Monday, February 19, 2007

Destiny's Child

A long and insightful profile in the latest Rolling Stone.  I love this:
He came to Washington pushing the hope that politics could be better -- but now he can give the impression that he'd rather be just about anywhere other than in Washington. "It can be incredibly frustrating," he tells me. "The maneuverings, the chicanery, the smallness of politics here." Listening to a bloviating colleague at his first meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama slipped a three-word note to a member of his staff: "Shoot. Me. Now." On a recent day, as Obama made his way through the Capitol's corridors, his fellow senators seemed like good-natured sportscasters, jolly and easy with their power, bantering about the fortunes of baseball teams in their home states. . Obama is aloof and quiet. He prefers to listen, attentive as a rector, not quite of this world, silently measuring it. "The typical politician pushes himself on people to get them to pay attention," says Frank Luntz, the Republican campaign strategist. "Obama is quieter. He doesn't push -- he has a laid-back feel that pulls you in. That is so rare."
This was good to see as well:
He had thought he might enter politics since before he left for law school, and eventually he did, winning a seat in the state Senate at the age of thirty-seven.

"He was a little off-putting at first -- that whole Harvard thing," says Rich Miller, a veteran observer of Illinois politics. "But the bottom line is pretty much everybody I know had a high opinion of him, Republican or Democrat. In this state it's hard for anyone to get along, and even though he was very liberal, he was able to pass a hell of a lot of bills."

Many of the stands Obama took were pretty radical for a candidate who would end up aiming for national office. He led an ambitious but failed effort to provide health care for every citizen of Illinois, fought against predatory lending practices and wrote a bill making Illinois the first state to require police to tape their interrogations of murder suspects.

And this is VERY interesting:
But in 2003, when Obama began to run for the U.S. Senate, his legislative track record wasn't enough to get him elected. He was one of seven Democrats in the field, third or fourth on name recognition and even farther behind in funds. He barely stood a chance.

Then, running preliminary polls, his advisrs noticed something remarkable: Women responded more intensely and warmly to Obama than did men. In a seven-candidate field, you don't need to win every vote. His advisers, assuming they would pick up a healthy chunk of black votes, honed in on a different target: Every focus group they ran was composed exclusively of women, nearly all of them white.

There is an amazingly candid moment in Obama's autobiography when he writes of his childhood discomfort at the way his mother would sexualize African-American men. "More than once," he recalls, "my mother would point out: 'Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.' " What the focus groups his advisers conducted revealed was that Obama's political career now depends, in some measure, upon a tamer version of this same feeling, on the complicated dynamics of how white women respond to a charismatic black man. "I remember when we realized something magical was happening," says Obama's pollster on the campaign, an earnest Iowan named Paul Harstad. "We were doing a focus group in suburban Chicago, and this woman, seventy years old, looks seventy-five, hears Obama's life story, and she clasps her hand to her chest and says, 'Be still, my heart.' Be still, my heart -- I've been doing this for a quarter century and I've never seen that." The most remarkable thing, for Harstad, was that the woman hadn't even seen the videos he had brought along of Obama speaking, had no idea what the young politician looked like. "All we'd done," he says, "is tell them the Story."

From that moment on, the Story became Obama's calling card, his political rationale and his basic sale. Every American politician has this wrangle he has to pull off, reshaping his life story to fit into Abe Lincoln's log cabin. Some pols (John Edwards, Bill Clinton) have an easier time of it than others (George Bush, Al Gore). Obama's material is simply the best of all. What he has to offer, at the most fundamental level, is not ideology or even inspiration -- it is the Story, the feeling that he embodies, in his own, uniquely American history, a longed-for break from the past. "With Obama, it's all about his difference," says Joe Trippi, the Democratic consultant who masterminded Howard Dean's candidacy. "We see in him this hope that the country might be different, too."

It has become fashionable, given Obama's charisma and compassion, to compare him to Robert F. Kennedy, whose 1968 campaign for the presidency achieved near-rock-star status. But Obama is not Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy grew up studying how to use America's power, and in his forties he began to venture out and notice its imperfections. Barack Obama came up in a study of those flaws, and now, thrust into a position of power in his forties, is trying to figure out what to do with it.



Back to Campaign '08: The Radical Roots of Barack Obama

Destiny's Child

No candidate since Robert F. Kennedy has sparked as much campaign-trail heat as Barack Obama. But can the one-term senator craft a platform to match his charisma?


>> Talk back: Does Obama have the stuff to get him to the White House? Join the debate.

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected to the United States Senate in 2004, he began residing, Monday through Thursday, in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the Capitol. For a forty-three-year-old man who had been married for thirteen years and who had two young daughters, it was an isolating experience. The building has a yoga studio and a running track and a decidedly own-and-urban view of some ratty rooftops in the city's tiny Chinatown district; its decor, glass and brick, is less U.S. senator than junior management consultant. In his return to bachelor life, Obama found himself "soft and helpless. My first morning in Washington, I realized I'd forgotten to buy a shower curtain and had to scrunch up against the shower wall in order to avoid flooding the bathroom floor." The other new Democrat elected to the Senate that year, Ken Salazar of Colorado, took an apartment in the same building with his brother John, who is himself a congressman; they spent their time watching documentaries about leathery old cowboys on the Western Channel. Obama spent most of his time reading briefing books.

When Obama first got to Washington, he wanted to be a wonk, to keep his head down and concentrate on small issues. "The plan was: Put Illinois first," one of his aides tells me. Obama himself admits that his initial agenda had a "self-conscious" modesty. His early legislative accomplishments have been useful and bipartisan -- he has even sponsored bills with ultraconservative Sen. Tom Coburn, who believes that high school bathrooms breed lesbianism -- but they have been small-scale and off the headlines: a plan to make it easier for citizens to find out about government spending, increased research into ethanol, more job training and tax credits for "responsible fathers." This is the kind of head-down diligence that plays well in the Senate. "I am amazed by his sheer stamina," says Sen. Dick Lugar, a Republican from Indiana who has become something of a mentor to Obama.


Post a Comment

<< Home