Obama is cutting a new path in modern politics—one in which he is his own trailblazer. His campaigns for state senator and the US Senate were successful without early support from the Democratic Party. By the time the Democrats threw their arms around him in 2004, Obama was well on his way. “If you think about his trajectory, it was pretty much just Barack on his own. He’s been his own best political adviser for quite some time,” says Butts.
Intensely competitive, Obama typically saves his fiercest battles for the Scrabble board, the basketball court, or the golf course. He has navigated his political career in a way that has created few real enemies. “If Barack has any enemies out there, they come from just sheer jealously,” says Illinois state senator Kirk Dillard, a Republican. “I don’t believe he has any enemies who have a good reason.”
In Washington, Obama has become a policy wonk. “He’s an amazing person in his capacity to understand the issues,” says Chris Lu. Obama also has worked to develop the framework for his worldview and approach to governing. “Early on he wanted to come up with an overarching narrative,” says Samantha Power, who worked with him on foreign policy. “I was really struck by that desire to front-load the big thinking, the toughness of cracking this nut, articulating this balance between freedom and security.”
Obama has been frustrated by what he sees as the Senate’s wasted opportunities. “I think what has frustrated him more than the process itself is how the Republicans aren’t interested in the issues that he thinks are important to the American people,” says Lu, who explains that Obama would rather concentrate on issues facing the middle class, like healthcare and education, instead of the ideological issues the Republicans have been pushing. Says Obama, “A lot of times what gets done in Washington on a day-to-day basis isn’t all that much.”
The senator’s highest-profile ventures have been bipartisan, including a tutelage in nuclear nonproliferation with Indiana’s Richard Lugar that took Obama to Eastern Europe and Russia, an effort to bring transparency to government contracting with Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn, and a push for immigration reform with Florida’s Mel Martinez. Obama was the first to raise the threat of avian flu on the Senate floor and has spoken out for victims of Hurricane Katrina, pushed for alternative-energy development, and championed improved veterans’ benefits—all while working to expand his support in Illinois, where he held 39 town-hall meetings in his first year. “You have to devote time—things don’t just happen here because of who he is,” Butts says.
Every Thursday, Obama and his Illinois colleague Dick Durbin host a constituent breakfast at the Capitol, a tradition of bagels, coffee, and policy talk that began with Senator Paul Simon in 1985. With Obama, attendance has swelled to the point that people have to be turned away. While decrying recent corruption scandals, he decided to practice what he preached: After taking 23 subsidized rides on corporate jets last year, Obama said he will have his campaign reimburse in full those companies whose planes he rides on.
As a member of the Foreign Relations committee, Obama is moving onto the world stage. An August trip to Africa found him visiting the cell where Nelson Mandela was held, talking terrorism in Djibouti, taking an AIDS test in Kenya, and visiting the rural village where his grandmother still lives. It covered the gamut of foreign-policy and national-security issues. The trip, half educational and half celebratory, had been in the works almost since the day Obama was elected to the Senate; he’s planning another to Southeast Asia and Indonesia, where he spent several years growing up while his mother worked at a US embassy. The Obama on display in Africa was more than a senator on a junket—it was Obama as beacon of American hope and optimism.
In South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu teased the senator: “You are going to be a very credible presidential candidate.” According to the Chicago Sun-Times’s Lynn Sweet, Obama flinched and replied, “Oh, no, don’t do that.”
Though humble in the face of all the attention, Obama uses it to his advantage. One of the Democrats’ top fundraising draws, Obama has campaigned across the country, amassing IOUs from elected officials at every level. He’s raised money for dozens of candidates, all the while helping build the star power of the Democratic Party. “He does have a lot of credits in the bank, and when the time is right . . . he’ll definitely cash them in,” says Chicago congresswoman Jan Schakowsky.
For the moment Obama laughs off talk about 2008, but the staff he’s recruited exceeds the needs of a freshman senator. His Internet director, Jim Brayton, ran much of the online operations for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, and Obama tapped as his foreign-policy adviser Samantha Power, a Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard expert on human rights. His chief of staff, Pete Rouse, served in that role for former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, and communications director Robert Gibbs is a veteran of John Kerry’s presidential campaign.
Few observers failed to notice that at Obama’s shoulder during the Harkin Steak Fry was Steve Hildebrand, who managed the Iowa caucuses for the victorious Kerry in 2004. Staff members deny that they were hired for an eventual presidential bid, but it’s clear that Obama can call upon top talent should he run.
Part of what sets Obama apart in the Senate is his relative youth. One of the first senators born in the 1960s, in a chamber dominated by greatest-generation colleagues, Obama is more likely to find peers on his staff—like legislative director and law-school classmate Chris Lu—than on the Senate floor. He has cordial but not close relations with party elders like Ted Kennedy. Advisers say Obama isn’t always comfortable with the party’s talking points; he prefers to discuss issues in his own words, reframing topics as he goes. His political adviser, consultant David Axelrod, is still based in Chicago. Obama travels with only a few aides—he is, he says, “a solo act.”
Obama’s decision to have his family stay in Chicago, close to his wife’s family, has shaped his approach to Washington. He rarely lingers in the capital, returning to Chicago whenever possible, even for as little as 24 hours at a time. He rarely attends evening social events. He prefers working dinners at places like Charlie Palmer Steak on the Hill; these can stretch for hours as he debates issues and picks the brains of people he assembles for a meal. He works out regularly in the Senate gym or at a club close to his one-bedroom apartment on Massachusetts Avenue near Chinatown.
Friends describe Obama’s wife, Michelle—a lawyer he met in 1988 when they worked briefly at the same Chicago firm—as his rock. Obama jokes that she is one of the two “higher powers” he consults with regularly.
Friends say one of the most striking changes from his old Chicago days is his attire: