A shining star named Obama
How a most unlikely politician became a darling of the Democrats
SPRINGFIELD, Ill.--The day after the oddest of sex scandals drove his GOP opponent out of the race for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama sat in his campaign office here, assessing his circumstances--the sudden elevation to political superstardom, the cascade of campaign cash, and the favorable, almost fawning, attention that has now yielded a prized invitation to deliver the keynote address at this week's Democratic National Convention. "A useful quality I have," he says, "is that the more things seem to be breaking my way, the more stressed I get."
The stress, by now, must be unbearable. In addition to the stage that comes with the convention keynote address, Obama now has a seemingly unobstructed shot at a seat in the U.S. Senate: Illinois Republicans are still scrambling to find a candidate for the seat now held by retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. Investment banker Jack Ryan won the GOP primary but dropped out last month after unsealed divorce records revealed accusations from his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, that he took her, unwillingly, to sex clubs. Republicans say they aren't conceding and vow that when they do get a candidate, Obama's voting record will be the issue. "He's very liberal on criminal justice," says Sen. George Allen, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "And he voted against tax cuts."
But for the moment, what was once a long-shot campaign by an obscure state senator with a funny name--"Some people call me Alabama," he confides--has come to resemble a runaway freight train. "The thing I worry most about is overconfidence," Obama says, but in politics, fear of overconfidence is a rather nice cross to bear. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama writes: "I . . . like to think of myself as wise to the world, careful not to expect too much."
But expectations are running high. Even back home, the rhetoric has turned a bit breathless: One local columnist, barely joking, contends that if Obama wins, he will be the best political talent that Illinois has sent to Washington since Abe Lincoln.
In truth, if he does win, he will become only the third African-American to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction. Obama, 42, graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the Law Review. He and his wife, Michelle, also a Harvard Law grad, have two young daughters. Obama lectures on constitutional law at the University of Chicago and is chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee in the state Senate, where he has developed a reputation as a straight-shooting dealmaker who pushed expansion of health insurance for children and championed a law that requires police interrogations of murder suspects to be videotaped. "He will tell you where he is on the issues," says state Sen. William Haine, a Vietnam veteran who introduced Obama at the state Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in June.
The thing Democrats seem to love most about Obama is his life story, a uniquely American tale. He was born in Hawaii, the son of a Kenyan father he never really knew and a white mother from Kansas. His parents met and married while students at the University of Hawaii. His father left the family when Obama was 2 to pursue a Ph.D. in economics at Harvard. But then he returned to Africa and never came back. In 1982, he died in a car wreck in Kenya, leaving the 21-year-old Obama with many questions. As a child, the only family he knew--his mother and his grandparents--were white. "What I think serves me well," Obama says, "is that I literally have a little piece of everybody in me. I'm black. I'm white. I have a sister who is half-Indonesian. That gives me a level of empathy to people that is useful in politics. When I see some of those guys in the VFW hall, those are my grandfathers. If I see a little black girl, those are my daughters." He intends to speak to and for all of those constituencies when he takes center stage at the convention in Boston this week.
This story appears in the August 2, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.