Obama's Profile Has Democrats Taking Notice
Sunday, June 18, 2006
EAST ORANGE, N.J. -- Barack Obama was standing before a packed high school auditorium when he noticed a familiar face in the crowd -- none other than singer Dionne Warwick. He paused, flashed a mischievous smile, then let loose with a perfectly on-key performance of the opening line of her hit song "Walk On By."
The audience of 300 students and adults roared with approval.
Obama, a first-term Democratic senator from Illinois, seems to be hitting the right notes these days. During Senate recesses, he has been touring the country at breakneck pace, basking in the sudden fame of a politician turned pop star. Along the way, he has been drawing crowds and campaign cash from Democrats starved for a fresh face and ready to cheer what Obama touts as "a politics of hope instead of a politics of fear."
His office fields more than 300 requests a week for appearances. One Senate Democrat, curious about Obama's charisma, took notes when watching him perform at a recent political event. State parties report breaking fundraising records when Obama is the speaker.
The money he is bringing in for fellow Democrats is shaping up as an important influence on 2006. And the potential Obama is demonstrating as a political performer -- less than two years after his elevation from the Illinois state legislature -- is prompting some colleagues to urge him to turn his attention to 2008 and a race for the presidency. Obama has made plain he is at least listening.
"I think he is unique," said Illinois's senior senator, Richard J. Durbin (D). "I don't believe there is another candidate I've seen, or an elected official, who really has the appeal that he does." As for the 2008 presidential race, "I said to him, 'Why don't you just kind of move around Iowa and watch what happens?' I know what's going to happen. And I think it's going to rewrite the game plans in a lot of presidential candidates if he makes that decision."
Obama deflects such talk, while not ruling out a presidential candidacy. The speculation is as much a commentary on the state of the party as it is on Obama. The Democrats' most prominent likely contenders -- such as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.) -- are figures who have been in the public eye for many years and wear scars from earlier controversies.
At age 44, the former Harvard Law School standout has little baggage. But Obama also has a scant legislative record in the Senate, where some members privately say they view him as drawn to news conferences and speeches more than to the hard details of lawmaking.
He has yet to carve out a distinctive profile on the policy and ideological debates that are central to how Democrats will position themselves in a post-Bush era.
In his stump speech, he offers a standard Democratic criticism of President Bush's tax cuts as favoring the rich, and promotes energy independence with only modest detail about how to achieve it. Nor does he dwell on the Iraq war, assailing the administration's handling of the conflict but not addressing such questions as a timetable for troop withdrawal.
Instead, it is almost entirely Obama's biography, along with his gift for engaging people in large audiences and one-on-one encounters, that is driving interest.
"It's very exciting for him to come here," said Iqua Colson, a public schools administrator who appeared at the event here. Most of the students are African American, as is Colson, and she said they see the Senate's only black member as an appealing role model: "He represents hope, promise, excellence."