By Liza Mundy
Sunday, August 12, 2007
In the summer of 2002, a little-known Illinois state legislator named Barack Obama thought he saw the political opening he'd been looking for. It was a long shot, a flier -- a race for the U.S. Senate against a sitting Republican. Obama believed he could beat the incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald. The immediate and, in some ways, harder challenge would be getting the Democratic nomination.
Obama was about to turn 41. An attorney and law lecturer at the University of Chicago, he had been elected to the state Senate in 1996, but had been chafing for some time at the limitations of legislating in Springfield. In 2000, he'd overreached by challenging former Black Panther Bobby Rush for the seat Rush held in the U.S. House of Representatives. It had been a disastrous bid, but understandable given that in Illinois, as around the country, paths to higher office for black politicians are few.
But this new opportunity looked, to him, feasible. In 1992, another Chicago politician, Carol Moseley Braun, had demonstrated that it was possible for an African American to win a statewide U.S. Senate primary, as long as there were at least two white Democrats to split the white vote. And several were already lining up to take on Fitzgerald.
There was just one problem, and it was a big one: Moseley Braun was talking about running herself. Only the second African American U.S. senator since Reconstruction, she had lost to Fitzgerald in 1998, in part as a result of allegations, never proved, that she had misused campaign funds. After the loss, she had been appointed U.S. ambassador to New Zealand. But now she was back in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that surrounds the University of Chicago, where Obama also lived. If she did run, there would be two credible black Democrats in the primary -- one far better known than the other.
"Our bases overlapped so much -- not just that she was African American, but that she came out of the progressive wing of the party . . . and our donor bases would have been fairly similar," says Obama, who also needed support from liberal whites. "So it would have been difficult, I think, to mobilize the entire coalition that was required for me to run."
During the second half of 2002, Obama quietly hired staffers, putting a team together and planning his campaign. But he couldn't announce until Moseley Braun made up her mind. Lobbying her seemed likely to backfire. "She's a very independent person," says Obama's campaign manager at the time, Dan Shomon, and "the view was to let her decide on her own."
And then, just after the new year, news reached them that Moseley Braun had made her decision. She was running.
For president of the United States.
And with that, the first cherry had clicked into place: one in an extraordinary series that would hit -- bing bing bing bing -- in the jackpot that for the past five years has characterized Barack Obama's career. If Moseley Braun had run for her old seat, Obama would not be where he is now: sitting on an upholstered couch in a busy office in the Hart Senate Office Building, the only African American member of the U.S. Senate and a leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. Legs crossed, suit jacket off, Obama readily acknowledges Moseley Braun's decision "was another example of the stars aligning" to land him in what seemed, not so long ago, a laughably improbable spot.
Had he been unable to run for the Senate, he says, "I would probably have stepped out of politics for a while." That he didn't step out -- that he stepped in to the degree that he has -- is partly due to the existence, at a pivotal moment, of a politician who had more hubris than he did. Even more audacity, you could say, and even more hope.
The run of luck set off by Moseley Braun's ill-fated presidential run helps explain how Obama has managed to do the political equivalent of zero to 100 mph in 60 seconds. Four years ago, the name "Barack Obama" might register a single hit on the Nexis news database, on a good day. These days, there are about 300 news items that mention Obama each day. His poll numbers aren't as high as those of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has spent decades building her political profile. But his campaign outstripped Clinton's in fundraising in the second quarter of 2007.
"It's like he cut in line," says Tony Bullock, a former Hill staffer and vice president at Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. "He's become a household name far faster than anyone who doesn't have a hit movie."
"He became an important person overnight," agrees Dem-ocratic political consultant Donna Brazile. What's unusual, Brazile says, is that most political celebrities -- Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, John McCain -- earn that status only after prolonged ordeals. "What's unique about Obama is that he's done it because he's cool. Because he's new."
In fact, the story of Obama's rise is more complicated -- and more interesting -- than simple novelty. To understand his ascent, it helps to invoke the anthropic principle, the theory some scientists use when exploring how a perfectly calibrated set of variables -- the necessary amounts of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen; the right temperature range; a propitious distance from the sun -- all had to be present for human life to arise on Earth. Had any one of thousands of factors not been present, our planet might have been a wasteland.
Similarly, had any number of events fallen out slightly differently, Barack Obama might have a lot more time to spend with his family just now. Had the late Harold Washington not been elected mayor of Chicago in 1983, changing what seemed possible for African American politicians in Illinois; had the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill not passed in 2002; had a series of Illinois politicians not suffered a run of spectacular marital problems; had John Kerry not been introduced by Obama during a stop on the former's 2004 presidential campaign, the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama would not have happened.
"It's not as though he's the accidental senator," Bullock says, "but, to some degree, his political story is a series of random walks and chance encounters."
To be sure, among the factors contributing to Obama's rise are innate gifts, including what Newton Minow, a Chicago attorney and mentor, calls "the combination of a first-class intellect and a first-class temperament." Obama is bright and attractive, with an air of calm as well as a wonderful speaking voice, hyper-articulate and sometimes pedantic, but also rich, warm, authoritative and reassuring. His voice, his appearance and his life story are particularly well suited to attract white votes. "We'd probably like it better if he talked like Jesse Jackson, but ya'll wouldn't," says African American political commentator Debra Dickerson.
And then there's ambition -- a given in any presidential candidate, but worth pointing out because Obama works hard to dispel the image of having sought his superstar status. "It's not about me, it's about you," he likes to tell his crowds. But according to those who know him, he has been talking about the presidency for more than a decade. "It was clear to me from the day I met him that he was thinking about politics," says Harvard Law School classmate Christine Spurell.
"There's a central conundrum about him," says another Harvard classmate, Brad Berenson. "On the one hand, he's this laid-back guy from Hawaii. On the other hand, he's vaulted himself into the race for president of the United States. And that doesn't happen by accident."
In some ways, nothing is more implausible than the coming together of Obama's parents. His mother, a white Kansan named Stanley Ann Dunham (her father had wanted a boy), met his Kenyan father, Barack Hussein Obama, in Hawaii in the late 1950s. Her family had relocated there, and he'd come to study at the University of Hawaii.
The second Barack Hussein Obama was born in 1961. After two years, his father left to pursue a PhD at Harvard (his fellowship did not cover family expenses), then returned to his home -- and first wife, whom he apparently had not divorced -- in Kenya.
Obama grew up a child of color in a white family, raised by his mother as well as loving grandparents. (He saw his father only once again; the elder Barack, by then a stranger to him, paid an awkward visit when the son was 10.) Obama spent several years in Indonesia after his mother married an Indonesian student. He returned to Hawaii to attend private school and live with his maternal grandparents in Honolulu, where he was largely insulated from the overt racism of 1970s America but became increasingly aware of the lack of African Americans around him.
In his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama portrays himself as drifting through high school, a little directionless and rebellious. It was becoming clear to him that there were aspects of his identity that white family members couldn't help him sort out. "I was trying to raise myself to be a black man in America," he writes. The quest drove him East to New York City, where he graduated from Columbia University in 1983. In search of the communal spirit of the civil rights era, he decided to become a community organizer.
At that time, steel mills in Illinois and Indiana were closing, and an organizer named Gerald Kellman had been hired to help the devastated workers. Kellman's assignment included Chicago's South Side, home to one of the nation's largest African American communities. To win the cooperation of local leaders, Kellman promised to hire at least one black organizer. When he heard from Obama, he wasn't sure if he qualified racially. He asked his wife, who is of Japanese descent, if "Obama" might be a Japanese name, and she said it might. Kellman later met him in Manhattan and was impressed. After offering Obama the job, Kellman says, he gave him an advance to buy a car, "or something that resembled a car."
And so it was that Barack Obama loaded up an old Honda and drove to Chicago, a place that was not an obvious launching pad for a young man with zero ties to the city. There was a deeply rooted black community, but most black politicians -- like most white ones -- came from political families, ward organizations, or both. And there was terrible racial tension.
"The divide in Chicago between black and white was incredibly hostile," says Judson Miner, a white civil rights attorney who would later hire Obama. Not long before, however, Harold Washington had taken on the fabled Daley machine, and beaten it to become the city's first black mayor. It was a watershed moment. While he didn't get many white votes the first time, Washington was a charismatic figure who taught voters, as Miner puts it, "that an African American could run Chicago, and it wouldn't fall apart."
Obama also came to Chicago without traditional African American credentials. He didn't belong to a church, and he had to work to win the trust of South Side leaders, many of whom were Baptist and Pentecostal ministers. But Obama was polite and winning, willing to work with pastors, separatists and grandmothers alike. He was a good listener, and Kellman set out to make him better.
"We did training in listening skills," Kellman says. "You spend time as an organizer going from one person to another doing interviews. You're listening for story, because story communicates more about a person than simply facts. When people share their story, they get a different sense of themselves, and you get a different sense of them. Barack did that very well. One of the remarkable things is how well he listens to people who are opposed to him."
But three years of listening was enough for Obama, who began applying to law schools. Kellman thinks his father's legacy was coming into play. By then, Obama had met some Kenyan half-siblings who told him more about his father, a finance minister who had suffered major career setbacks, taken several wives and died in a car accident in 1982, when Obama was 21. During a trip to Harvard for a conference on the black church, Kellman says, Obama did a lot of reflecting on his father.
"His dad was not practical, not effective personally. His personal life was a wreck -- also his career in Kenya -- and Barack did not want to follow that," says Kellman, recalling that Obama "talked about wanting to make a difference and be effective." Kellman perceived a new interest in politics: "My sense is that Barack's dream was to come back and possibly become mayor of Chicago."
Obama's take on that period is different. He says that it never occurred to him to try to follow in Harold Washington's footsteps. "I was, like many people, impressed by the degree to which he could mobilize the community and push for change," Obama says. But after Washington died from a heart attack at his city hall office in 1987, Obama became disillusioned by the splintering of the coalition that had supported Washington. At that point, Obama says, "I was somewhat disdainful of politics. I was much more interested in mobilizing people to hold politicians accountable."
This would quickly change. Whatever he thought going in, it was at Harvard Law School that Obama's political skills -- and aspirations -- would emerge rather dramatically. All that South Side dispute mediation prepared him well to operate in a more elite but equally factionalized atmosphere.
In 1988, Harvard, like Chicago, was a bitterly divided place politically: It was a liberal campus, mostly, but there was a hardy body of conservatives who belonged to the campus chapter of the Federalist Society. "The conservatives were a small and beleaguered minority, which made us all the more vocal," says one of them, Brad Berenson, a former associate counsel to President George W. Bush who is now a lawyer in the Washington office of Sidley Austin. There were fights over legal issues -- habeas corpus, the First Amendment -- but most of all, Berenson says, there were "tremendous fights over tenure decisions for women and minorities."
These were professional arguers, the most career-driven young people imaginable: Many of them belonged to what Martha Minow, a professor at the law school, calls "a very large diverse group of people who think rather well of themselves and who are already jockeying for power not only within the institution, but who are ambitious about the future." In this cauldron of careerism, Minow says, Obama stood out because he was not an obvious climber and because "he had then, as he has now, a sense of individuals having obligations to the community, which is not something people [at Harvard Law] usually talk about." Like others, she was struck by his ability to entertain the ideas of opponents. "He spoke with a kind of ability to rise above the conversation and summarize it and reframe it. There was a maturity he brought to the discussion."
But he was also among the most driven in his class. In his first year, he entered the competition for the law review, one of the country's premier scholarly law journals and, for the students who select, edit and write articles, a ticket to a high-powered legal or academic career. To become an editor of the law review was grueling: If you were impossibly smart, you might qualify through grades, but most editors were selected through an exhausting multi-day writing process, their output judged by the current editors. There was also a highly secretive process by which a few students were chosen based at least in part on race. Obama, says one classmate, was never suspected of making law review because of his race.
The fact that these suspicions existed at all says much about the tenor of the time. "That was the most race-conscious time of my life," says Christine Spurell, who, as an African American, found it a "very charged, very hostile atmosphere." She participated in protests calling for more black women faculty members, whereas Obama -- who speaks in favor of affirmative action in his second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, but dislikes conflict and confrontation -- was not the type to mount the barricades. "He wasn't out there going to the mat on any issue," says Spurell, who recalls that she and Obama argued incessantly, like siblings. "I would say he had all your standard liberal views in law school, but he did not shout them from the rooftops."
In the middle of his second year, Obama surprised his classmates by entering the race for law review president, a job that involves appointing other editors, mediating disagreements and influencing the careers of the nation's legal scholars by accepting or rejecting articles. Obama had not been expected to run. He had spent the summer working at Sidley Austin in Chicago, where he met Michelle Robinson, a Princeton-educated attorney, also a graduate of Harvard Law, whom he would marry. He made it clear he wanted to go back to Chicago, where he had found the community he had missed growing up. Traditionally, the president of the law review uses the job as a springboard to a top-level legal or academic position: Among the ranks are former U.S. attorney general Elliot Richardson and feminist law professor Susan Estrich.
Obama portrays his decision to compete as having been almost impulsive. "It was probably one of those moments where I said, What the heck," he says. "I was an older student, 27 [when he started]. Most of my peers at the law review were a couple of years younger than I was. I thought I could apply some common sense and management skills to the job. I was already investing a lot of time in the law review, and my attitude was: Why not try to run the law review?"
The 1990 election, which took place in a house on campus, was a daylong ritual with all the secrecy and silliness of any Ivy League selection process. Those editors who were running went into the kitchen and began cooking breakfast for the people debating their merits: third-year editors and those second-years who weren't running. There would be rounds of polling to winnow the ranks, and if you lost -- were voted off the island -- you left the kitchen and joined the voters.
Voting went on for hours. Obama stayed in, but so did several other liberal candidates. After the last conservative fell, the right-wingers had to decide which liberal would be palatable. They saw Obama as the one most likely to listen and include them in decisions. "He was not perceived as a zealot," says Berenson. "Conservatives felt that he respected them on a personal level and would take seriously what they had to say, and their points of view -- even if he didn't always, or ever, agree with them -- would be treated with some measure of respect."
They were right. Just below the presidency, there are important masthead positions that auger well for later life, and Obama bestowed a number on conservatives. At the time, Spurell was so incensed at his failure to promote more black editors that she complained to the Los Angeles Times that Obama was no different from white editors who had come before. "I personally thought I deserved a spot. My work was, I thought, extremely excellent," says Spurell, who now works as a public defender in Abingdon, Va. But Obama's approach -- she believes now -- was more effective. "As you can probably tell, I wasn't that popular a personality. So I don't blame him in the least for not picking me for the position I thought I should have." She adds that she feels the same "rush of pride" for him now that she felt when he won the law review presidency.
"The president of the law review is regarded as the most intellectually savvy person on campus," she says. "And for that to go to a black person -- I feel so moved to have known him. All the same things that made me frustrated with him," such as his chumminess with Federalist Society members, "are the things that got him so far."
There are judges and blue-chip law partners who wait to see who is elected president of the Harvard Law Review and call immediately to offer clerkships and jobs. For Obama, the inquiries were even more numerous because of the publicity around the first African American president. There were national newspaper articles and a book contract to write his life story.
Abner Mikva, a Chicago lawyer and former congressman who was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, made an inquiry. When word came back that Obama was not interested, Mikva assumed he wanted to clerk for a black judge. But Obama simply didn't want to clerk at all. Instead, he wrote his memoir, took a job with Judson Miner's civil rights practice, worked on a voter registration drive and began making political contacts.
"I think he saw himself with a political career even before I knew him," says Newton Minow, who had heard about Obama from his daughter Martha and met him the summer Obama worked at Sidley Austin. "He was at the firm for only one summer, and when we offered him a job to come back, he came in to see me and told me he was going to go into politics. I think he had that in mind very early."
There was one impediment to a political career: In 1992, Obama married Michelle, who wasn't "gung-ho on the political bandwagon," reports her brother, Craig Robinson. "We as a family were extremely cynical about politics and politicians." Michelle Obama confirms this description, saying that when she was dating Barack, "we didn't talk about politics specifically."
But Obama didn't keep his interests secret. Early in the relationship, Michelle, who was notoriously picky about her boyfriends, asked Craig, now the men's basketball coach at Brown University, to take Obama out on the ball court to get a sense of his character. Obama passed that test -- he wasn't a ball hog or a hotshot -- and was invited to a family event, where Craig pulled him aside and asked about his plans.
"He said, 'I think I'd like to teach at some point in time, and maybe run for public office,'" recalls Robinson, who assumed Obama meant he'd like to run for city alderman. "He said no -- at some point he'd like to run for the U.S. Senate. And then he said, 'Possibly even run for president at some point.' And I was like, 'Okay, but don't say that to my Aunt Gracie.' I was protecting him from saying something that might embarrass him."
Obama laughs, now, hearing that anecdote. He doesn't remember the exchange, but adds, "If the conversation did come up, and I said that I was interested in electoral politics . . . my aspirations would have been higher than being an alderman."
Craig "should have said, 'Don't tell Michelle!'" says Michelle Obama, who initially tried to talk her husband out of running for office. He persuaded her, she says, by arguing that they had a responsibility to work on behalf of people less privileged than they are.
"You know, Barack is very convincing and very passionate," says Michelle, who says she was naive in the beginning about the impact it would have on their family life, which now includes two young daughters, Malia and Sasha. "So I eventually said: 'Sure, let's do it. Okay, you win.'"
"And then," she concludes, "you're in."
Barack Obama's first opportunity came, as opportunities would with striking frequency, when somebody else's personal life got messy.
In the fall of 1995, Mel Reynolds, 43, who represented Illinois' 2nd Congressional District, was forced to resign when he was convicted on charges related to having sex with a 16-year-old campaign volunteer. There were several contenders in the special election to replace him, including Alice Palmer, a progressive state senator who represented Hyde Park and urged Obama to run for her state Senate seat. But when Jesse Jackson Jr. won the primary, Palmer decided she wanted her old job back. Obama did not step aside. More than that, according to the Chicago Tribune, when Obama's staffers looked at the petitions she'd hastily garnered, they saw irregularities and challenged them before the board of elections. Then, noting irregularities in the petitions of his other primary opponents, Obama knocked them all out of the race. He went on to win and was sworn into the state Senate in January 1997, and started commuting to Springfield.
His ambition, now, was as visible as a radio tower. Invited by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam to participate in the Saguaro Seminar, a network of thinkers who met around the country to discuss community issues, Obama talked so openly about his political future that the group began referring to him, teasingly, as "Governor."
"He was transparently and lovably ambitious," says Putnam, author of a seminal work on the withering of community in American life, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. "He was always talking about running for office and the importance of being in politics."
The group stoked his sense of potential. "I remember, after the second or third meeting, a crowd gathered around him and said, 'When are you running for president?' recalls Martha Minow, who was also a Saguaro member. "I try to remember: Why did we think this? It was his way of listening astutely to the conversations, offering an embracing, objective view: Here's how what everybody says fits together."
Lacking ties to any ward machine, or the street credibility of leaders who had ascended the ranks, Obama ingratiated himself with Emil Jones, who would become president of the Illinois state Senate after the Democrats assumed control. Jones became a mentor to Obama, entrusting him with overseeing reforms of welfare, campaign finance and the criminal justice system. Among Obama's achievements was a law requiring that murder confessions be videotaped. In all of this he displayed what Mikva, who became another of his mentors, calls his characteristic "knack for getting people to bargain seriously." Not everybody liked him; one Senate colleague described him as so ambitious that given the chance, he'd run for "king of the world."
After just a few years, Obama was talking about running for Congress, and thought he saw an opportunity. In 1999, black congressman Bobby Rush had challenged Richard M. Daley for mayor, and lost. Obama conducted a poll, says then-campaign manager Dan Shomon, and it suggested that some voters, particularly white ones, were looking for an alternative to Rush. "I was a little bit questioning about whether Rush was vulnerable at all, but Barack was sure that he was," Mikva says.
Obama paid a price for trying to depose a member of the African American power structure: During the race, the suggestion was subtly advanced that Obama was not "black enough." Then, that October, Rush's adult son was murdered in a street shooting, and Obama shut down his campaign for several weeks to show compassion. His campaign lost momentum, and he lost badly in the March 2000 primary.
He did not take his drubbing well. "He is not a good loser," says Shomon. Obama acknowledges this: "Losing's always miserable."
So miserable, that when Mikva met with Obama, he found him unusually dispirited. "That was the one time he semi-seriously thought about giving up politics. He was frustrated; he had been [in the state Senate] for four years; the pay is very modest. It seemed that whatever his ambitions were, there wasn't going to be a channel for them."
Obama, who didn't want to be a "lifer in the state legislature," agrees that he seriously considered looking for another way to make an impact. "Some doubts entered my mind as to whether some kid from Hawaii named Barack Obama could succeed in a political venue, where a lot of times voters are relying on very little information and making snap judgments based on somebody's name and whether they've got family ties."
But, of course, the loss to Rush would turn out to be more fortunate than it appeared. As Newton Minow points out, had Obama beaten Rush, "he would have been in Congress, not a senator, and he wouldn't have given the speech at the  Demo-cratic National Convention" that would change the trajectory of his career. "Nothing like that would have happened. I'm a great believer in timing. Everything is timing."
And timing, now, was on his side. Just when Obama was despairing, it became evident that Peter Fitzgerald was foundering in the U.S. Senate. "He had some very good characteristics," says Obama now. "But he just didn't seem to enjoy the job much, and wasn't a particularly good politician. I thought that a Democratic challenger could draw a sharp contrast and be effective. I thought I could beat him."
Shomon tried to dissuade him from running, arguing that a Senate campaign would put too much pressure on his personal life. "His counterargument was similar to his counterargument always: We can change politics, we can change the agenda, we can help average people." He said, Shomon recalls, "I'm not going to be able to help people if I'm stuck in the state Senate for 20 years."
"He really felt like this was his opportunity," Shomon says. "Every time Barack saw an opportunity, he felt like it could be his last."
Then in April 2003 -- just a few months after Obama formally entered the primary -- Fitzgerald surprised everyone by announcing he would not run for reelection. This, Obama believes, was his luckiest break of all, because it meant that there was no incumbent. The seat was truly open. "I thought I could beat him, and still think I could have beat him, but the fact that he did not end up running, obviously, left the field wide open."
Ultimately there would be seven candidates in the Democratic primary, but for Obama there were two who mattered. One was Dan Hynes, the popular state comptroller and favorite of the party machine. The other was Blair Hull, a wealthy stock trader who had sold his company to Goldman Sachs for $531 million.
Hull's presence, while formidable, did two things to help Obama. First, it increased the likelihood that the white vote would split between Hynes and Hull. Second, it enabled Obama to raise much more money than he otherwise could have. The newly passed McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law contained a "millionaire's amendment." In a race against a wealthy opponent who is financing his own campaign, a candidate is permitted to raise significantly more than the normal limit. In this case, Obama could raise $12,000 from each donor instead of $2,000.
"This was a huge advantage; it just made a huge difference," says Mikva. "I gave him more money than I've ever given anyone in my life."
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama writes how put off he was by the magnitude of the fundraising effort a Senate race requires. "I started engaging in elaborate games of avoidance during call time -- frequent bathroom breaks, extended coffee runs." But he steeled himself for the task and learned to set aside "any sense of shame I once had in asking strangers for large sums of money."
He built a diverse group of donors. Among them were black business owners and professionals. He could also take advantage of his Ivy connections, drawing on moneyed Harvard classmates and his wife's super-loyal Princeton connections. He had energetic supporters in Minow and Mikva, as well as David Axelrod, the leading Democratic campaign consultant in Illinois. He appealed to many of Chicago's "lakefront liberals," who occupy a strip stretching from downtown to the North Shore along Lake Michigan, and attracted major benefactors such as the Crown and Pritzker families, big money.
But Hull was still vastly outspending him, and the spending mattered. A poll taken about a month before the primary showed Hull in the lead, with Hynes and Obama trailing.
Then, in late February 2004, Blair Hull had a very bad day. There had been rumors of an ugly divorce from an ex-wife; when the court records were released, they contained allegations of domestic abuse. Shomon remembers Obama's reaction. He feared that if Hull dropped out of the race, Hull's support would shift to Hynes. But Hull stayed in the race, and hung onto about 10 percent of the vote.
This may not have mattered as much as it seemed. In the end, Obama, preaching a message of unity, did much better with white voters than anyone had anticipated. After Hull's disaster, Hynes's numbers edged up slightly, while Obama's soared. "Much to our shock and surprise," says Axelrod, "he won with 53 percent of the vote." They were incredulous -- and ecstatic. Obama won in the most unlikely places, including portions of northwest Chicago, where Harold Washington once had been treated so venomously that it made the national news. He was, it now became clear, a genuine crossover politician, something that put Obama on the national map. William Finnegan profiled him in in the New Yorker, Scott Turow wrote a piece in Salon, and the newsweeklies took notice.
Now the cherries were falling into place furiously. Obama's Republican opponent was Jack Ryan, another very wealthy opponent, well-regarded. And the Democratic Party -- finally taking notice -- decided it would give Barack Obama some help.
It would ask him to make a speech.
In early summer of 2004, organizers of the Democratic presidential convention were faced with some challenges, chief among them the fact that no Bush-bashing would be allowed among convention speakers. The Kerry campaign didn't want to alienate swing voters by speaking ill of Republicans. So the convention needed speakers who could present an upbeat message and still sound compelling.
There were some givens. Bill Clinton would be the prime time speaker Monday night; the third and fourth nights would feature John Edwards and John Kerry, respectively. On Tuesday they wanted a keynote speaker in the tradition of the great keynoters of the past: Barbara Jordan, Mario Cuomo, Ann Richards, "people who inspired hope," as Donna Brazile puts it, "and not only inspired hope, but laid a framework for the party."
There were a number of criteria as planners began proposing candidates. Youth was desirable, and freshness, and diversity. "We were trying to think creatively of the next generation of leaders," says one campaign official. They came up with a list of Democratic governors that included Mark Warner of Virginia, Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Tom Vilsack of Iowa: solid choices, but a list that, as the official put it, "didn't get us where we wanted to go." Jennifer Granholm, the photogenic new governor of Michigan, was also on the list. And Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, who had read some of the coverage following Obama's primary victory, proposed Obama.
It was an appealing idea. Obama was known to be a speaker who could get a crowd going. He was a Midwesterner from a major industrial state, providing a demographic complement to Southerner Edwards and Northerner Kerry. But these things were also true of Granholm.
Weeks before the decision was made, David Axelrod heard "scuttlebutt" that Obama was being considered. Axelrod told Obama, who says he found it a bit hard to believe. "I have to say, I was skeptical," Obama says. "Traditionally -- obviously -- that slot is not given to a state senator." Obama did not lobby directly, but Axelrod did, saying, "My case was that he was a transcendent figure who could deliver a unifying message and had just won a spectacular victory."
According to an official involved, the decision came down to the fact that Obama, unlike Granholm, was still trying to win an election. Just a few weeks before the convention, it would emerge that Obama's opponent, Jack Ryan, had tried to talk his wife at the time into performing public acts at a sex club. Ryan would eventually withdraw, and there was talk that some marquee Republican, possibly former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka, would enter the race. The balance in the Senate was 51-48 in favor of Republicans. "We needed his Senate seat," says the official. So Obama it was.
Kerry gave Obama's selection an enthusiastic thumbs up. "I was impressed by him," Kerry says. "I had met him and . . . campaigned with him in Illinois, and thought on a personal level he would be able to convey the kind of message I wanted to convey out of my convention: a message of inclusiveness and change, a new view about how we can make our politics more relevant to people and, in a sense, just put a little bit of different language in front of folks."
In The Audacity of Hope, Obama portrays it as a total surprise when Cahill called to invite him to deliver the keynote. "The process by which I was selected as the keynote speaker remains something of a mystery to me," he writes, saying that after he received the call in his car, he marveled to his driver, "I guess this is pretty big."
This seems disingenuous. "There is no doubt that that call was expected," says Michael Duga, chief of staff to former senator Max Cleland, who also was involved in the planning. Axelrod doesn't dispute this: "We heard shortly before he got the call that he was likely to get it." So, he acknowledges, "we did get a little bit of a heads-up."
Obama knew what he wanted do with the speech, says his communications director, Robert Gibbs. He wanted to tell his life story as an American narrative. He wanted to offer himself as an embodiment of what's possible. And he wanted to write the speech himself, which he did, stuck in Springfield during votes, sending drafts by e-mail. But Gibbs also did research. Listening to past keynote speeches, he realized that there were two basic models. One was the 1988 Ann Richards punch-line model -- you deliver a one-liner, and there is wild applause, and you deliver a one-liner, and there is wild applause -- and the other was the 1984 Mario Cuomo model, a visionary declaration that the audience doesn't punctuate with clapping, because it's rapt. That's the model Obama went for.
On the night of the speech, Gibbs and Axelrod stayed in the greenroom with Obama and his wife beforehand, then went down to watch on the convention floor, with thousands of delegates, reporters and spectators. Another 9 million people saw the speech on the cable channels covering the convention.
Obama began by talking about his mother and father, the diversity of his heritage, how "in no other country on Earth, is my story even possible." He spoke about issues -- better government, health coverage, better care for veterans -- then delivered his famous call for unity and compassion: "We are all connected as one people. If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child," he said, dismissing the idea of "red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats . . . We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."
On the floor, Gibbs recalls, he and Axelrod sensed the rapture of the crowd and looked at each other "like two kids at Christmas."
"Sometimes you know it's a home run at the crack of the bat," says Axelrod. "As soon as he swung, you knew that the ball was going to go over the fence."
The full impact of the speech became clear to Obama's staff days later, when they embarked on a whistle-stop RV tour of downstate Illinois. Obama, Shomon says, was furious when he saw the schedule. He was exhausted and wanted to spend time with his family. But at the first town on the first day, there were 500 people instead of the 100 that had been expected. The same thing happened again, and again; then one day they drove into a state park to see 1,000 people crowded into an open-air amphitheater. "Everyone knew exactly what everyone else was thinking," say Gibbs. "Wow."
This continued. "You'd hear [Democratic] party people talking: Not only was it the biggest crowd we ever saw, it's new people, not just the usual suspects -- we don't even know who these people are," says political analyst Charlie Cook.
The speech vaulted Obama into mega-celebrity. "It's like walking around with Michael Jordan now," says his brother-in-law Craig Robinson. As for money: "It wasn't a matter of fundraising anymore," says one of his consultants, Joe McLean. "It was just a matter of collecting money."
And they didn't even need all of it. The next cherry clicked into place when the Illinois Republican Party, having taken more than a month to find a replacement for Jack Ryan, had the extraordinary bad sense to import Alan Keyes, a loose cannon and perennial candidate from Maryland. Obama won with 70 percent of the vote. "You'd have to be appointed to get an easier ride than that," says Cook. "How many people get elected to the U.S. Senate without having a single negative ad run against them?" Ron Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, agrees. "You could argue that if the Republicans had had a viable candidate, there would be no Barack."
The country happened to be uniquely poised to receive Obama at the precise moment when he materialized, says Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center. In 2004 -- and even more, now -- the country was deeply unhappy with the status quo. "They're looking for political change, and he certainly personifies change," says Kohut, who conducted a poll showing that when people hear the name "Barack Obama," the words that come to mind are "new," "young," "charismatic" and "smart."
Then again, "inexperienced" is another word that comes to mind. Kohut's polls show that the second thing voters want is competence, and they see this in Hillary Clinton more than Obama. "And that," says Kohut, "is why we have a horse race."
Obama appeals most to well-educated college graduates, Kohut says, the same demographic group that supported Gary Hart, Bill Bradley and Howard Dean in previous campaigns. People with college degrees tend to be driven by hope and idealism. In contrast, as Cook explains, "downscale Democrats" tend to focus more on economic issues and are more likely to have fond memories of Clinton-era prosperity. "They're more survival oriented."
Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, believes Obama's appeal springs from the fact that the country feels more fragmented than it is comfortable with, and there is a "hunger for connection and for unity." It also helps, Putnam believes, that Obama is not identified with the 1960s, nor does he carry the baggage of past campaigns, as both Edwards and Clinton do.
But most important, Putnam believes, is Obama's biography: the racial unity he represents and an upbringing that enables him to speak to blacks and whites alike. "He's black, but not just black," says Putnam. "A large number of Americans would like to feel they're in a country where someone like that could be president."
The racial question is, of course, complicated and heated. Some commentators, including Debra Dickerson and Stanley Crouch, have revived the idea that Obama is not authentically "black," in that he is not the descendant of slaves and thus lacks this classic part of the African American experience. He has also never been what Dickerson calls "black for a living." He's never worked for the NAACP or any advocacy organization whose goal is taking on the white power structure.
Dickerson points out that, early in his career, Obama did a number of crucial things to neutralize this problem of authenticity. He married a black woman, and he joined an inner-city, mostly black church, Trinity United Church of Christ, led by the charismatic pastor Jeremiah Wright. "I'm not saying he doesn't love her, and I'm sure he believes with all his heart," says Dickerson, but both moves helped shore up his credentials. For black politicians, to begin a speech by praising God is "the black secret handshake," she says. "It's like saying, 'Joe sent me.'"
But it's equally important, Dickerson says, that Obama does not speak like Jesse Jackson or Martin Luther King Jr. It may be good that his keynote speech wasn't delivered in King's majestic cadence, because then he might have been too authentically African American. To appeal to whites as well as blacks, he can't do "the whole Southern preacher thing." And appealing to whites is crucial; Clinton does almost as well as Obama among black voters, for whom, Dickerson says, 2008 presents a "delicious" choice.
"If you're looking for how does Barack Obama win the nomination, he needs to win [the African American vote] by a big margin," says Charlie Cook, and also enlarge that base. "He's got to have a broader base of support than he has now." As in Illinois, he has to be a crossover candidate. And his mannerisms, his credentials, his white mother all help. "He doesn't look like a sub-Saharan African, and he doesn't have an accent," Dickerson says. "If he were sub-Saharan-African-looking, with the same résumé, we would not know his name right now."
In her most controversial assertion, Dickerson argues that Obama appeals to white voters because he enables them to support a black man without having to confront the legacy of slavery. Because Obama is not confrontational; because he describes himself as "being rooted in the African American community, but not limited to it," he permits whites to support a black and feel self-congratulatory. This may or may not be true, but it does seem that -- in the wake of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo -- part of Obama's appeal is the opportunity to send the world a different message about American racial tolerance at a moment when this seems more important than ever.
"His election would do so much to restore people's faith and belief in the U.S. around the world," says Meg Hirshberg, an influential New Hampshire political donor who recently threw her support behind Obama. "Can you imagine them being president and first lady? It knocks me out, as far as what we would be saying to ourselves and to the world. He's not a descendant of slaves, but she is. I think it would be a remarkable moment in American history."
He also represents biracialism -- what one supporter calls "the emerging majority demographic," the face of what all America will look like someday: brown. No surprise, then, that he appeals more to young voters than do the other Democrats. Twentysomethings are more likely to think biracialism is cool; more likely to be biracial; more likely to have parents who are immigrants. This support may or may not get Obama where he needs to go. Younger voters are enthusiastic, but they are not, as Tony Bullock puts it, "the most reliable loading dock."
One evening early this summer, Obama was on the floor of the U.S. Senate while a series of complicated votes were taking place on President Bush's ill-fated immigration bill. Between votes, Obama milled around, chatting with colleagues. He is a touchy kind of mingler; he tends to put his hands on an arm or shoulder while talking, in an easy, friendly, intimate way. Watching him provided stark evidence of just how rare a person of color is on the Senate floor; apart from him, there were a few black staffers. He is a living testament to how hard it remains for a black politician to win a statewide race, let alone a national election.
After his keynote speech, he was asked, over and over again, if he would run in '08. Diane Sawyer asked. Oprah Winfrey asked. Tim Russert asked. Wolf Blitzer asked. The answer: He would serve out his six-year Senate term.
"The first conversation about the presidential campaign was that there was not going to be a presidential campaign," says Axelrod. Obama agrees. "We very deliberately tried to tamp down expectations," he says. "I didn't do any national interviews until Katrina. I tried to be very deliberate in terms of the work that I did here in the U.S. Senate. I didn't file a lot of symbolic bills -- like a universal health-care bill or other legislation that I wasn't in a position to pass because we were in a minority party."
In October 2006, however, Russert asked again, and this time Obama said, "I have thought about it." Then, this February, he announced. He would run. In '08.
What changed? First, The Audacity of Hope was published in 2006. While on book tour, Obama did a lot of campaigning for other candidates, helping Democrats win control of Congress. During that campaign, the war emerged as a key factor in Obama's favor, points out Ron Walters. In 2002, Obama had made a powerful speech opposing the Iraq war as "rash" and "dumb," and it was probably just as well for him, at the time, that few people had heard of him. But now the country had caught up with his views. The majority of voters, particularly Democrats, think the war was a mistake and want U.S. troops withdrawn.
Last summer Obama also went to Africa, visiting Kenya and South Africa, and speaking out against the violence in Darfur. The crowds he attracted gave him, Axelrod says, "a heightened sense of what he could accomplish."
Shortly before Christmas 2006, he met with Minow and Mikva to discuss whether to run. "He was very worried about what this was going to do to his family," says Minow. "I think Michelle at that point was very dubious, not at all enthusiastic about his running." The two men, who have six adult daughters between them, said they thought it made more sense to run when Obama's children were young and relatively insulated.
The opportunity, in the end, was irresistible. Obama says that what tipped the balance was the crowds. "After seeing the response I was getting around the country, I had to step back and ask: Is there something about my message that is sufficiently unique and could potentially be useful enough to moving the country forward?" he says. "And, ultimately, the answer was yes."
Obama also understands, more than most, the significance of an open seat. For the first time in more than 50 years, there is no incumbent president or vice president running for the White House. An opportunity like that is priceless. "You can't choose the times," says Axelrod. "The times choose you."
Is there a downside? Obama says the biggest one "is personal. It's relinquishing your privacy. As much attention as I had gotten as U.S. senator, I could still hop in my car, drive myself to the grocery store, take my kids to the zoo." Not anymore.
Politically, the risk is that there will be a negative attack that sticks, that Obama will be, in some way, swift-boated. "I will never be more popular than I am as a potential presidential candidate," he says he told a friend before announcing. "Because it was inevitable that the moment I ran, suddenly those of you in the fourth estate would start, you know, chipping away at this image that you guys have created. And so I was mindful of that. The easier thing for me to do would have been to stay put; continue to enjoy nice things being said about me; potentially get on some short list for vice president, which, even if I wasn't selected, would be sufficiently flattering; and see if something came up, some opportunity came up to run for president later."
"This is always a risky enterprise." But, he says, "I just got a sense that the country is in this ferment right now, that everything's up for grabs. Those moments in our politics don't come that often, where -- it really is possible in this election, in a way that might not be four years from now, or eight years or 12 years from now, to help redefine our politics and help point the country in a fundamentally different direction. So, I believe I made the right decision to run. But it was not a slam dunk, to quote George Tenet."
Now there are only 2,181 more cherries that have to click into place for Barack Obama. That would be the number of delegates a Democratic candidate needs to win the party's presidential nomination.
Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer. She can be reached at email@example.com. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon.