Obama's Years in Chicago Politics Shaped His Presidential Candidacy

Two decades in the Windy City produced the Obama we know today.

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In addition to learning the importance of loyalty in developing his leadership skills, his belief in the importance of charisma grew. After reading Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters, a history of the civil rights era, Obama told a coworker that he wished he had been able to participate in "the movement," but he was "10 years too late." He was uncomfortable with the confrontational style of some civil rights leaders but was inspired by the leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. He concluded that he could make a bigger impact if he got into politics and took on a wider leadership role, combining his own ability to inspire with his commitment to community activism. He enrolled at Harvard Law School and was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, a prestigious post reserved for the most talented students.

Neighborhood roots. In the summer of 1988, Obama worked as an intern in the Chicago office of the influential law firm of Sidley Austin. He began dating Michelle Robinson, a young lawyer from a working-class family in the South Shore area of the South Side, who was his mentor at the firm. After they married in 1990, they settled in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side along the lakefront. Anchored by the University of Chicago, the community is populated by both blacks and whites and includes many affluent families of both races, along with the middle class and the poor. It has a strong base of independent voters and a commitment to political reform, all of which have become part of Obama's message today.

After working briefly on a voter registration and education project that helped elect Bill Clinton as president and Carol Moseley Braun as the state's first African-American female senator in 1992, he went to work for Miner, Barnhill & Galland, specializing in civil rights law and other forms of public advocacy. These experiences gave him many contacts in the power structure. But his longtime interest in a political career was inspired mostly by the changes being made in Chicago by Harold Washington, its black mayor. African-Americans were finally getting a share of power they hadn't had before, and Obama again saw how a charismatic political leader could make a real difference.

In 1996 at age 34, he ran for the state Senate in a messy drama that is little known outside of Chicago. Alice Palmer, the incumbent, planned to run for Congress and supported Obama as her successor. But after Palmer's congressional campaign hit some trouble, she decided to run for re-election to the Illinois Senate after all. Obama refused to step aside and found himself in a battle for survival. One of his volunteers challenged the legality of Palmer's nominating petitions, as well as the petitions of other candidates; Palmer dropped out, and the other candidates were disqualified. Obama won unopposed in the Democratic primary—guaranteeing victory in the general election. "The whole episode showed that Obama was an extraordinarily ambitious young man willing to do whatever it took to advance not only his agenda of community empowerment but his own political career," wrote Mendell in Obama: From Promise to Power. Adds a current adviser: "Some say it was coldhearted, but it shows that if he has to pull the trigger, he will."

Building relationships. His South Side district was economically diverse, including some of the poorest black areas and public housing projects but also many areas with mixed-race families and middle- and upper-middle-class households. From the start of his elective career, he preached accommodation and said that his constituents were "hungry for change"—an echo of the theme that has been the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

He worked with like-minded whites and preferred to operate within the power structure rather than practice the confrontational politics favored by activists of all stripes in Chicago.

Seeking to cultivate as many relationships as he could, Obama took up golf, because so much business was conducted on the fairways. He established close connections with key legislators in Springfield, the state capital. He joined a weekly poker game with other senators. He showed his potential when the Senate overwhelmingly passed a controversial law he sponsored on campaign finance reform in May 1998, prohibiting legislators from raising campaign funds on state property and from accepting gifts from lobbyists and state contractors.