By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Every speech includes a version of people telling him in 2004 that a Hawaiian-born African American with a Kenyan father, Kansan mother and "an unpronounceable name" could never be elected to the U.S. Senate from Illinois. Before mostly black audiences, he triggers guffaws by saying people rendered his surname as "Alabama" and "yo mama." He refers to himself as "a black guy" before white audiences, "a brother" before black groups.
Every story ends the same, however. He overcame the odds, he tells the listeners, and so can they.
It is a homily that has left some fellow politicians swooning. "I haven't seen a phenomenon like this, where someone comes in so new and is so dazzling," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a 25-year veteran of Congress. Schumer, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Obama "is more requested than anybody else" in the party's hierarchy for fundraising and campaign appearances on behalf of congressional candidates. "Everyone wants him. He's lightning."
Barely known outside his state until he delivered a widely praised speech at the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston, Obama is scrambling to meet his party's demands.
He starred at a March 30 dinner for Connecticut Democrats that drew more than 1,700 people paying at least $175 each -- the state party's biggest such take in decades. "The Darling of His Party," the next day's Hartford Courant front-page headline said, "Wows the Faithful." A March rally on behalf of a Senate candidate in Vermont drew 2,000 people to a hall with 800 seats. "Organizers underestimated Barack Obama's star power," said the next day's Burlington Free Press.
Invitations he has turned down included a chance to be Stanford University's commencement speaker, because he tries to spend Sundays at home in Chicago with his wife, Michelle, and their two young daughters.
Interviewed recently as he jetted between campaign appearances for Democrats in Massachusetts and New Jersey, Obama said he is flattered but so far unmoved by appeals that he seek the presidency in 2008: "It's gratifying to know that my message resonates enough that people are thinking in those terms. But at this stage, I haven't changed my mind from previous demurrals."
Obama, however, is not exactly standing still. He recently hired two nationally experienced political consultants, Anita Dunn in Washington and David Axelrod in Chicago. The senator suggested that a presidential bid is a matter of when, not if.
"We've visited 25 states since taking office," he said. "And in each of those states, we might have 2,000 people show up at a rally. And we'd get back to D.C. and we'd realize we didn't have e-mail addresses for any of those people. That might be a useful thing to have when, you know, I'm running for something and might be looking to raise some money."
Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), who lauded Obama's political and legislative skills, said he must think about what timing is best for him. "It is unfair to him to heap too much praise on him, because he's so new here," he said. "He's kind of like an all-star baseball player who comes right out of high school or college and has a major impact in that first season. And always the question is, 'Can he sustain it? Will he get burned out?' "
Obama said he wishes reporters and others would pay more attention to his work that helped Illinois veterans receive larger disability benefits, and his legislation encouraging alternative fuels. But he said he understands that "there's a certain story line that attaches to each celebrity. . . . My story line is: 'Rising star comes to D.C. and how quickly will D.C. corrupt him?' "
He praised Clinton's approach to Congress and prominence. "One of the things that both Hillary and I recognize is that we are conferred a huge advantage by virtue of our notoriety," he said. "We don't really have to chase the cameras."
For now, most of his Democratic colleagues believe that Obama's advancement only benefits them. In East Orange, Obama made three stops on behalf of Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), including at a fundraiser that brought in $500,000.
Menendez, who has won seven U.S. House races, later confided, "I took some notes on his interactions."
Onstage, Obama carries audiences along with self-deprecating jokes and gently rhythmic riffs that accent his main points. With a comic's timing, he gets big laughs describing how he reacted when friends first urged him to run for the Illinois Senate. "I prayed on it," he says, pausing briefly. "And I asked my wife." He adds that "those higher authorities" gave their assent.
Perhaps because he has been a national figure for so short a time, there's little of the air of self-importance that surrounds many senators. Staffers generally refer to him as "Barack" rather than "the senator," and they don't snap to attention, as some aides do, when the boss suddenly appears.
Offstage, his matter-of-fact demeanor rarely changed in two busy days of travel. As the plane was about to lift off in overcast skies, he nonchalantly discussed the weather-related crashes that killed Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan and Minnesota Sen. Paul D. Wellstone on campaign trips. An Obama staff member and a reporter later acknowledged that they found the conversation a bit unsettling.
Stylistically, Obama conveys a "sense of authenticity, which I think is the silver coin of the time in terms of leadership," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). In the Senate, he credited the freshman with persuading Republicans to accept a controversial provision on wages in the hard-fought immigration bill.
What Kennedy viewed as a coup, however, was seen as showy overreaching by some Republicans. They complained that in private negotiations Obama seemed more interested in his pet amendments than in the need for an overarching, filibuster-proof compromise.
Such reproaches are bound to increase with Obama's visibility, and the potential danger of moving too far, too fast "is certainly something that I think he thinks about," Kennedy said. "On the other hand, there is enormous thirst within the Democratic Party, within the country, to have new directions, new solutions, new ideas." Kennedy said he doesn't know Obama well enough to counsel him on whether to run in 2008.
But some grass-roots Democrats are ready. "I think he's spectacular," said ophthalmologist David Victor after hearing Obama speak at a Boston rally. "Barack Obama represents the heart and soul of the party, the real future of the party."
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Chris Cillizza and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report in Washington.