Brief Lives September 2004

The Natural

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

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.

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Ryan Lizza is an associate editor at The New Republic.

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