to victory with a paltry 38 percent of the vote after her primary opponents tore each other to shreds, and then rode Bill Clinton's coattails to a 1992 win against an underfunded right-wing opponent. She lost her seat after a single term.

When I visited Obama, he had long since shed any trace of the urban pol hoping merely to outflank another big-city liberal. Our day began in a dark-paneled room of the Illinois statehouse, presided over by murals of Lincoln and Grant, but also by Obama, who was chairing a hearing of the Health and Human Services Committee that had distinctly upper-middle-class undertones. When a mother lobbying for funding for children with autism broke down in tears, Obama discreetly dispatched an aide to give her some tissues. The mother was followed by Lisa Lipin, a white suburbanite, who testified about a toy called the "yo-yo water ball," a rubber globe attached to a stretch cord that had nearly strangled her six-year-old son, Andrew—who helpfully re-enacted the choking for Obama and his fellow legislators, as local news crews recorded the scene.

Over the past couple of years Obama has used his chairmanship of the health committee to broaden his appeal, promoting issues aimed at the Lisa Lipins of the world. He led a fight to ban the dietary supplement ephedra, and after the collapse of a Chicago porch killed thirteen people, he voiced support for stricter building codes. Some of these efforts echo the micro-initiatives that Bill Clinton used so effectively to mobilize the middle class. But Obama hasn't forsaken minority voters: he has promoted legislation to broaden children's access to health insurance and to make the state's earned-income tax credit refundable. He has earned a reputation as a show horse and a workhorse—apt to take a visible role in high-profile issues causing anxiety in suburbia, but equally willing to work doggedly to forge compromises on serious legislation. And he hasn't shied away from potentially polarizing racial issues; he helped to pass an important law to address racial profiling in Illinois. Obama has transcended the strictly racial identity often forced on—or embraced by—black officials.

Like any political star, Obama has a knack for effortlessly fitting into disparate racial, ideological, and social worlds. As we walked past Abraham Lincoln's old law offices, a disheveled black man standing on a street corner called out, "Hey, Obama, how you doing?" They bantered like old friends. Later, at an Illinois State Dental Society cocktail party, an entire roomful of mostly white Republican-leaning dentists reoriented themselves in Obama's direction. The accolades flowed: "You are fantastic." "If you were my husband, I wouldn't let you go around alone." "You're going to do a wonderful job in Washington!" "You impress the hell out of me." Obama has perfected a becoming modesty; he often reacts to praise by looking at his shoes and saying, "Oh, you are making me blush."

His skill with constituents extends even to a group that politicians frequently mishandle: the press. Obama has mastered the art of appearing to take reporters into his confidence by dispensing the sort of forthright political chatter that causes them to swoon. I received a signed copy of his autobiography and with it a trenchant analysis of his party's presidential nominee. ("Sometimes Kerry just doesn't have that oomph," he said, punctuating the thought with a tight-lipped shake of the head and a clenched fist.)

If there is a knock against Obama, it is that he is perhaps a little too enchanted with all the attention and acclaim. During the Democratic primary campaign he raised eyebrows by sweeping an opponent's wife into an embrace—a moment captured by a Chicago Tribune reporter. The opponent's staff was sufficiently piqued to complain. And I couldn't help noticing, when we sat down to talk in the dilapidated storefront that houses his Springfield campaign headquarters, that the blue-pen drawing he'd doodled on his newspaper during fundraising calls was a portrait of himself.

Still, Obama's ability to appeal to inner-city blacks, suburban moms, Republican dentists, and, well, me suggests that he'll be able to venture further than most black politicians—further even than Carol Moseley Braun. "I'm rooted in the African-American community," he frequently says, "but I'm not limited by it." Indeed, charisma, intelligence, and ambition, tempered by a self-deprecating wit, are the particular hallmarks not so much of a great black politician as of any great one.

Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at The New Republic.
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