Obama: Is he Jonathan Livingston Seagull or Sammy Glick?
Print Friendly and PDF
There are two remarkably contrasting articles out this week on the Presidential frontrunner.

Newsweek offers us a cover story on Sen. Obama's religion, "Finding His Faith," that is so skeptically insightful that you'd think it was written by Will.I.Am and Scarlett Johansson and edited by David Axelrod.

Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker has a much more informative article on Obama's coldly calculated rise to power in Chicago from 1991-2004: "Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama."
Like many politicians, Obama is paradoxical. He is by nature an incrementalist, yet he has laid out an ambitious first-term agenda (energy independence, universal health care, withdrawal from Iraq). He campaigns on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game. He is ideologically a man of the left, but at times he has been genuinely deferential to core philosophical insights of the right.
Lizza doesn't provide much explanation of what Obama wants to do as President, although he makes it clear that that's kind of like asking Tiger Woods what he wants to do if he wins the US Open: Tiger wants to be the U.S. Open champion, just as Obama wants to be President. Among people who run for President, only weirdos like Ron Paul want to be President primarily in order to do something or other. Normal candidates want to be President in order to be President.

Obama has been thinking about running for President at least since 1992:

According to a recent biography of Obama by the Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, he even told his future brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, that he might run for President one day.
It's hard to blame him when practically everybody Lizza interviews claimed that the first time they met Obama they figured he'd be President someday. For years, people have been subconsciously longing for the Half-Blood Prince, the half-black half-white unifier of our contentious extended families. That kind of "You are the one we've been waiting for" response had to go to his head.

The stumbling block, though, was that Obama had been trying to turn himself into an African-American since he was a little boy in Indonesia, but African-American voters didn't like him as much as they liked more naturally African-American politicians.

As I've long speculated, the turning point in Obama's career, according to Lizza's account, was when the state senator from upscale mixed-race Hyde Park (home of the U. of Chicago) was crushingly defeated at the hands of Bobby Rush, a Black Panther turned Congressman, in a heavily black district in the 2000 Democratic primary. (Obama's second book makes it sound like he fell into a prolonged depression after his defeat, although that may be just Obama Oprahizing his otherwise charmed life. Lizza has nothing on that, one way or another.)

After that, it appears from Lizza's well-researched article, is when Obama finally realized he'd never be black enough to beat black candidates among black voters. Yet, he was both white enough and black enough to win among white voters:

A South Side operator named Al Kindle, a large man with a booming voice, was a field operator for Obama’s race against [Black Panther turned Congressman Bobby] Rush [in the 2000 Democratic primary] . He had helped elect Harold Washington, and he saw Obama’s congressional campaign from the street level. … Kindle described some of the worst moments in the campaign. ”The accusations were that Obama was sent here and owned by the Jews,” Kindle said. ”That he was here to steal the black vote and steal black land and that he was represented by the–as they were called–”the white man.’ And that Obama wasn’t black enough and didn’t know the black experience, the black community. It was quite deafening in terms of how they went after Alderman Preckwinkle [another black Obama supporter] and myself. People would say, ”Oh, Kindle, man, we trust you, you being fooled. Obama’s got you fooled.’ And some people called me a traitor.”

The loss taught Obama a great deal about the components of his natural coalition. According to Dan Shomon, the first poll that Obama conducted revealed that the demographic he could win over most easily was white voters.

[Obama's Illinois State Senate godfather] Emil Jones told me that, after 2000, Obama moved decisively away from being pigeonholed as an inner-city pol. During one debate with Rush, he noted that he and the other candidates were all ”progressive, urban Democrats.” Even though he lost, that primary taught him that he might be something more than that. ”He learned that for Barack Obama it was not the type of district that he was well suited for,” Jones said. ”The type of campaign that he had to run to win that district is not Barack Obama. It was a predominantly African-American district. It was a district where you had to campaign solely on those issues. And Barack did not campaign that way, and so as a result he lost. Which was good.” Meaning, it was good for Barack Obama. …

The tangible proof that Obama now knew his destiny lay in appealing to whites was the new state senate district boundaries that Obama cooked up for himself in 2001. Obama, like the other Democratic state senators, got to gerrymander his own district's boundaries in 2001 after the 2000 Census.

Like every other Democratic legislator who entered the inner sanctum, Obama began working on his ”ideal map.” Corrigan remembers two things about the district that he and Obama drew. First, it retained Obama’s Hyde Park base–he had managed to beat Rush in Hyde Park–then swooped upward along the lakefront and toward downtown. By the end of the final redistricting process, his new district bore little resemblance to his old one. Rather than jutting far to the west, like a long thin dagger, into a swath of poor black neighborhoods of bungalow homes, Obama’s map now shot north, encompassing about half of the Loop, whose southern portion was beginning to be transformed by developers like Tony Rezko, and stretched far up Michigan Avenue and into the Gold Coast, covering much of the city’s economic heart, its main retail thoroughfares, and its finest museums, parks, skyscrapers, and lakefront apartment buildings. African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama’s new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated. It also included one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in Chicago.

”It was a radical change,” Corrigan said. The new district was a natural fit for the candidate that Obama was in the process of becoming. ”He saw that when we were doing fund-raisers in the Rush campaign his appeal to, quite frankly, young white professionals was dramatic.”

Obama’s personal political concerns were not the only factor driving the process. During the previous round of remapping, in 1991, Republicans had created Chicago districts where African-Americans were the overwhelming majority, packing the greatest number of loyal Democrats into the fewest districts. A decade later, Democrats tried to spread the African-American vote among more districts. The idea was to create enough Democratic-leaning districts so that the Party could take control of the state legislature. That goal was fine with Obama; his new district offered promising, untapped constituencies for him as he considered his next political move. ”The exposure he would get to some of the folks that were on boards of the museums and C.E.O.s of some of the companies that he would represent would certainly help him in the long run,” Corrigan said.

In the end, Obama’s North Side fund-raising base and his South Side political base were united in one district. He now represented Hyde Park operators like Lois Friedberg-Dobry as well as Gold Coast doyennes like Bettylu Saltzman, and his old South Side street operative Al Kindle as well as his future consultant David Axelrod.

Print Friendly and PDF