Despite his high-profile campaign and celebrity acclaim, Barack Obama arrived in Washington ranked ninety-ninth out of one hundred senators. All eyes were upon him—some expecting brilliance and innovation, others waiting for a blunder to mar his enviable image .As Jeff Zeleny of the Chicago Tribune observed ,‘ ‘ He will not have the luxury of learning in obscurity.’’ Obama himself commented, ‘‘Given all the hype surrounding my election, I hope people have gotten a sense that I am here to do work and not just chase cameras. The collateral benefit is that people really like me. I’m not some prima donna.’’
Obama’s first year was considered low-key by most political observers. He seemed to have taken a page from Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book and kept a low, more deferential profile than his fame deemed necessary. He stressed that he was there to learn and quickly made alliances with more senior senators on a variety of issues. Nevertheless, other Democratic senators were quick to capitalize on Obama’s fame, using him to raise money and visibility for less well-known candidates, although he admitted to feeling like he was being ‘‘used as a prop’’ at these rallies and news conferences. In addition, his position as the
Senate’s only African American member and his presidential ambitions may have shaped his agenda. Like any senator, Obama’s first tasks were to show he understood the concerns of his state.
Obama, despite speculation about his presidential ambitions, was always clear about his desire to be a good senator and to represent the people of Illinois. He explained, ‘‘I don’t think humility is contradictory with ambition. I feel very humble about what I don’t know. But I’m plain ambitious in terms of wanting to actually deliver some benefit for the people of Illinois.’’
He was assigned to three committees: Environment and Public Works, Veterans Affairs, and Foreign Relations. His membership on the first two committees provided a venue for promoting home state concerns. Obama lobbied for a $2.5 billion locks and dams project for Illinois Rivers. In another drive for his home state, Obama blocked Environmental Protection Agency nominees until they took a stronger stance on lead paint regulations, which is a prevalent issue in Chicago homes.
He also pushed administration officials for more pay for veterans in Illinois. Obama was appalled to learn that Illinois’ disabled veterans received some of the lowest benefits in the country. He and Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, worked to increase veterans’ benefits and were not afraid to speak out against uncooperative Veteran Administration officials. This increased the respect both veterans and other Illinois residents had for Obama.
Overall, his activism for his state has translated into powerful support from Illinois citizens. In a Tribune/WGN-TV poll taken during his first year, Obama scored high approval ratings. Obama had a 72 percent approval rating nine months into his term, with Republican respondents giving him a 57 percent approval rating. In May 2005, Obama’s approval rating was still high, at 59 percent overall, while 42 percent of Republicans supported his performance as a senator. Obama boasted, ‘‘Illinois is serving notice to the rest of the country that Democrats can do well.’’ In 2005, Obama was the most popular senator in the country based on job approval rating by constituents.
Energy costs are always an important issue to voters. Ethanol is a hot issue in Illinois, as the state is a giant producer of corn in this country. Senator Obama proposed legislation to give a tax break to build E85 ethanol fueling stations around the nation. It would be a
30 percent tax credit, providing $30,000 to install E85 pumps. At the time this legislation was proposed, Illinois had six ethanol plants and another one in progress. In 2004, Illinois produced 875 million gallons of E85 using 325 million bushels of corn. Obama promised to keep Illinois issues on his agenda, and this legislation proved he was keeping his word to his constituents. Obama stated, ‘‘We’ve talked too long about energy independence in this country. E85 gives us an opportunity to actually get something done about it.’’
E85 is made from 85 percent corn-based ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. The war in Iraq made many Americans much more serious about alternative fuel sources. As Obama stated, ‘‘If you turn on the news you can see that our dependence on foreign oil is keeping us tied to one of the most dangerous and unstable regions in the world. We need to develop a comprehensive plan to make America energy-independent.’’ Many Americans also see using alternative fuels as a smart way to start competing in the global economy. E85 fuel could be a smart move financially for this country. Obama supported this position, stating, ‘‘Now is the opportunity to get this done; not only for the future of our farmers, the future of our economy and the future of our environment, but to make our country a place that is independent and innovative enough to control its own energy future.’’
The state of Illinois is seen by many political observers as having particularly strong representation. As Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) quipped, ‘‘Illinois is blessed and the rest of the country is envious. They have the one-two punch in the United States Senate.’’ That ‘‘one-two punch’’ is Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, and Barack Obama. Obama fashioned himself as Durbin’s student.
Durbin has been a member of the U.S. Senate representing Illinois since 1997. More than half of Illinois voters have a good opinion of him, and he is well respected by other members of Congress. Durbin and Obama meet weekly for ‘‘coffee and constituents’’ meetings while Congress is in session. Working as a team, Durbin and Obama recommended a federal judge to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-IL). An opening on the Chicago bench created an opportunity for the three Illinois congressmen to act bipartisanly to fill the vacancy.
Obama was a hot ticket on the speakers circuit, with hundreds of requests daily for appearances from him. Obama, keeping Illinois at the forefront, would speak at commencement ceremonies only in his own state during his first year in the Senate. He chose to speak at Knox College in Galesburg, the University Of Chicago School Of Medicine, and an elementary school on the southwest side of Chicago. Obama’s press secretary Julian Green stated simply, ‘‘We wanted to make sure that we went to the various parts of Illinois, not just Chicago; including the southern half.’’ Obviously, Obama has since increased his national visibility, giving speeches all across the country as he runs for president.
Obama and Durbin also requested $47.6 million from the Bush administration for low-income families unable to pay their high energy bills during the scorching summer temperatures of 2005. Farmers also received some relief from the heat, as Durbin and Obama requested and obtained federal disaster relief for them. Obama said, ‘‘After a summer of extreme heat and drought conditions, I am pleased that the president has granted our request to give hard-working Illinois farmers some much-deserved relief.’’ Obama even attended the Farm Aid concert given to aid Gulf Coast farmers after Hurricane Katrina. Illinois road were also attended to, with $286.4 billion passing both houses of Congress in the five-year plan of the Transportation Enhancement Act. Of his friend Obama, Dick Durbin has crowed, ‘‘Hang on tight, they ain’t seen nothing yet.’’
Barack Obama’s racial identity puts him in a position to be a spokes-man on issues related to race and social justice. He continues to emphasize issues he has cared about since his years as a state senator, such as education. More prominently, he has emerged as a leading spokesman on issues of social injustice, such as voting rights and the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. Obama was an outspoken critic of the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. Senate is not known for its socioeconomic diversity, and Obama is only the third African American senator since Reconstruction. He was quick to squelch cries of racism as the reason for the slow and inept governmental response to the hurricane’s aftermath. Obama blamed ‘‘bureaucratic blindness,’’ not racism for the fiasco.
More vocal in his second year, Obama spoke out against the $236 million deal with Carnival Cruise Lines to house displaced victims.
Along with Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), one of the most conservative members of the Senate, Obama publicly asked why this exorbitant amount was given to Carnival when the country of Greece had offered ships as free aid to American victims. The Federal Emergency Management Agency said the deal was signed with Carnival the day before the Greek ships were offered. At the time, these cruise ships sat mostly empty. When they were used, it was to house government workers more than actual evacuees. The last thing these hurricane survivors wanted was a home floating in open water. Obama stated that this ‘‘is merely the latest example of poor decision-making from FEMA.’’
Obama and Coburn proposed legislation to appoint a federal watch-dog to oversee reconstruction spending in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Congress pledged up to $200 billion for this purpose. Of these reconstruction efforts by the Bush administration, Obama stated, ‘‘In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, I think it’s important that we don’t just assume that George Bush is lying when he says he’s finally been awakened to the fact that there is poverty and racism in our midst. It’s tempting to do so, especially when he decides to put Karl Rove in charge of reconstruction.’’ Obama, however, did not hold
Republicans solely responsible for the incompetence after Hurricane
Katrina. He said both parties had an obligation to hold the White House accountable. He shared the blame, confessing, ‘‘I share the anger and I share the outrage. But what I also want to do is accept some responsibility.… We’ve been a little complacent.’’ This accountability included an admission that New Orleans had faced problems for years, and no one had done anything to prevent this tragedy from occurring.
Obama said, ‘‘I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, and inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.’’
Obama feels strongly about the importance of education in this country. The first bill he introduced in the Senate was legislation that would increase the maximum dollar amount a recipient of the Pell Grant could receive to $5,100 a year, up from $4,050. He felt that this raise would help low-income students better afford college tuitions.
Obama looks at education as a civil rights challenge. This issue is deeply tied to his racial identity, because most of the worst schools are heavily populated with minority students. Outsourcing and globalization are adding to the economic competition for our young people.
American students face new challenges on the home front as well.
Television and video games have replaced the pleasure of a good book.
As Obama put it, ‘‘Our kids aren’t just seeing these temptations at home, they’re seeing them everywhere. Whether it’s their friends’ house or the people they see on television or a general culture that glorifies anti-intellectualism, so that we have a president that brags about getting Cs. It trickles down, that attitude.’’ Obama campaigned on improving education as a part of his platform, and upon winning the election, he said, ‘‘It’s a promise I intend to keep in Washington.’’
The issue of voters’ rights is extremely important to Barack Obama.
As an African American, he understands the hardships people for generations have endured to secure the right to vote in the United States. He supported the extension of the Voting Rights Act. He felt that discrimination still exists, and the government must have the proper laws to counteract it. Both Democrats and Republicans supported this extension. Many lawmakers, including Obama, were adamant that federal supervision was still a necessary protection for voting minorities, especially in the southern states. Obama charged that, ‘‘Despite the progress these states have made in upholding the right to vote, it is clear the problems still exist.’’
The importance of voting rights was underscored by another position taken by Senator Obama. The issue was the proposed legislation to require photo identification in order to vote. He opposed this requirement, pointing out that it would adversely affect minorities, the poor, the disabled, and the elderly. Minorities disproportionately lack the funds needed to obtain state identification cards, as do the poorer segments of all races. The elderly and disabled often have difficulty maintaining their identification documents because of lack of transportation. These are people who are likely to vote for the Democratic Party, and this mandatory regulation would adversely affect turnout and obstruct the democratic process.
Obama voted against the ‘‘Clear Skies’’ proposal advanced by the Bush administration. He stated it ‘‘would roll back key environmental protections and create new loopholes that could make pollution worse.’’ Obama’s vote was one of several key ‘‘no’’ votes against the bill. The bill proposed industry caps on mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide emissions, but neglected to cap carbon dioxide emissions, the main cause of global warming. Obama asserted that these measures were inadequate and would not protect citizens from air pollution. Senator Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI) lamented, ‘‘It’s a shame that the United States Congress is the last bastion of denial on climate change.’’
While most environmental groups are exceedingly pleased with Obama’s performance as a senator, some greens are skeptical of his support of liquefied coal as an energy source. Southern Illinois is a major producer of the nation’s coal, and many environmentalists believe that it is that, and not the coal itself, that makes this energy source so attractive to the senator. As pointed out previously in this chapter, he is very prone to promoting Illinois’ economic interests. Obama stated that liquefied coal is another energy source that can aid in U.S. energy independence. Environmentalists reply that it is still coal, which is a fossil fuel and not a clean-burning energy source.
Along with Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY), Obama endorsed the Coal- to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act of 2007. This bill supports new research and facilities that would allow coal to be converted to a diesel fuel that has the same emissions rating as gasoline. Some environmentalists see this as a contradiction that they cannot abide. They do not agree that the economic growth this fuel could provide counteracts the environmental damage it would cause. Obama saw his stance as a pragmatic one. Using energy sources from our own country will provide enough economic growth to fund research into cleaner, alternative fuel sources.
This position again highlights Obama’s willingness to work with both sides of an issue for a satisfactory outcome.
Part of this bipartisan effort included working on ethics reform with
Senator John McCain (R-AZ). Obama was assigned this contentious issue by then Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). Reid chose him specifically because of his lack of experience. As an outsider,
Obama would have a clearer view of what direction the reformation needed to take. His lack of entrenchment was seen as his greatest asset. The idea of ethics reform was nothing new to Obama. As a state senator, he was instrumental in implementing the first ethics reform measures in the state of Illinois in over twenty-five years. Obama took this cause seriously, and along with Senator Durbin, vowed to no longer accept gifts, meals, or travel from any lobbyists.
Some gifts are acceptable under the current congressional rules, but
Obama, in almost biblical fashion, wants to stay away from even the appearance of impropriety. McCain and Obama worked closely together on this issue, and their relationship had its ups and downs.
McCain became incensed at Obama for not backing the bipartisan ethics model they had spoken about, but Obama preferred the model his own party endorsed. McCain sent him a letter sharply criticizing this decision and called him ‘‘disingenuous.’’ McCain was the first senator to openly criticize Obama, and this did not enhance his own popularity. McCain was seen as unyielding and ‘‘grumpy,’’ while Obama was respected for standing up for his beliefs and for treating McCain with respect.’ People see John McCain as a prima donna. I think of him as a role model,’’ said Obama. McCain and Obama quickly reconciled and promised to deliver a plan that was best for America. They jokingly called themselves ‘‘pen pals’’ and continued to support bipartisan reform efforts. Soon, however, they became rivals for the U.S. presidency, as each is vying for his respective party’s backing. While he wants to work with Republicans to come up with viable bipartisan solutions, Obama is not afraid to speak his mind when he is in disagreement. ‘‘Look, I am a Democrat,’’ he said, ‘‘and I believe in the values of the Democratic Party. There are aspects of the Republican agenda that I strongly disagree with, and I won’t be afraid to say so.’’
The great number of Americans without health insurance coverage is a problem Obama sees as devastating for the entire country. He stated, ‘‘Today, the greatest single threat to the health of our nation is not a scarcity of genius or a failure of discovery; it is our inability, after years of talk and gridlock, to finally do something about the crushing cost of health care. As an African American, Obama is particularly concerned with the disparities in health between the races. Obama said that people should be discussing ‘‘how we are going to close the health disparities gap that exists, and make sure that African American life expectancy is as long as the rest of the nation.’’
Senator Obama also supported putting health-care records into on-line databases that physicians and other medical personnel can access immediately. No matter where patients are being treated, their entire medical histories can be at their attending doctors’ fingertips. Because medical errors cause up to ninety-eight thousand deaths a year in the United States, this type of technology could save countless lives.
Experts estimate that this would also save $140 billion per year, which in turn could lower health-care costs. This could go a long way in closing the gap in health-care quality in this country, and Obama believes this to be an essential part of the solution.
Barack Obama teamed up with Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) and promoted the importance of greater preparation for a possible avian flu outbreak. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was criticized by a bipartisan group of senators for its ‘‘failure to develop a comprehensive program to monitor for bird flu.’’ Bird flu is actually common in poultry flocks in the United States. It is the virulent Asian strain that is responsible for the avian flu deaths in human beings. The Asian strain has not been found in the United States, but it is only a matter of time before a disease such as this is able to mutate and spread globally.
Another concern is the insufficient supply of vaccine for the avian flu. Many states are adequately prepared, but several are vulnerable to an outbreak of epic proportions. Officials warned that a bird flu out- break ‘‘could rival or even surpass the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak that killed 50 million people, including 550,000 in the United States.’’ Senators banded together to recommend that the Bush administration work with the health industry, pharmaceutical companies, and the international community to establish a plan to stem the spread of avian ?u and other infectious diseases that affect the entire world population.
Obama is unique as a senator due to the fact that he has lived outside of the United States and is the son of an African. He has a global view that sets him apart and shapes his decision-making. He understands that problems that affect other countries can have consequences in the United States.
The most controversial vote Obama cast may be his support of the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005. This bill was heavily endorsed by President George W. Bush and the Republicans. Many pundits were surprised when Obama was one of eighteen Democrats to vote in favor of the legislation. This bill was strongly lobbied for by financial ?rms, and much of Obama’s campaign funding comes from these types of groups. Also, as an attorney, Obama has first-hand knowledge of such suits and their costs. Ken Silverstein said of this vote in the November 2006 issue of Harper’s:
He is really not a political warrior by temperament. He is not even, as the word is commonly understood, a liberal. He is in many respects a civic republican—a believer in civic good faith. These concepts are consonant with liberalism in many respects, but since the rise in the 1960s of a more aggressive, rights-based liberalism, which sometimes places particular claims for social justice ahead of a larger universal good, the two versions have existed in some tension.
Obama is able to look past narrow party line voting if he feels it is important.
Obama made headlines with his trip to Africa in August 2006. The trip was designed to highlight U.S. interests in the war-torn, AIDS-crippled continent. Obama said simply, ‘‘I’m going because Africa is important.’’ On Obama’s agenda were discussions on ending tribaldivisions, promoting women’s rights, increasing the quality of education, providing more efficient government services, and ending pervasive government corruption. Obama arrived in Africa as a celebrity coming home to his family and to his people. He hoped to use his new-found fame to influence Africans on these issues, but most importantly, to promote AIDS awareness.
AIDS is pervasive in sub-Saharan Africa. Five million people are infected with the HIV virus in South Africa alone. That translates to one in five people, with nine hundred South Africans dying each day from AIDS-related illnesses. The government is exacerbating the problem with its archaic and completely unscientific views on how to deal with the AIDS epidemic. For example, South African president Thabo Mbeki does not believe that HIV leads to AIDS, despite all of the scientific evidence to the contrary. The health minister Manto Tshabalal Msimang told citizens not to take antiretroviral drugs and instead promoted his own home remedy of ‘‘olive oil, beets, lemon, and African potato.’’
Obama, appalled by this lack of knowledge, stated, ‘‘The information being provided by the ministry of health is not accurate. It’s not scientifically correct.’’
Not only is the science of AIDS transmission and treatment questioned in South Africa, but testing for the virus is feared and is sometimes thought to actually infect a person with the HIV virus. The stigma carried by those who are infected with HIV is great, and many Africans would rather die than diagnose and treat their illness. To counteract this stigma, Obama and his wife Michelle both received public HIV tests to show that it was nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to fear.
Obama sees AIDS as a huge threat to global security. He said, ‘‘Now, more than ever, we must care about each other’s problems. Not just when there’s a missile pointed at us or a dictator on the march, but wherever conditions exist that could give rise to human suffering on a massive scale.’’
Also on the agenda in Africa were foreign relations with Sudan. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, China was extremely reluctant to sanction the Sudanese government for its laxness in stopping the mass genocide in their country. China is the primary funding source of the Sudanese oil industry, and therefore has a vested interest in keeping in good standing with the Sudanese government. Obama blasted, ‘‘Unfortunately, our foreign policy seems to be focused on yesterday’s rather than anticipating the crises of the future.
Africa is not perceived as a direct threat to U.S. security at the moment, so the foreign policy apparatus tends to believe that it can be safely neglected. I think that’s a mistake.’’
Obama teamed with Senator Richard Lugar, then the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to create legislation that would add conventional weapons, such as shoulder-?red missiles and abandoned land mines, to the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. This program is over ten years old, and with Lugar at the helm it has worked to eliminate nuclear weapons in Russia. Obama and Lugar were very concerned that these easily transferred conventional weapons were not included in the program. Obama stated, ‘‘We’ve all seen how it could take far less time for these weapons to leak out and travel around the world, fueling insurgencies and violent conflicts from Africa to Afghanistan. By destroying these inventories, this is one place we would be making more of a difference.’’
Obama and Lugar traveled to Russia in August 2005 to inspect nuclear weapons sites. The security at these sites is lax, and this is a very unsafe situation. Nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons are poorly guarded, so Russia allowed three U.S. inspections. The goal of these inspections was to promote more specialized training, encourage closer oversight, and increase awareness of the actual contents of these sites. This trip to Russia constituted Obama’s first foreign trip as a senator. Traveling with Lugar, who has visited Russia many times, proved to be a learning experience for the junior senator. He stated, ‘‘I very much feel like the novice and pupil. I’m spending most of my time listening as opposed to trying to interject myself into the process.’’
The tours of the nuclear sites were eye-opening for Obama. Seeing dangerous weapons so improperly guarded reinforced that this was an issue that needed to be in the forefront. He mused, ‘‘People can sort of put it off, and it’s not confronting you day-to-day in an immediate sort of way. The consequence of inaction can be enormous, but I think it’s one of those issues where until it’s too late, you don’t see a problem.’’
The tour of Russia was not all doomsday predictions, however. When touring Lenin’s tomb and learning that many of the women buried near the tomb were the dictator’s lovers, Obama quipped, ‘‘I didn’t know Lenin was a player.’’
Leaving Russia proved to be a challenge for the U.S. delegation. Lugar and Obama, along with twelve other Americans, were detained at the airport by Russian border officials. International law as well as a non-search agreement between the United States and Russia states that official aircraft do not need to be searched. The border officials insisted on a search anyway, which was vehemently opposed by U.S. military pilots. Airport officials confiscated the Americans’ passports and papers.
A standoff ensued, and both Washington and Moscow became involved in the incident. Three hours passed, time that Lugar and Obama utilized for a nap, and the issue was finally resolved. Passports and official documents were returned. One Russian guard even apologized. The media had a field day with the incident, but Obama wanted the reason for the visit to stay at the forefront. ‘‘It’s one thing to be able to describe what I’ve seen. You realize as a senator there are so many issues out there tugging on people, you’ve got to make things vivid for them in order to capture people’s attention.’’
As discussed elsewhere, Obama had a liberal reputation as an Illinois state senator, which he tried to moderate somewhat during the general election campaign. He receives low ratings from traditionally Republican sectors such as right-to-life groups, business interests, and gun rights lobbyists.
In turn, Obama receives high marks from the more liberal sectors such as pro-choice groups, minority interest groups, education interests, and conservationists. The National Journal numbers clearly show that Obama is in the most liberal quintile of senators.
Senator Obama has shown himself to be a dedicated representative of the people who elected him. Upon entering office, he repeatedly claimed that he would serve his full senate term and would not be a presidential candidate in 2008. This turned out to be false, when on
February 10, 2007, in Springfield, Illinois, Obama announced his candidacy to thousands of freezing, but jubilant, fans. While there is no particular reason to suspect that these promises were not sincere at the time, it is evident that from the beginning of his senate term he positioned himself for a presidential run at some point. He remarked, ‘‘There’s a large gap between the power that I’ll wield in Washington and the enormous needs that I see in Illinois, such as health care, lack of well-paying jobs, and need for educational reform. What I do expect to be able to accomplish is where there are issues that everyone agrees need to be worked on, I’ll be able to insinuate myself into the debate and see that voices that otherwise would be left behind are introduced into those negotiations.’’ He has established strong credentials on foreign affairs, especially with respect to nuclear disarmament. He also emphasized two other issues: health care, which is likely to be among the most important domestic policy concerns in the 2008 election, and the environment, which is particularly important to Democratic presidential primary voters.