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The Legend of Barack Obama
Comments () | Published November 1, 2006

By 2004, Obama had mastered the game. He got out of the gate early, declaring in January 2003 that he was going to seek the US Senate seat. He’d already become a local leader against the Iraq war. At a rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza in 2002, long before anyone had heard of him nationally, he delivered an eloquent speech warning of the dangers of the war ahead. Just as Abraham Lincoln’s antislavery speech at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860 launched his national career, Obama’s Federal Plaza speech might be seen as his launching pad.

The Senate race turned into a walk as his opponents imploded and he won the seven-person primary with 53 percent of the vote, polling well even in the “collar” counties around Chicago that were assumed never to support a black candidate. Following his 2004 convention keynote speech, he was so far ahead of his opponent, the imported Maryland bombaster Alan Keyes, that Obama spent much of the fall campaigning around the country for other candidates.

“Obama now carries a burden of expectations and pressures that few political leaders could ever satisfactorily meet,” the Chicago Tribune wrote on the eve of the election. After two years in the Senate, his star is even brighter, he’s even more popular across the country, and his exposure in the coming months may be all he needs to get into the 2008 presidential race.

Few around him believe it’s in his best interest to stay in the Senate. The only two US senators to win the presidency in the last century—Warren Harding and John F. Kennedy—did so in their first terms. Numerous senators have failed in their presidential bids, most recently John Kerry and John Edwards.

Says colleague Dick Durbin, “I said to him a while back, ‘You think that casting about here for four more years and casting 2,000 more votes will help you be a better president?’ ”

“Barack’s in a category of his own right now,” says Congresswoman Schakowsky. “This is a phenomenon I don’t think we’ve ever seen before. I think 2008 is just the right time.”

“Everything is timing in this business, and ’08 is on him,” says his Illinois political godfather, Emil Jones. “If he doesn’t go in ’08, it may not come around again.”

The looming presidential race is as wide open an election as has been seen in modern politics. “What we saw in ’04 was don’t miss out on an opportunity with an open seat,” says Dan Shomon. “Barack would not be able to live with himself 20 years down the road if he looked back and realized he blew his chance. He wants to be the number one guy. He’s not going to wait 20 years to do that.”

“If I had to guess right now, I’d say he’s going to run.”

The walls of Obama’s office in the Hart building are decorated with photos of Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Thurgood Marshall, and Muhammad Ali—historical figures Obama cites as his role models in public service.

Lincoln, that other favorite son of Illinois, is a central part of Obama’s world. When he goes out running, he occasionally ends up at the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the steps, looking out from where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Obama is introspective, churning over issues in his mind during long, contemplative walks. As is evident from his 1995 memoir, he spends time internally debating his identity, his faith, his calling in the world, his God.

“I’ve had to reconcile a lot of different forces in my life,” Obama says. “For me growing up, nothing was given.” He says some of the introspection comes from his days teaching constitutional law, when he had to examine all sides of an argument and fairly present the evidence.

He came to his faith in God in adulthood, and it is a central facet of his life; his pastor in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright at the Trinity United Church of Christ, provided the phrase that is the title of his new book, The Audacity of Hope.

The book is meant, Obama says, to reinject meaning into American civic life. It is trademark Obama—written in his almost singsong style during long nights over the spring and summer. In it is the voice of a man who is frustrated with the pace of the Senate, frustrated with petty politics. Read between the lines, it is the book of someone with bigger plans and bigger ideas.

In the end, Obama might be pushed toward the presidency by what he calls his restlessness. At every stage of his life, he’s reached for the next rung.

“The more successful Senator Obama has become, the more impatient he’s become,” says Kirk Dillard, “because he knows how much more he can accomplish.”

Obama has long said he’s not running for president in 2008, but recently he’s been leaving the door open a crack. Things change, he’ll say when pressed. And there was that trip to Iowa, where he was besieged by media and fans. If he doesn’t run, he’d be a top contender for a vice-presidential nod, although his advisers say he’d be unlikely to take it. Obama’s star is bigger and brighter than most of his fellow Democrats’—why would he settle for number two?

He keeps counsel with a small group of advisers and law-school classmates like Butts. But he says flatly that he’s his own best adviser. “He’s not a guy who’s looking to people to tell him what to do. He knows who he is and what he wants to do,” says Axelrod, who is in daily contact with Obama and his staff.

“I have good instincts about big-picture politics. I’m not a political mechanic,” Obama says. “There are a lot of people who are a lot smarter when it comes to press turnout, polling, or what have you. . . . But in terms of what’s important to the country and what’s important to people, I think my instincts are good. I trust them.”

A question facing Obama is whether he’s ready for the pace of the campaign trail, the weeks away from his family. “The decision to run for President of the United States is a much different decision than to run for any other office,” says Axelrod. “It’s not something that you should take lightly. It’s not the next move on a chessboard.” Reach too soon and you may never get another chance. Reach too late and you might miss your moment.

History is littered with people like Obama. Cyril Connolly, who was widely believed to be the greatest English writer of his generation, failed to deliver a single noteworthy work of literature. In his autobiography, The Enemies of Promise, Connolly tried to explain his shortcomings: “Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.”

In today’s political world, no one is more promising than Obama. While he gamely handles most of the attention, there are cracks. His smoking habit—three Marlboros a day, never around his family—which he tries regularly to stop, restarted during the 2004 race, and he’s still struggling with it.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2006 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles