I first became familiar with Barack Obama during the 2000 Democratic primary in Illinois, in which Barack was running against the incumbent, Bobby L. Rush. Barack was getting crushed in the polls, and yet when I had the opportunity to hear the man speak, he held a deep sense of optimism not only about himself, but about the world as a whole around him. His charisma swallowed the room, and even though Rush was quite popular and destined to win the primary, Barack's speech won over the crowd and was met with a standing ovation. I filed his name away in the back of my mind as "Someone who could be Somebody" someday.
In 2002, I watched a series of speeches on PBS, which intended to air different perspectives on the growing situation in Iraq and the post-9/11 world in general. One of the speeches shown was by Barack, given at an anti-war rally in Chicago, in which he justified war as only a protective act, not a proactive act. It was the singular best speech I had heard in terms of stating the anti-war position.
In 2004, Barack won the open Illinois Senate seat previously held by Peter Fitzgerald, resoundingly defeating Republican Alan Keyes.
Although our politics differ in many ways, I have never felt as strongly about a young politician as I do about Barack Obama. He combines the integrity and intelligence of Paul Simon with the charisma and speaking ability of Bill Clinton.
I will go so far as to make this haughty prediction: one day, Barack Obama will be the President of the United States.
Let me tell you his story.
Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Hawaii to a white Protestant woman (Ann) from the Midwest and a black agnostic Kenyan man (also named Barack) who hailed from the Luo tribe. During his childhood, Barack lived in a wide variety of places; after his parents divorced early in his life, he moved to Indonesia with his mother and her next husband, where he attended a Roman Catholic school for four years. This mixture of cultural backgrounds, theistic perspectives, and moral codes gave Barack a perspective on life that few people can attain.
Barack was a strong student and, after returning to the United States for his later school years, he attended Columbia University, earning a bachelor's degree in political science in 1983. He followed this by attending Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1991; from 1990 to 1991, he served as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review.
His choices after graduation surprised a lot of people. He received dozens of offers to join various law firms, but he wanted to practice civil rights law and constitutional law, and he found opportunities to pursue both in Chicago, IL, where he took up practice as a civil rights lawyer in a small public firm in the early 1990s and, in 1993, began teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. While working there for five years, he represented victims of housing and employment discrimination and also dabbled in politics, helping to craft voting rights legislation. During this period, he also found time to return to Kenya and write his memoirs, Dreams From My Father, published in 1995, and married Michelle, who came from a black working class family from the South Side.
In 1996, the state Senate seat for the 13th District in Illinois was left open by a retiring state senator, and Barack jumped at the opportunity to run for the seat representing the Democratic Party. The 13th District deserves some special comment; it includes both the area surrounding the University of Chicago, including Hyde Park (i.e., rich, affluent, and primarily white), as well as much of the South Side inner city region of Chicago (i.e., poor, less affluent, and primarily black). Barack was elected to the Senate seat from this district, and has been re-elected twice.
Barack has been an extremely active member of the state legislature and is known as something of a "legislative junkie." Since January 1, 2003, Barack has served as the primary sponsor on 144 pieces of legislation in the Illinois Senate (http://www.legis.state.il.us/Senate/), and has served as co-sponsor on approximately 250 (est.) more. He chairs the Health & Human Services committee, and sits on the Judiciary, Local Goverment, and Welfare committees.
In 1998, he made his greatest stamp on Illinois politics: he constructed a strict campaign finance reform bill with the aid of Paul Simon, the longtime and widely respected senior United States Senator from Illinois. With Simon's aid, Barack was able to pass one of the strictest campaign finance laws ever to hit the books in the United States on any level.
Fueled by this success and somewhat disenchanted by Bobby Rush, the United States Representative from his district in Chicago, Obama sought the 2000 Democratic Party nomination, facing the incumbent in the primaries. Unfortunately, Obama's lack of name recognition and relative inexperience led to his defeat, as Rush got the party nomination and was re-elected to the House of Representatives.
In 2002, when word came out that Senator Peter Fitzgerald was retiring, leaving his seat open, Barack saw that opportunity had once again shined on him. He embarked on a campaign to win the Democratic Party nomination for the vacant Senate seat, which would turn out to be an extremely harrowing campaign. The "fabled" Illinois Democratic machine backed Dan Hynes, the state comptroller; also opposing him was Blair Hull, a securities trader who spent twenty nine million dollars on his campaign to just get the Democratic nomination for the seat. Hull lead most of the race when, just before the March primary, the records of Hull's divorce were opened, revealing many unsavory things about Hull's character. Obama stayed above the fray and rode the implosion of Hull's candidacy to a stark victory in the primary, actually garnering a majority of votes cast in the primary. Not only that, Obama won consistently in both affluent and poor areas, and in both black and white communities. His strong values enabled him to appeal to a wide variety of voters and also to Howard Dean, who named him one of the dozen candidates to be supported by Dean's Democracy for America campaign.
Obama's Republican opponent for the seat was slated to be Jack Ryan, a Christian conservative. However, history repeated itself: when Ryan's divorce records were unsealed, some very unsavory behavior was revealed and the conservative Ryan was forced to leave the race, leaving the floor open for Alan Keyes to join as Barack's opponent. Two well-spoken African-American men with totally different ideologies competing for the same Senate seat representing the two major parties made for some interesting politics, but Keyes' strong conservative viewpoints and issues with Keyes being viewed as an out-of-state candidate (since his primary residence was in Maryland) led to Obama winning a large victory.
Obama appeared at the Democratic National Convention on July 27, 2004 as the keynote speaker. Given his charisma, speaking ability, and his demonstrated expertise in piecing together legislation, his future looks very bright.
The remainder of this writeup consists of quotes attributable to Barack Obama, unless otherwise stated. Each one speaks volumes about the magnitude of this young man. I would also encourage you to read his memoirs, Dreams From My Father, as well as a recent profile on Obama from The New Yorker, entitled The Candidate; it can be read online at http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040531fa_fact1.
If you make political discourse sufficiently negative, more people will become cynical and stop paying attention. That leaves more space for special interests to pursue their agendas, and that’s how we end up with drug companies making drug policy, energy companies making energy policy, and multinationals making trade policy.
I have a deep faith; I'm rooted in the Christian tradition. I believe that there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people. That there are values that transcend race or culture, that move us forward, and there's an obligation for all of us individually as well as collectively to take responsibility to make those values lived.
Abner Mikva, a longtime participant in Illinois politics, had this to say about Obama: Barack is the most unique political talent I’ve run into in more than fifty years. I haven’t been this excited about a candidate since Adlai Stevenson first got me into politics. ... I’ve seen him speak on Israel in front of a Jewish audience—a very, very tough crowd. And he was incredibly thoughtful, saying, basically, ‘There are a lot of people in that area, with lots of different interests and points of view, and they all have to be taken into consideration, and we can’t just rally around Sharon,’ and so on. And the crowd was just wowed. I’ve fluffed that question so many times myself—and I’m Jewish. Kerry fluffed it on Meet the Press the other day. But Barack managed to make those people who disagreed with him feel comfortable with the disagreement.
Sources for this writeup include:
Falsani, Cathleen. (2004, April 5). 'I have a deep faith.' Chicago Sun Times.
Finnegan, William. (2004, May 31). The Candidate. The New Yorker.