By 30 minutes and several days, Barack Obama is running late. He is supposed to be at his grandmother's in Hawaii -- his wife and daughters already are there -- but the Senate is still voting on some fairly significant legislation. So here he is, stuck in Washington nine days before Christmas. Illinois' junior senator just came from the Senate floor, where he and his fellow Democrats scored big by blocking a Republican drive to reauthorize the USA Patriot Act. He appears at once exhausted and energetic as he carefully places his finely tailored, charcoal-gray suit jacket on the back of a chair and centers his long, lean frame on the sofa beneath a large oil painting of an Illinois cornfield. Some of his heroes stare down at him from his office walls: Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Mahatma Gandhi to his left; Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, and Nelson Mandela across the room. A White Sox cap lies atop his desk, a symbol of triumph secured after years in the wilderness.
Obama closes his eyes and turns his youthful, angular face upward, as if he is contemplating all the world's problems from a place deep inside himself. His head rests against the back of the gold couch; his left fingertips touch his forehead. His right leg, long and crooked at the knee, is stretched across a coffee table. He speaks softly and slowly, pausing frequently to choose just … the right … words.
The question on the table -- and the reason for the pause -- is the future of the Democratic Party. It's not an easy question for anyone these days, and it's not a question that is normally asked of a first-term senator with only one year's experience. But Obama is not a normal first-termer -- not after the slew of national magazine profiles that ran before he was even elected (and while he was still a state senator), and definitely not after The Speech, his electric keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, which catapulted him from obscurity (people sometimes called him “Alabama”) to the national A-list. These days, people want to know what Obama thinks about everything, from baseball to foreign affairs.
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His party, it's worth remembering, didn't even want him to get to the Senate -- Illinois' historically muscular Democratic machine backed a party insider in the primary. But Obama blew away that opponent, and five others, winning an outright majority of 53 percent of the vote. Now, at 44, Obama embraces his role with confidence, a great deal of pleasure -- and no small amount of care. Speculation swirls about his becoming America's first black president (he is the biracial son of a black, Kenyan father and a white, Kansan mother), even about the possibility he will launch a surprise run in 2008.
Obama is coy about that. But he has little doubt about what he views as the role he should play in the Senate, within his party, and even as a force in shaping the nation's future. He wants to change things, and he envisions himself doing so. There is about him a sense of, well, destiny; his background, his charm, his intellect, and his way with words have marked him as someone special. Obama is aware of this, and every so often, he will say something that tacitly acknowledges as much. But usually he manages himself well, upward and downward, mindful to show the proper respect for his colleagues, some of whom have been in the Senate for most of his life, and for the voters who sent him to Washington with extraordinarily high expectations. He tells me he was happy to have made it through his first Senate year without falling “flat on my face.”
That he has not pushed through major legislation matters hardly at all, not to him, not to supporters. He is a fledgling in the minority party and, during his first year, 99th in seniority. No matter. Obama has bigger ideas.
Back to the Democrats. The first part of his answer involves some boilerplate about the usual list of issues -- education, health care, energy independence -- peppered with deferential language about wanting to “be a part of the process.” Then, he gets to the business about what makes him different: “Where I probably can make a unique contribution is in helping to bring people together and bridging what I call the ‘empathy deficit,' helping to explain the disparate factions in this country and to show them how we're joined together, helping bridge divides between black and white, rich and poor, even conservative and liberal.” Later, in a similar vein: “The story that I'm interested in telling is how we can restore that sense of commitment to each other in a way that doesn't inhibit our individual freedoms, doesn't diminish individual responsibility, but does promote collective responsibility.”
Obama wants nothing less than to redefine progressive values, make them more universal, and unite the country around them. His staggering 72 percent approval rating in Illinois -- a number that reflects strong support not only in and around Democratic Chicago, but from Republican downstate as well -- shows he may be figuring out how to do that. His first year in the Senate suggests a man on a long, ambitious, and intricate journey. It's not too much to say that the future of the Democratic Party, and maybe even the country, could be profoundly affected by where that journey ends.
Like any freshman, Obama didn't know exactly how to get around in the Senate. But unlike any freshman, save Hillary Clinton in 2001, he came to town with a national platform. All eyes were on him, and hopes, particularly among liberals, ran high. Obama took things slowly at first. He didn't want to arrive in Washington looking “too big for his britches,” says his communications director, Robert Gibbs. So he turned down repeated invitations to appear on national talk shows (and most of the 300 or so solicitations he received each week) and focused instead on such issues as veterans' disability pay and money for locks and dams back home. He wanted to demonstrate to the people of Illinois that he was working for them, and to his fellow senators that he was “not just a show horse,” said his political consultant, David Axelrod.
He surrounded himself with people experienced in Senate protocol and procedure. He hired as his chief of staff Pete Rouse, who for years held the same position for former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. He took the unusual step of hiring a policy adviser, nabbing Karen Kornbluh, who had been deputy chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. But even with a star staff, Obama has moved slowly; one senior aide told me that if Obama has one regret about his first year in office, it is that he occasionally has been “late to pull the trigger.” A case in point is an immigration bill sponsored by Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain. The two Senate titans asked Obama early in his term if he wanted to sign on to the bill as a cosponsor. Brushing aside the advice of his staff, he declined, saying he hadn't had a hand in crafting the bill. It was only in December, after it became clear that immigration would be a hot topic in 2006, that he attached his name to the legislation. At the same time, he told Kennedy he would like to strengthen the section on border security by adding some measures from a Republican bill.
His concern about border security shows a side of Obama that occasionally has taken some liberals by surprise. It would be far too strong to say that he's been heterodox -- after all, he has voted for the liberal position the vast majority of the time, and the initiatives and bills he has emphasized in his year have been solidly progressive. But he has thrown enough curves to keep people guessing.
When George W. Bush nominated Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state last January, Obama resisted pressure from liberal groups and civil rights advocates and voted for her confirmation. In that case, he was with most of his fellow Democrats in backing Rice. But two weeks later, when the Senate voted on a Republican bill to limit class-action lawsuits, Obama was one of 17 Democrats to oppose the trial lawyers -- who contributed more than any other special interest to his 2004 campaign -- and support the bill. He said at the time that he remained a “strong believer” in class-action lawsuits, and he briefly explained why he supported a bill that would move more of the suits from state to federal court. “When multimillion-dollar settlements are handed down and all the victims get are coupons for a free product, justice is not being served,” he said in a statement. “And when cases are tried in counties only because it's known that those judges will award big payoffs, you get quick settlements without ever finding out who's right and who's wrong.”
Obama sided against many of his natural allies on that vote, including labor, consumer and civil-rights groups, and environmentalists. Yet, the fallout (or lack of it) demonstrates that he has a way of communicating with people so that these breaches never grow into outright rifts. Todd Smith, immediate past president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA) and a Chicago lawyer, paid a visit to Obama shortly after the Senate passed the bill. Smith told Obama how disappointed he was that Obama voted for legislation the trial lawyers considered to be bad for “regular Americans.” Obama told Smith he was unhappy with mailers the group distributed throughout Illinois saying he was “depriving poor people of the right to go to court,” according to one of his senior aides.
“It was quite open,” Smith recalled. “He said, ‘Todd, go right ahead, speak your mind.' And I did. He believed there needed to be changes and, on balance, he felt it was the right way to go.” Smith, who chairs the Board of Trustees of ATLA's political action committee, said he intends to continue to back Obama with campaign contributions. “I don't think your support for somebody rises or falls on a single issue. He will be there for regular people and their rights the vast majority of the time and when he's not, it's going to be, at least in his mind I'm certain, for solid reasons,” Smith told me. “He's an outstanding U.S. senator already.”
Obama almost goes out of his way sometimes to challenge members of his own party and their loyalists. In a move that was highly unusual for a sitting senator, he took to the blogosphere last fall to confront progressives who criticized two other Democrats for voting to confirm John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court. Although Obama opposed Roberts, he defended his colleagues, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, during a frank exchange on Daily Kos -- the largest liberal Web site and home to the ferocious “Kossacks,” who usually lambaste politicians who deviate from the accepted line.
What Obama wrote speaks volumes about his political philosophy and independent streak: “… to the degree that we brook no dissent within the Democratic Party, and demand fealty to the one, ‘true' progressive vision for the country, we risk the very thoughtfulness and openness to new ideas that are required to move this country forward. When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive ‘checklist,' then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straightjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted. Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority. We won't be able to transform the country with such a polarized electorate.”
Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, the site's proprietor -- sounding not unlike the ATLA's Smith -- said the main reaction among site visitors was one of “gratitude.” “He didn't come to pander, but to take a stand that might not have been all that popular with a certain segment of the community,” Moulitsas says. “That showed a level of leadership that is oftentimes missing in a party more afraid to offend than in taking principled stands on issues.”
These deviations from the script have caused some concern. One leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party said he thought Obama was demonstrating a “Clinton sensibility” by standing up to liberals. The leader, who asked not to be identified because of his relationship with the senator, said Obama did not take on centrists when they wanted to purge the party of anti-war liberals. “That's defining himself as Hillary Clinton defines herself -- as needing to get to the center -- which I think is a mistake in strategy, but one that he is flirting with,” the leader said. Obama ran as an anti-war candidate. Last November, after a small number of his colleagues had begun calling for a quick withdrawal, he told the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations that “U.S. forces are still a part of the solution in Iraq” and came out for a phased withdrawal. He reiterated the message from Iraq in January.
Obama told me he viewed the give-and-take on Daily Kos as a “teachable moment” and rebuffed the notion that he was trying to score political points. “What I want to be able to do if possible, and it's not always possible, is to engage people who disagree with me in a dialogue,” he said. “One of the assumptions I think that a lot of progressives in a sort of knee-jerk way make is that if you stray from the progressive orthodoxy then you automatically must be doing it for political reasons -- that you must either be getting campaign contributions from somebody, or you're positioning for national office, or you're a wimp, right? They never assume that you just don't agree with them on something. And so part of what I like to do is at least try to dispel that cynicism about motives.”
He is tranquil: before his convention speech, consultant Axelrod recalled, “I was a nervous wreck. I remember him patting me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Don't worry about it. I'll make my marks.'” He is charming, and sets people at ease with his warm, big-toothed smile much the way Bill Clinton did with his intense, blue-eyed gaze. He is, oddly enough, a Grammy Award nominee for narrating his autobiography, Dreams from My Father. He is a policy wonk. He is the rapt father of Malia, 7, and Sasha, 4, and a protective spouse to Michelle (he once insisted on interviewing someone who was trying to hire her). She, like him, is a Harvard-educated lawyer and now a vice president at the University of Chicago Hospitals. He is a habitual exerciser. He is unfailingly polite (when he was 30 minutes late for our interview, he made a point of coming to the outer office himself to escort me in).
From the time he was born, Obama was different in an intriguing way -- and to the extent that he is different from most politicians, his background surely is a big reason. He grew up in Hawaii, then Jakarta, then back to Hawaii; he saw his father, an economist for the Kenyan government, just once after the age of two; though black, the only family he knew -- his mother and her parents -- were white. He made it to Columbia, worked in Chicago as a community organizer, and then went to Harvard Law School, becoming the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review.
Judd Miner remembers the day he read in an obscure Chicago publication that an African American from the South Side was joining a silk-stocking law firm. Miner, a partner in a much smaller firm that specialized in civil-rights cases, decided to give the guy a call. He phoned the law review.
“The young lady said, ‘He's not in, but is this a recruiting call?' I said, ‘I guess so.' She said, ‘I'll put you on the list, you're number 643,' or something like that,” Miner told me. The two met for lunch. After several weeks and many lunches, Obama decided to skip the glitzy, high-paying firms and join Miner's because it fit with his commitment to community work, Miner said.
Miner is just one of a band of Obama friends who swear that all the hoopla surrounding him is warranted. After Obama's primary victory, Miner began to get calls from the editors of national newspapers and magazines. They were concerned that their reporters had been snookered into believing the hype. “The stories they were getting back were puff pieces. They thought there must be some flaw. They thought it couldn't be,” Miner said. What he told them, and me, was: “When you do political stuff and you run into a Barack, you think, ‘Oh, there's hope!'”
Supporters in Illinois say Obama represents something of a Rorschach test: people project their viewpoints onto him. Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and the treasurer of his political action committee, said that people see something of themselves in him. The danger, she said, is that they assume Obama will do what they would do, vote the way they would vote. That could backfire on him, but it hasn't yet. “He has the ability to touch diverse crowds and there's a sense of clicking,” Jarrett said. “And because he can click with so many different kinds of people, the expectation is that because I clicked with him, he's going to agree with me.”
Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. still hasn't gotten over a scene he witnessed the day he accompanied Obama on a campaign swing in the predominately white, southern part of the state. “A little old lady said to me, ‘I'm 86 years of age. I hope I live long enough because this young man's going to be president and I want to be able to vote for him.' It was a little old white lady! It was astounding,” says Jones, who was something of a mentor to Obama in the state Senate. “There were 3,000 people there. There were three blacks: him, me, and my driver. People are drawn to him. He talks to people on the same level … It resonates more.”
It may be that the very universality of his personal appeal prevents Obama from appearing, or wanting to be, overtly ideological -- as if his life story and his gift for connecting with people are too large to be categorized. He clearly wants to be thought of differently, as too complex to be encompassed by one label. When I ask if he's liberal, progressive, or centrist, he says: “I like to think I'm above it. Only in the sense that I just don't like how the categories are set up.” He describes two common Democratic caricatures: the “DLC-centrist-Joe Lieberman-Al From types” and the “old-time-religion-Ted Kennedy-die-hard-liberal types.”
“There are dangers in both camps,” he continues. “Sometimes the DLC camp seems to want to run to the center no matter how far right the Republican Party has moved the debate -- that sense of ‘let's cut a deal no matter what the deal is.' The old-time religion school sometimes seems unreflective and is unwilling to experiment or update old programs to meet new challenges.
“And the way I would describe myself is I think that my values are deeply rooted in the progressive tradition, the values of equal opportunity, civil rights, fighting for working families, a foreign policy that is mindful of human rights, a strong belief in civil liberties, wanting to be a good steward for the environment, a sense that the government has an important role to play, that opportunity is open to all people and that the powerful don't trample on the less powerful … I share all the aims of a Paul Wellstone or a Ted Kennedy when it comes to the end result. But I'm much more agnostic, much more flexible on how we achieve those ends.”
And yet, for all these demurrals, when he finally did decide to occupy the spotlight last year, it was on a tried-and-true liberal issue. After Hurricane Katrina hit last August, Obama decided that it was time to speak out. As the Senate's only African American and as someone who had worked on poverty issues, he knew people would be looking to him for leadership. He traveled to Houston with former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton. He went on ABC's This Week. “Whoever was in charge of planning was so detached from the realities of inner-city life in New Orleans ... that they couldn't conceive of the notion that [residents] couldn't load up their SUVs, put $100 worth of gas in there, put some sparkling water, and drive off to a hotel and check in with a credit card,” he snapped. But he later said Democrats must accept some of the blame because they, too, had downplayed poverty as a national issue [see Ezra Klein, “Poverty Is Back!,” page 45].
On other issues, too, Obama has stuck close to the traditional liberal line. Just two months into his term, he became the first senator to speak out on avian flu, spearheading an effort to spend $25 million to prevent a pandemic. In November, he introduced a bill that would help underwrite health-care costs for automakers that produce fuel-efficient cars. And, invoking a pragmatic political strategy, he has repeatedly teamed up with Republicans to accomplish worthwhile goals. He has worked with the ultra-conservative Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to stop the Bush administration from awarding no-bid contracts for post-Katrina reconstruction projects. Most notably, Obama has developed a particularly close relationship with Indiana's Richard Lugar, the well-regarded chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The two inspected nuclear and biological weapons sites in the former Soviet Union last August, then cosponsored a bill to reduce stockpiles of conventional weapons.
Obama thinks Democrats need to talk more concretely about health care, energy, globalization, and education -- issues on which he says he will spend his time in the next year. Beyond that, he says, they need to address the values problem.
“I do think that there's a strain of the Democratic Party -- it's not uniform -- that is somewhat patronizing towards people who go to church,” says Obama, who attends the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, which is Congregationalist, and keeps a Bible in his car. “If you go to a black evangelical church, there may be traditions that secular humanists might be uncomfortable with -- hoopin' and hollerin', wavin' and dancin',” he says, purposefully slipping into the vernacular. But, he says, the preachers and the parishioners are talking about the same things that Democratic leaders are: “They're talking about health care and looking after our seniors and trying to salvage young men from going into the prison system. So there's nothing alien about it. And yet sometimes, the Democratic Party, I think, just assumes that as long as people are in church that somehow we can't reach them, that we have nothing in common. That's simply not true and certainly hasn't been true historically.”
There is also a strain of the Democratic Party -- and a broad one -- that is promoting Obama as the party's savior. “He represents the future of the party for a lot of people, which is good because a lot of people question whether we have a future as a party,” said strategist Jenny Backus.
Harold Ickes, a high-ranking White House aide under President Clinton and 2000 campaign adviser to Hillary Clinton, said Obama is poised to speak to issues that “have gotten short shrift in the past two decades among progressive Democrats,” like poverty and income distribution. “He's a powerful spokesman and he comes into Washington fresh, not encumbered by Washington mentality,” Ickes said. “He certainly has the capacity to speak out on issues and get attention. And that's no small accomplishment. … I personally have high hopes for him.”
Senator Dick Durbin, Obama's Illinois partner and the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, has no doubt about the future of his state's most popular politician. “He's an odds-on favorite to run for higher office,” Durbin predicts. “If you are a personal investment banker, you certainly want to invest in the Barack Obama IPO … It is a solid investment in the American political scene.”
It's ironic, all this talk, given that his party didn't even want him in the first place. Many party leaders backed Dan Hynes, the state comptroller and Cook County political scion. There's a lesson the party needs to learn here about nurturing and developing such obvious talent (do the Republicans ignore their Obamas?). In any case, his party can't get enough of him now. Obama has bolstered his status within his party by raising huge amounts of cash for his colleagues' campaigns. His political action committee, Hopefund, raised an estimated $1.8 million in 2005. That doesn't count the millions he has raised for and donated to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and to individual candidates. In one night alone last fall, he raised $1 million for the Arizona Democratic Party by drawing 1,400 people to a dinner. And with one e-mail, Obama raised $800,000 for Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a powerhouse who first was elected to the Senate nearly three years before Obama was born.
Most of his fund-raising trips are not on his public schedules. And Obama's staff, quick to tout his 39 town hall meetings in 31 Illinois counties, claimed not to know how many fund-raising events he attended around the country the past year. A fair assumption might be that Obama is collecting chits and loyalties and building a national political machine, a precursor to a presidential run. It's something that everyone around him talks about. The senator himself is more understated. “I think it's flattering,” he says of the conjecture. “It indicates that I'm doing something right. But I try not to get too far ahead of myself. And I find that I perform best when I'm focused on being useful as opposed to becoming something.”
Undoubtedly, pressure and speculation will grow as 2008 approaches. Even if Obama doesn't run for president then -- and his advisers insist he won't -- another kind of pressure will present itself: to use his unique talents and his bully pulpit to further a progressive agenda. Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, the first labor union to endorse Obama during his primary campaign, said he'd like to see Obama lead on issues that are critical to working people. “America needs champions right now. And he has that ability and potential,” Stern said. “My New Year's resolution for him is not wait in line but seize the time.” If Obama indeed is destined to do great things, the time may be right for him to step more forcefully into the spotlight that beckons.
Jodi Enda writes about politics and government from Washington. Her last piece for the Prospect was “Howard's Beginning,” a profile of Howard Dean, in the August 2005 issue.