There could hardly be a more auspicious time to inaugurate a series on women and minorities in politics. The two Democratic frontrunners in the presidential race at press time are Barack Obama and Hillary
Clinton. Condoleezza Rice is Secretary of State, the second woman (after Madeleine Albright) and first African American woman to hold the position. The nation is consumed with the immigration issue and with what higher population growth rates for ‘‘minorities’’—whether achieved through fertility or immigration, legal or illegal—will mean for an evolving American identity. The ‘‘gender gap’’ in electoral politics is now a quarter century old. It would seem to be a good time to take stock.
Focusing on the roles played (and not yet played) by women and minorities in politics allows us to see the American political landscape through an exciting array of prisms, adding texture and richness to our understanding of America. This series has a simple but compelling purpose: to consider the impact of minorities’ and women’s involvement in all aspects of American politics.
This series is dedicated not only to women and minorities who themselves directly involved in are elected politics as politicians, candidates, or community leaders. We have taken a deliberate tack toward a broader definition of political action that includes but is not limited to electoral politics, social and political movements, interest group activities, and the role of voting blocs in American elections. Thus this series can claim the ambitious privilege of considering those who have gained access to institutional power, as well as constituents of that power.
At times, such as in this book, our view of the subject will be decidedly biographical, focusing deeply on a particular figure who strikes an impressive image. With other books in the series, we will consider whole movements, political trends, and significant advances in the political status of groups once considered political outsiders.
The current and future impact of minorities and women on American politics is tremendous. As women reach near-parity in some state legislatures, and ethnic minorities gain greater voice in political institutions, the implications for public policy, models of leadership, and electoral politics are transformative. The measure of these new voices in the
American political realm is the objective of this series.
U.S. Senator Barack Obama makes a fascinating study for the political observer. As only the fifth African American to serve in the U.S. Senate, and one of the nation’s most compelling voices on issues of justice and diversity, Senator Obama’s story of service, leadership, and his meteoric rise to political fame create a multifaceted window into this series.
All good political stories are complex, and a series dedicated to diversity, as this one is, serves as a proper setting for exploring such complexities. The present book is no exception. As Dupuis and Boeckelman reveal, Senator Obama is both icon and enigma, which may explain his instant appeal in American culture. Dashing and cerebral, humble and self-assured, young and wise, this figure challenges many preconceived categories crafted for the American political class. This book does justice both to the man and to the country who watches him, by observing both his unique rise to power and his seemingly blithe transcendence of the expected.
Dupuis and Boeckelman’s book stands out among a growing industry of books about this fascinating political star by documenting the rise of this unique individual. Through engaging prose, the authors have captured the early political career of Senator Obama, analyzing his race for United States Senate and the media’s and public’s assessments of his record in that chamber.
What is quickly apparent through this tale of rapid political success is that this man breaks down barriers. Born of mixed race, Senator Obama defies traditional racial characterization, preferring instead to identify widely with many Americans, and refusing to be defined by others. His politics favors traditional liberal public policy, while his considerable oratorical talent conveys a sentiment not unfamiliar to conservatives.
By observing the senator’s early electoral habits, Dupuis and Boeckelman allow the reader to draw conclusions about his current presidential bid. The authors analyze Senator Obama’s fundraising patterns and prowess, his willingness to engage new media, his distinctive rhetorical style, and public opinion poll data from both local and statewide races, allowing the reader to understand more clearly the senator’s current election chances.
A relative newcomer to politics rarely wins the White House, and a person of color has not yet assumed the Oval Office. That fact is perhaps why this book and the series it initiates are so well timed: now, more than ever in American history, a minority just might ascend to the highest level of political office. Barack Obama, the New Face of American Politics conveys the appeal of the magnetic candidate who draws large numbers of donors to his campaign, and whose following has grown with a speed and enthusiasm unparalleled in recent elections. Whether this candidate can leverage his considerable talents and translate his pop-culture following and senate record into the Democratic presidential nomination remains to be seen. But to be the first African American candidate to become a viable contender for the nomination—and thus, for the presidency—speaks to the man, to the political moment, and the significance of our series.
I thank my family and friends who have stood by me for more than a year as I researched, outlined, drafted, edited, researched some more, re-wrote, and re-edited this manuscript. Many thanks to my family—Jan and Don Dupuis; Alison, Mark, J. D., Samantha, and Ben Clemence; and the Thomas’ for all your love and encouragement. Mike Dively, Tom and Ginny Helm, and Lisa Logan, thank you again for your support. Sara Boeckelman’s research and writing skills are much appreciated, and her contribution to chapter 7 is especially noted.
Elisa Rasmussen’s editing efforts and Michael T. Callahan’s computer expertise helped improve the text. Collaborating with my undergraduate research assistants was rewarding, and many thanks go out to them: Ashley Eberley, Jeremy Roth, and Jennie Zilner. Finally, thank you to my colleagues at the University of Central Florida; you demonstrate a dedication to learning and scholarship that is inspiring.
I thank my family for their support of and interest in this book, especially my wife Sara, who not only read and commented on the manuscript, but provided encouragement and love. I also thank my parents, Leroy and Jayne Boeckelman, my sister and brother-in-law Amy and Tim Hohulin, and my nieces Emma and Ellie Hohulin for their backing during this project. At Western Illinois University, Charles Helm, former chair of the political science department, supported my efforts, including helping me obtain a sabbatical leave for the fall semester of 2006. All of my colleagues in the political science department at Western Illinois University have provided encouragement, for which I am extremely grateful. I would particularly like to thank Richard Hardy, the current department chair, for his helpful advice on how to bring this book to fruition, Erin Taylor for reading part of the manuscript, and Janna Deitz for her input and willingness to talk through issues related to this project. Our department secretary, Debbie Wiley, helped facilitate manuscript preparation and communicating with the publisher in her usual efficient fashion. My graduate assistant Ruben Perta provided much-needed assistance in tracking down obscure facts and data. Bart Ellefritz helped me get prime access to key Obama events. I would like to thank the few Obama campaign aides and other Obama associates who did agree to be interviewed. Their insights enriched the book greatly.
From the South Side to Statewide
At the beginning of 2004, Barack Obama was an almost unknown Illinois state legislator and a candidate for the U.S. Senate whom a mere 15 percent of likely voters in the state’s Democratic primary favored. Among the many electoral challenges he faced, he had to make it clear to the public that, despite the similarity in their names; he was not Osama bin Laden. By the end of 2004, he had not only won his U.S. Senate election by the largest margin in Illinois history, but had become a ‘‘rock-star’’ politician who had captured the imagination of voters and the media nationwide. Thus, in less than a year he went from battling to gain name recognition to entertaining speculation that he would become the nation’s first black president. On February 12, 2007, he took the next step in announcing his bid for the presidency in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois.
This book examines Barack Obama’s rise to fame and what it means for American politics. Obama has captured America’s imagination because his story reflects many of the most positive beliefs that permeate American culture: that plucky underdogs can triumph, that the
American dream of success is open to immigrants and their children if they work hard, that racism is fading. He also appeals to Americans searching for common ground in an era of political division and hyper partisanship and gives them hope that wealth, nepotism, and negative campaigning are not the only tickets to success in contemporary politics.
No one is perfect, and it is native to expect one person to ‘‘fix’’ American politics. In fact, we believe that institutional change is more likely to lead to political salvation than is changing the players. Nevertheless, we do believe that Obama’s style of campaigning, his work in the Senate, and his message inspire confidence and hope and are worth emulating for the sake of a healthy democracy. In contrast to the mudslinging and shrill and irrelevant messages voters have become used to, positive, issue-oriented campaigning and rhetoric help restore faith in democracy, particularly inspiring the poor and minorities to participate in politics.
We wrote this book because we, too, find Obama’s persona and message compelling. Like many, we have become disgusted with the pettiness of campaigns and the irrelevance of much contemporary political debate. Although we do not believe that he is the political messiah that some media coverage makes him out to be, we remember our own excitement when Obama visited Macomb, Illinois, the small college town where we lived and worked when this book began. People who are normally turned off by politics and politicians are drawn to Obama, which, we believe, is a healthy development.
Our analysis focuses almost entirely on Obama’s public career and the events surrounding it, through his presidential announcement in early 2007, especially on his 2004 senate campaign and his first two years in the chamber. We have no doubt that there will be many accounts of his historic campaign for chief executive. Those searching for the ‘‘inner Obama’’ should read his own books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. That said, this chapter provides a brief overview of Obama’s life before his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign.
We provide a brief biographical overview and then focus more closely on his activities in his first elected position as an Illinois state senator.
Chapter 2 considers the Democratic senate primary, where Obama pulled off a come-from-behind victory over formidable opponents. The wild general election race where Obama briefly faced off with Jack Ryan before defeating the inimitable Alan Keyes in the first U.S. Senate race between two African Americans is the focus of chapter 3. Chapter 4 delves into Obama’s somewhat surprising ability to raise large amounts of money, while chapter 5 takes a closer at the role of the media in the campaign, including his innovative use of on-line technology. Chapter 6 examines how Obama’s race has affected his political career. Chapter 7 explores Obama’s first two years in the U.S. Senate, where he has tried to balance his instinct for bipartisanship with the demands of being a rising star in the Democratic Party, while also attending to the interests of his Illinois constituents. The following chapter takes a closer look at his message, both in the campaign and as he has refined it in office, focusing particularly on how he conceives the American Dream, his efforts to uplift politics and political rhetoric, and his ‘‘post-partisan’’ political stance. The concluding chapter analyzes the lessons of Obama’s political career to date and examines his prospects for higher office.
Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, the son of a Kenyan father, also named Barack, and a Kansas-born mother who met as students at the University of Hawaii. His parents divorced after his father left to pursue graduate work at Harvard when Obama was two years old.
Father and son would meet only one more time before the elder Barack Obama died in a 1982 car accident after returning to Kenya. His mother remarried a native of Indonesia, where Obama lived between the ages of six and ten. Despite his youth, living in Indonesia made him aware of issues of poverty and inequality. In a newspaper interview many years later he noted, ‘‘It left a very strong mark on me living there, because you got a real sense of just how poor folks can get. You’d have some army general with 24 cars … but on the next block you’d have children with distended bellies who just couldn’t eat.’’ He later returned to
Hawaii and attended a prestigious prep school, the Punahu Academy.
As he describes in his autobiography Dreams from My Father,h e struggled with his racial identity throughout his high school years. Living with a white mother and grandparents and attending a predominantly white school, he found it difficult to navigate between black and white worlds. He endured racial slurs from a basketball coach, among others, leading him to conclude:
We were always playing on the white man’s court … by the white man’s rules. If the principal, or the coach, or a teacher, or Kurt, wanted to spit in your face, he could, because he had the power and you didn’t.… What-ever he decided to do, it was his decision to make, not yours, and because of that fundamental power he held over you … any distinction between good and bad whites held negligible meaning.… And the final irony:
Should you refuse this defeat and lash out at your captors, they would have a name for that, too, a name that could cage you just as good. Paranoid. Militant. Violent. Nigger.
Compounding his alienation, his African American friends did not consider him to be completely one of them, charging that he had to learn how to be black from books. His confusion led him to experiment with illegal drugs during his teenage years, writing that ‘‘pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it.’’ Later accounts by school contemporaries suggest that his alienation did not appear as outwardly pronounced at the time as he reported it to be in his autobiography.
In 1979 he left Hawaii to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles. He continued to struggle with issues of identity, but became involved in political activity, protesting the university’s investments in companies doing business in the apartheid-era government of South Africa. His efforts led him to realize that he was an effective public speaker, even as he felt ambivalent about whether his words had much impact. After two years, he transferred to Columbia University in New York, where he majored in political science. During his time there, he became more academically focused, to the extent that some of his friends concluded that he was becoming a ‘‘bore.’’
Obama graduated from Columbia in 1983. After a stint at a multinational consulting firm in New York, he moved to Chicago in 1985 to work as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project, focusing on issues like jobs and public housing in the inner city. His decision to pursue community activism reflected his belief, inspired by the civil rights movement, that grassroots, bottom-up efforts were the key to social change. Obama’s immersion in street-level community organizing taught him valuable, if sometimes frustrating, lessons about politics.
Perhaps most importantly, he found that achieving the ‘‘common good’’ was an elusive goal. As he began his work, he embraced a populist ideal of the concept, believing that it is possible to solve problems if ‘‘you could just clear away the politicians, and media, and bureaucrats, and give everybody a seat at the table.’’ Of course, he found that removing these annoyances is impossible. Those with power blocked his efforts and he discovered that approaching the table in the first place is not that appealing or interesting to most citizens. He became increasingly aware of the slow pace of change and the systematic and psychological obstacles to achieving his progressive vision. In a rumination on Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor, he described inner-city life as a ‘‘trap’’ with a ‘‘sad history, part of a closed system with few moving parts, a system that was losing heat every day, drop-ping into low-level stasis.’’
He described the frustrations of overcoming seemingly petty individual agendas driven by ‘‘fear and small greeds.’’ He lamented the public housing complex manager who lied about potential asbestos dangers in tenant apartments and a high school principal who would only support a program for schools if Obama would consider his wife and daughter for jobs. As another example, he pointed to the housing project official who ‘‘spent most of her time protecting the small prerogatives that came with her office: a stipend and a seat at the yearly banquet; the ability to see that her daughter got a choice appointment, her nephew a job in the CHA bureaucracy.’’
These experiences led him to realize the ineffability of the concept of the common good and that conflict and differing world views are the essence of politics. With a degree of resignation, he noted in his autobiography that ‘‘in politics, like religion, power lay in certainty, and that one man’s certainty always threatens another’s.’’ In his frustration, he began to feel like a ‘‘prisoner of fate.’’ Ultimately, however, he came to appreciate the small victories, such as cleaning up a park or creating a jobs program. His immersion in the larger Chicago political milieu of corruption and racial conflict helped him develop a pragmatic approach to politics that has been evident in his subsequent career. Objectively, he also succeeded in building the organization itself, increasing its budget from $70,000 to $400,000 and its staff from one to thirteen people.
In 1988 Obama left Chicago to attend Harvard Law School, where he became the first African American president (editor) of the university’s law review. Foreshadowing his later political career, he won election, in part, by reaching out to conservatives. After graduating, he returned to Chicago to practice civil rights law, and he later began teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. In 1990, he married Michelle Robinson, whom he had met when he was a summer intern at the law firm of Sidley and Austin.
He remained active in community affairs, working, for example, with the Annenberg foundation to improve public schools. In 1992, he headed a voter registration effort called ‘‘Project Vote’’ that registered 150,000 new African American voters for that year’s election, helping Bill Clinton win Illinois and also generating votes for Illinois’ first African American U.S. Senator, Carol Moseley-Braun. In the midst of this effort he commented, ‘‘today we see hundreds of young blacks talking ‘black power’ and wearing Malcolm X T-shirts, but they don’t bother to register and vote. We remind them that Malcolm once made a speech entitled ‘The Ballot or the Bullet,’ and today we’ve got enough bullets in the streets but not enough ballots.’’
Obama entered elective politics with his successful run for the state senate in 1996. He represented District 13, on the south side of Chicago, an area with some racially integrated middle class neighborhoods around the University of Chicago, as well as poorer African American areas to the west. (After the 2001 redistricting, it became a somewhat more affluent and racially mixed district that stretched along the south-side lakefront.) His bid began with a small controversy. The incumbent state senator, Alice Palmer, had decided not to run for reelection, opting to run for a Congressional seat that was vacated in mid-term and supporting Obama as her successor. After losing in the primary, she attempted to reenter the race for her old seat. Because of her late decision, there were questions about whether some of the signatures on her nominating petitions were valid. After Obama challenged the petitions, she withdrew from the race and later withdrew her support from Obama as well. In a similar fashion, he knocked his three other Democratic rivals out of the race. His aides questioned the validity of their petitions, a move that some attributed to Obama’s mastery of the ‘‘bare-knuckle arts of Chicago electoral politics,’’ although he appears to have had some misgivings about such hardball tactics at the time.
After eliminating his primary opposition, he faced only two weak opponents in the general election. Nevertheless, some on the left criticized him as a candidate with ‘‘impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neo-liberal policies.’’ At the same time, Obama complained that Democratic Party officials who supported his campaign were too concerned about the ‘‘business’’ side of politics, such as whether he would be able to raise money, rather than where he stood on issues. He went on to serve in the Illinois Senate through 2004, easily winning reelection in 1998 and running unopposed in 2002.
Despite its obscurity, Obama found service in the state legislature appealing because of the ability to achieve concrete results on issues he cared about, such as health insurance for the poor. He later wrote that ‘‘within the capitol building of a big, industrial state, one sees every day the face of a nation in conversation: inner city mothers and corn and bean farmers, immigrant day laborers alongside suburban investment bankers—all jostling to be heard, all ready to tell their stories.’’ In his early years, he was viewed as a promising legislator, but one who also sometimes found it difficult to stomach the slow pace of the legislative process and the necessity for compromise. Even Republicans, however, recognized his potential. His colleague Kirk Dillard said, ‘‘I knew from the day he walked into this chamber that he was destined for great things.… Obama is an extraordinary man, his intellect, his charisma …he can really work with Republicans.’’ He was known for his ability to master the details of legislation, as well as for his phenomenal memory.
The latter quality enabled him to anticipate problems with bills because of his familiarity with how similar initiatives had fared in the past. He benefited from an important mentor, then minority leader (later senate president) Emil Jones, who promoted Obama’s prospects by assigning one of his legislative assistants to help the new senator with press relations and to position him for higher office.
A turning point in his career occurred in 1999. During the fall veto session he missed a vote on a highly publicized, and ultimately narrowly defeated, anticrime measure supported by Governor George Ryan and
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley that would have made illegal possession of a gun a felony. His absence occurred when he prolonged a family vacation to Hawaii after his daughter fell ill with the flu, despite pleas to return and the offer of a state plane to come pick him up. After enduring widespread criticism for this incident, Obama seems to have rededicated himself to becoming an effective legislator, especially after the Democrats took over the body in 2003. He was widely praised, for example, for his work on death penalty reform and his ability to bring reluctant prosecutors and police to the table and persuade them to support mandatory recording of murder suspects’ interrogations.
During his time in the U.S. Senate, he served on the Public Health and Welfare (later Health and Human Services) and Judiciary Committees, rising to chair the former during his last two years. As a committee chair, he was known as someone who was open to ideas from all committee members, including Republicans. As an example, he supported emphasizing tax credits as a way to help the needy. In 2000 he cosponsored a plan to create a tax credit for donations that helped build or rehabilitate affordable housing.
A good deal of the legislation he authored during his time in the state legislature reflected interests related to these two committees. In the area of health, he sponsored the unsuccessful Bernadin amendment, named after the popular Cardinal of Chicago, which would have provided a constitutional guarantee of health insurance to all Illinois residents. Regarding welfare, he sponsored legislation creating an earned income tax credit for Illinois and bringing welfare reform to the state.
In the criminal justice area, in addition to his work on the death penalty, he was able, after several tries, to pass legislation monitoring racial profiling.
Another area of emphasis was political reform. During his first term, he successfully sponsored ethics legislation developed by former U.S. Senator Paul Simon that limited political fundraising during legislative sessions and on state property, while restricting the personal use of campaign funds. Other legislation in this realm includes his unsuccessful efforts in the wake of the 2000 election to improve voting systems by allowing voters to replace spoiled ballots and to implement electronic voting systems. He was successful, however, in passing legislation requiring local governments to tape closed meetings.
His legislative voting record was generally liberal, perhaps reflecting the nature of his district as much as his own ideological makeup. In his first two-year term, for example, he had received a 100 percent rating from the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.
During this period, he also supported the Democratic Party 100 percent of the time on votes that entailed partisan divisions. Nevertheless, he also showed an independent bent, sometimes going against the well-founded lobbying groups that dominate the Illinois legislature. For example, he voted against major legislation to expand gambling in the state and opposed a successful effort, later declared unconstitutional, to provide a monopoly on liquor distribution that benefited a few powerful wholesalers. Admittedly, this independence probably came easier to him than to some other members, given the ‘‘safe’’ district he ran from and the fact that he had little need to raise money to protect against a well-funded opponent. In his 1996 campaign, he spent $23,493, compared to over $400,000 for four other first-time senators.
Although he often opposed legislation that would subsidize one firm or industry, Obama compiled a somewhat more pro-business voting record than one might expect. In his first term he received a 91 percent support score from the Illinois Farm Bureau and a 75 percent rating from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. This compares to 67 percent support for the Farm Bureau and 61 percent for the Chamber among thirteen other senators whose districts were primarily in Chicago. In fact, only one city-based senator had a more pro-Chamber of Commerce voting record, and none supported the Farm Bureau more than Obama.
The six other black senators, on average, supported the Farm Bureau 71 percent of the time and the Chamber of Commerce 56 percent of the time. Obama’s relatively pro-business record continued throughout his term. In his last two years in the state senate (2003–2004), he supported the Chamber of Commerce more than any other Democrat from the city of Chicago, albeit less than any Republican. Although he voted with them only 20 percent of the time, a mere two other senate
Democrats, out of thirty-three statewide, supported the Chamber more. Obama also sometimes voted ‘‘present’’ on controversial social issues such as abortion and gun control. Fellow state senators attributed this strategy to a ‘‘calculating’’ streak in Obama and see it as early evidence of his ambitions for higher office. These votes had the same impact as a ‘‘no’’ vote, but provided more political ‘‘cover.’’ A ‘‘present’’ vote during his second term on legislation requiring parental notification of abortion would later become an issue in his U.S. Senate race.
Early in his state legislative career, Obama began to set his sights on higher office. After his first year as a state senator, he toured southern Illinois to test the waters for a possible statewide candidacy. In 2000, he challenged Congressman Bobby Rush for his seat representing Illinois’ First Congressional District. The district has a storied history, as it has had a black Representative since 1929 when Oscar DePriest took office, the longest continuous representation by an African American of any district in the country. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor and a hero to the city’s African American voters, also represented the district. Primarily rooted in the south side of Chicago, the district also included some voters from the southwest suburbs, and its makeup was about 30 percent white.
Although he had few issue differences with the incumbent, Obama argued that Rush had failed to provide leadership for the district, did not deliver government benefits effectively, and was ‘‘out-of-touch.’’
Obama intimated that he represented a new generation of black politicians, focused on progress rather than protest. For his part, former
Black Panther Rush challenged Obama’s authenticity to represent the predominantly African American district by labeling him a ‘‘Harvard educated carpetbagger.’’ This line of attack seemed to work, as some voters thought Obama ‘‘a bit too exotic for the district,’’ whereas Rush’s more humble background was a better fit. Obama obtained the support of some black ministers, some white elected officials in the suburban part of the district, an organization representing liberal independent voters, and the Chicago Tribune. Rush, however, benefited from the endorsements of high-profile political figures such as Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton. The African American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, also endorsed Rush, arguing that ‘‘Representative Rush deserves another term to further his agenda … and use his blooming clout in D.C. His opponents Barack Obama and Donne E. Trotter are both highly qualified, but … a U.S. Congressional run might be better advised for another time in the future.’’ In the March primary, which was the key race in the overwhelmingly Democratic district, Rush crushed Obama, winning 61 percent to Obama’s 30 percent, with two other candidates taking the remaining votes. Obama ran well in the suburban part of the district, winning nearly two-thirds of the vote, as well as three-fourths in the far southwest-side Nineteenth Ward, fore- shadowing his ability to attract white voters.
Despite his somewhat humbling loss, Obama maintained his reputation as a rising political star, who was viewed as a potential candidate for statewide office or a future mayor of Chicago. His support among African Americans, liberal voters, and independents formed the basis for a potentially potent political coalition. At the same time, he began to find his work as a state senator less satisfying, too removed from the power to address major national issues such as jobs, health care, and national security. In running for the U.S. Senate, he developed an ‘‘up or out strategy,’’ whereby if he failed to achieve higher office, he would pursue a more family-friendly-career.