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Obama: America's great black hope
- David Usborne
(Thursday, June 2, 2005)
It wasn't too long ago that most Americans had never heard the name Barack Obama, the newbie US senator from Illinois. Even now they get it wrong to his face. Senator Barama ... Senator Alabama ... Senator Banana. He always smiles and gently corrects them. But seven months after the voters of Illinois sent him to the Senate, where he now sits as its only black member and only the third since the Civil War, such malapropisms are rare.
Obama, a lanky man with distractingly long fingers and a narrow face that looks younger than his 43 years, is now one of the brightest and most promising stars in the American political firmament. It started at the Democrat's national convention in Boston last year. His speech in praise of the party's presidential candidate, John Kerry, galvanised delegates. Especially one line about the hope "of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes America has a place for him, too". Himself, in other words. Kerry did not win, but Obama's victory in Illinois was spectacular. After eight years of relative obscurity in the state legislature, he defeated his Republican opponent in the Senate race by a landslide. There is danger in this abrupt wunderkind status, however, and Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black Kenyan, knows it. He jokes that he has suffered from greater media over-exposure than socialite Paris Hilton.
Most alarming are whispers about Obama and the White House. On the internet are fan-sites, where "Obama for President, 2008" buttons and stickers are already on sale. Obama is partly to blame, of course. His mixed-race heritage has undeniable appeal, and he is working it. His upbringing is vividly described in a memoir, Dreams from My Father, which remains on the bestseller lists even though Obama wrote it 10 years ago. The senator has spent much of the past few months recording it on tape, describing his early years in Hawaii and, briefly, Indonesia, and the pain of his father walking out when he was a toddler. The audio-book version went on sale last week and he has a contract to write two sequels.
Washington is littered with tales of over-ambitious new arrivals, heads swollen by sudden celebrity. Al Gore, his father a senator before him, committed that sin in 1984. He dived too quickly into the biggest issue of the day - superpower arms control - and made his first run for President at just 39. He failed then, as he did many years later. Obama's model is Hillary Clinton, who in her first years in the US Senate set the standard for how a newcomer should keep both feet on the ground and head beneath the parapet. Only now, a year before she must face re-election, is she beginning to take a more national stage again.
This means not flying first class, not accepting invitations to appear on talk shows, and steering clear of other states apart from Illinois. Obama wants his voters at home to know that he is focusing on the issues that matter to them. On a Friday afternoon in a community centre in Aurora, the second-largest city in Illinois, the phenomenon that is Barack Obama is on full display. It is one of a series of town-hall-style meetings he has held since taking office in January.
He does not engage in the kind of oratory delivered in Boston back in July, but it is easy to discern his appeal. Analyse his words and he is verging on policy nerdishness - one moment he is critically dissecting Bush's proposal to privatise social security and the next decrying the long-term effects of the tax cuts on local communities - but he has an easy and natural charisma. He has the right smile and voice, sugary and smooth. He doesn't fill the room the moment he walks in, but the atmosphere changes. A ripple of applause breaks out before he opens his mouth and citizens reach into their pockets for their cameras.
And you see he understands the pitfalls of his prominence. "Each and every day I will wake up thinking of the people of Aurora, thinking of the people of Keane County and thinking about the people all through the state of Illinois," he vows. And he underlines his junior rank in the Senate, with required whimsy.
"Let's face it," the story begins, "I am 99th in seniority out of 100 senators." (Only Ken Salazar, a novice Democrat senator from Colorado, is ranked beneath him.) "When I arrived, they handed me some pencils to sharpen and gave me a broom to start sweeping the floors. And I'm in the minority party. The Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House, and the President is going to be driving the agenda for the next two years at least." In other words, I will do my best but don't expect too much. Indeed, in Washington, his record so far is of exemplary attendance at committee meetings.
But even the mostly hum-drum world of politicking offers glimpses of his political pulling power. When Obama issued a letter to grass-roots Democrats asking for backing for the re-election effort of the West Virginia veteran senator, Robert Byrd, donations to Byrd's war chest surged by more than US$800,000 ($1.12 million) in the following 48 hours. And in Aurora, his protests of humility are to no avail. The first member of the mostly white audience to get the microphone is a teacher. "It's such an honour to meet you," she says, before asking a question about school funding, "and I truly believe you will be our President one day."
The room breaks out into fresh applause and Obama smiles graciously. "Well, I don't know about that," he responds, before going on, "but, for now, I'm definitely your senator." Next, the young son of local state senator asks the kind of question you would normally hear only at a presidential debate. What kind of America would Obama like his daughters - he and his wife of 10 years, Michelle, have two girls, Malia Ann and Natasha - to inherit when they grow up? Obama gives the practised answer of a White House candidate, extolling the country's Constitution, the Bill of Rights and ethnic diversity.
The pressure on Obama might not be so great were it not for the near-panic felt by his party after the election let-down of November. Democrats can't help but gather around anyone who might bring back some of the damaged lustre, even someone as inexperienced as Obama. But he intends to resist that too. "I don't want to be fabricated into some great hope for the Democratic Party just because I am the flavour of the month now," he says in a brief interview at the close of the meeting. And he carefully rehearses his script about paying his dues to Illinois first. "After the people have seen my work, hopefully they will feel I can make a contribution to the party and to the country."
But even that hardly has the echo of a politician slamming the door. And it is tempting to imagine an Obama candidacy for Commander in Chief, if not next time, then in the years beyond. You can see the sentimental biographical video at the nominating convention telling the story of how Barack, which means "blessed" in Swahili, excelled in school but stumbled into drinking and drug use as a teen before pulling himself back. And how he graduated with a political science degree at Columbia University before going to Harvard Law School, where he became the first black to be president of the Harvard Law Review. It is a story to make any campaign manager drool.
When Obama tries to leave the hall, he is ambushed by supporters asking for a photograph or his autograph. The scrum lasts about 15 minutes before aides finally steer him out a side door. But, in spite of the political instincts that tell him otherwise, Obama might be advised to enjoy some of this attention while he has it.
History argues that he may already have reached his zenith. Since the early 60s, roughly one black candidate either for state governorships or for the US Senate has won in every decade. The path to the White House for an African-American remains dauntingly steep.
Still, many Democrats are daring to hope he will make it and that the place he is dreaming of is a white building with imposing columns in Washington.
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