From the November 2006 issue of Washingtonian
Iowa senator Tom Harkin stood at the podium firing up the 3,000 supporters who had paid $25 to join him at the Warren County Fairgrounds in September. The scene was the annual Harkin Steak Fry, a gathering of Hawkeye State Democrats that, with Iowa’s vital spot in the presidential elections, is always a larger stage than the pumpkin-and-hay-bale-bedecked platform it takes place on. It was Harkin’s 29th such gathering, but the day belonged to a 45-year-old freshman senator from Illinois—or as Harkin called him, “the kid next door.”
“Honestly—tell you the truth—I really tried to get Bono this weekend,” Harkin told the crowd. “I settled for the second biggest rock star in America.”
The crowd came to its feet cheering as a smiling Barack Obama rose. “What a warm reception,” Obama began. “I’m going to have to come to Iowa again.” Obama didn’t wink, but his meaning was clear. The crowd went wild.
A few short years ago, no one had heard of the skinny Chicago state senator and constitutional-law professor with the big ears and the funny name. A few months ago, he would have gamely demurred when asked if he’d run for president in 2008. Now all bets are off. According to advisers, colleagues, and friends, Obama just might be willing to be the next president of the United States. It would be the capstone of an amazing rise for a politician whose charisma and personal story—half-Kenyan, half-Kansan, a Hawaii-born, Harvard-educated lawyer—has breathed life into the Democratic Party.
At the heart of “Obamania” is his personality and presence—part preacher, part professor, part movie star. His charisma seems effortless, his charm an afterthought. National Journal White House reporter Alexis Simendinger recalls the first time Obama visited the White House after his election. He was mingling in the East Room with other members of Congress. As she watched him move through the crowd, a photographer asked, “Who is that guy? He’s certainly got ‘It.’ ”
The question now is how far “it” takes Obama—and how fast.
During his two years on the national stage, Obama has collected a lifetime’s worth of honors and accolades: Just months after winning the Democratic primary for the US Senate—and before he became only the third African-American since Reconstruction to serve in that body—he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 national convention. He won a Grammy for the audio version of his memoir, which spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list. He posed for photographer Annie Leibowitz for the cover of Men’s Vogue. He’s been on the cover of Newsweek. On Will & Grace, Grace said she dreamed she was in the shower with Obama and that he was “Ba-rocking my world.”
In terms of seniority, Obama is the 98th senator in the 100-member club; he moved up from 99th when Jon Corzine left to be governor of New Jersey. At home in Illinois he jokes that being 98th means his only task is sharpening pencils. But he’s third-to-last in rank only.
Obama suddenly has found himself the standard-bearer for a generation. He need look no farther than his desk in the Senate chamber to be reminded of the last politician who embodied the hopes of a generation: The inside is signed by its previous occupants, including Bobby Kennedy.
Much of Obama’s allure is that he is new and exciting enough to be a sort of blank canvas onto which activists of all kinds can paint their aspirations. Says Chris Lu, his legislative director, “He’s like a Rorschach test—you see in him what you want.”
Where he goes from here, what he does with his popularity and fame, is a guessing game. With his new book, The Audacity of Hope —a meditation on American values—out in October, Obama launches a book tour and continues a soul-searching process that will determine whether he runs for president in 2008. All signs point to yes.
Obama’s 2004 keynote address at the Democratic convention, delivered in his sonorous baritone voice, transformed him into a rock star—or at least the hottest thing in the Democratic Party. By the time he arrived in Washington as a freshman senator he was much bigger than his transitional office in the basement of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. “He leapfrogged Washington before he got there,” says longtime aide Dan Shomon.
Since the day he arrived—the first question at his first press conference was “Senator Obama, what is your place in history?”—the only matter of debate in Democratic circles was not if he would run for president but when: Would he take a shot in 2008 or wait until 2012?
As hard as Obama has worked in his career, luck has played a big role in his rise. The frontrunner in his 2004 Senate primary, Blair Hull, and his Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, both were tripped up by troubles with their ex-wives. Had it not been for a restraining order against Hull and allegations of Ryan’s trips to sex clubs, Obama might never have stood before the Democrats in Boston that July. “He knows that he may be the best politician in America, but he also knows that in 2004 he was one of the luckiest,” says David Axelrod, his top political adviser.
A combination of skill and luck put Obama where he is today: poised to be the first black US president—if he wants to be. There are hurdles he has to clear. He has no administrative or executive experience. And although he has dedicated himself to foreign policy, he has no national-security background.
Then there’s his family: His wife, Michelle, has opposed his forays into electoral politics because of the strain it puts on the family and the long absences it requires from their daughters, Sasha, five, and Malia, eight. According to sources close to the family, she has expressed concerns about his security should he seek the presidency. “It’s a good time for his politics, but it’s not a good time for him personally, with his young family,” says adviser and law-school classmate Cassandra Butts.
At least half a dozen African-Americans have preceded Obama as candidates to be America’s first black president, from Jesse Jackson to Virginia’s Douglas Wilder. Colin Powell’s 1995 flirtation with the race traced much the same arc Obama’s has—the “Draft Powell” movement coincided with the publication of his memoir. But none has arrived at what seems to be such an opportune time with such broad appeal.