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Restless Searcher On an Improbable Path

Many times during the dozen years of Obama's political rise, he appeared destined only for obscurity. The afternoon in 1998 when he spoke to an audience of seven people at a brightly lit ice cream parlor at 183rd and Crawford Avenue on the southern rim of Chicago, sitting on a wooden stool, relaxed with legs crossed, patiently going through an early version of a stump speech about hope and racial reconciliation that later would become his trademark. In the summer of 2000 when he flew from Chicago to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention and no one knew him, his credit card bounced, and he left after a forlorn day hanging out as an unimportant face lost in the power-lusting crowd. On the January evening in 2003 when he began his U.S. Senate campaign by driving his Jeep Cherokee up from Springfield to Rockford for a banquet honoring black and Hispanic professionals and was barely recognized and not called on to talk, instead having to sit at a back table as a motivational speaker droned on.

Mike Jordan, an insurance agent from suburban Chicago and a longtime associate, was with Obama that night in Rockford and worried that the candidate would be depressed afterward, or so in need of political affirmation that he would work the crowd for every hand he could possibly shake on the way out the door. Instead, Obama went off to a corner to talk to the 15 or so young people who had been awarded minority scholarships, thanking each of them, listening to their stories. No need to panic, Obama told his staff on the way out. No one knew us, okay, but let's see what happens.

The essence of Barack Obama has been his capacity to avert life's roadblocks and disappointments during his journey. The first could have been his unusual family biography, with the challenges it presented in terms of stability and psychology. The second could have been the sociology of race in America, with its likelihood of rejection and cynicism. And the final was the geography of elective politics, with all the variables of ideology and luck. In each case, Obama kept moving, finding his way around dead ends, avoiding the traps.

Today, a quarter-century after his first glimpse of the White House, he retraced the route from the U.S. Capitol west along Pennsylvania Avenue, this time ensconced in the back of a presidential limousine, the whole world watching, as he glided toward his new home.

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

David Maraniss, an associate editor at The Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting for his coverage of Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential campaign. He is the author of "First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton," and seven other books. He has begun a biography of Barack Obama that will be published in late 2011.

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