Barack Obama: The Contender

Three years ago, our correspondent David Usborne travelled to Illinois to check out the young senator who, even then, was regarded by many as a president-in-waiting. He found a humble but ambitious man, with his eyes firmly on the prize
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It wasn't very long ago when most Americans had never heard the name Barack Obama, the newbie US senator from Illinois. Even now they get it wrong to his face. Senator Barama. Senator Alabama. Senator Banana. He always smiles and, in his characteristically muted tones, gently corrects them.

But seven months after the voters of Illinois sent him to the United States Senate, where he now sits as its only black member and only the third since the Civil War, such malapropisms have become much rarer. Because Obama, a lanky man with distractingly long fingers and a narrow face that looks younger than his 43 years, is suddenly one of the brightest and most promising stars in the American political firmament.

It really started at the Democrats' national convention in Boston last summer. The speech he delivered in praise of the party's presidential candidate, John Kerry, galvanised delegates and captivated reporters. "Political poetry", gushed one CNN commentator. One line rang in the hall the longest. It was the one about the hope "of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too". Himself, in other words.

If he had any doubt that such a place existed, it was surely eased a few months later. Kerry did not win the White House, but Obama's victory in Illinois was spectacular. After eight years of relative obscurity toiling in the state legislature, he defeated his Republican opponent in the Senate race by a landslide. With 70 per cent of the votes, he found himself singled out as just about the only good thing that happened to the Democrats in 2004.

There is danger in this abrupt wunderkind status, however, and Obama, the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black Kenyan, well knows it. He jokes that he has suffered from greater over-exposure in the US media than socialite Paris Hilton. (Not quite true, but you get the gist.) Most alarming of all are the whispers about Obama and the White House. Check the internet and you will see the fan-sites, where "Obama for President, 2008" buttons and stickers are already flying from the virtual shelves.

Obama himself is partly to blame, of course. There is an undeniable appeal in his mixed-race heritage, and he is working it. The tale of his upbringing is vividly described in a memoir, Dreams from My Father, which stubbornly remains on the bestseller lists even though Obama wrote it 10 years ago. The senator, moreover, has spent much of the past few months recording it on tape, describing in his own voice the early years of his life in Hawaii and, briefly, Indonesia and the pain of his father walking out when he was still a toddler. (He saw him only once afterwards, when he was 10 years old.) The audio-book version went on sale last week. Meanwhile, the senator has signed a contract to write not one but two sequels to it.

Washington is littered with tales of over-ambitious new arrivals, their heads swollen by sudden celebrity. Al Gore, whose father was a senator before him, was one to commit that sin when he first represented Tennessee in 1984. He dived too quickly into the biggest issue of the day – superpower arms control – and made his first attempt to run for president when he was only 39 years old. He failed then as he did again many years later. So, when he is not pursuing literary royalties, Obama is keeping a determinedly low profile. His model is Hillary Clinton, who in her first years in the US Senate set the standard for how a famous newcomer should keep both feet on the ground and their head beneath the parapet. Only now, one year before she must face re-election, is she beginning to take a more national stage again. (Ironically, if he were to seek the Democratic nomination in 2008, it would probably be against Clinton that Obama would be running.)

This means not flying first class, not accepting invitations to appear on the Sunday morning talk shows and steering clear of other states apart from Illinois. But, just as Clinton did after her 2000 election, visiting his own state is not only allowed, it is an absolute priority. Obama wants his voters at home to know that, far from following grand ambitions, he is spending his first term focusing on the issues that matter to them.

Here on a recent Friday afternoon in a community centre in Aurora, the second largest metropolis in Illinois about an hour's drive west of Chicago, the phenomenon that is Barack Obama is on full display. It is one of a series of town hall-style meetings he has held across the state since being sworn into office in January. And he has many more planned, usually one each week.

After the senator takes the stage, he does not engage in the kind of oratory delivered in Boston back in July, but it is easy to discern his appeal. Analyse his words and he is verging on policy nerdishness – one moment he is critically dissecting Bush's proposal to privatise social security and the next decrying the long-term effects on local communities of the tax cuts – but he has an easy and natural charisma about him. He has the right smile and right voice, sugary and smooth. He doesn't exactly fill the room the moment he walks in, but the atmospherics instantly change. There is a quick ripple of applause before he opens his mouth and excited citizens reach into their pockets for their digital cameras. And very quickly you see he understands the pitfalls of his prominence. "Each and every day, I will wake up thinking of the people of Aurora, thinking of the people of Kane County and thinking about the people all through the state of Illinois," he vows. And, as on almost every other public occasion, he underlines his junior rank in the Senate, with required whimsy.

"Let's face it," the story begins, "I am 99th in seniority out of 100 senators." (Only Ken Salazar, a novice Democrat senator from Colorado, is ranked beneath him.) "When I arrived, they handed me some pencils to sharpen and gave me a broom to start sweeping the floors. And I'm in the minority party. The Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House and the President is going to be driving the agenda for the next two years at least." In other words, I will do my best but don't expect too much.

Indeed, in Washington, his record so far is of exemplary attendance at committee meetings, whether they are dealing with matters mundane – clawing more dollars for Illinois from a transport budget bill – or more dramatic, such as determining the fate of the Bush nominee for the UN ambassadorship, John Bolton. (Obama was one of the Democrats to vote no.)

But even the mostly humdrum world of politicking on Capitol Hill offers glimpses of his political pulling power. When Obama earlier this month issued a letter to grassroots Democrats asking for backing for the re-election effort of the West Virginia veteran senator, Robert Byrd, donations to Byrd's war chest surged by more than $800,000 (£505,000) in the following 48 hours.

And here in Aurora, all of his protests of humility are to no avail. The first member of the mostly white audience to get the microphone is a teacher. "It's such an honour to meet you," she says, before proceeding with her question about school funding, "and I truly believe you will be our president one day." The room breaks out into fresh applause and Obama smiles graciously. "Well, I don't know about that," he responds, before going on: "But, for now, I'm definitely your senator." (It is an answer, nonetheless, that gets some local journalists quivering. "Did you hear that? He said 'for now'. He does want to be President.")

Next, the young son of a local state senator is given the floor and asks the kind of question you would normally hear only at a presidential debate. What kind of America would he like his daughters – he and his wife of 10 years, Michelle, who works for University of Chicago Hospital, have two girls, Malia and Sasha – to inherit when they grow up? And Obama gives the practised but nebulous answer of a White House candidate, extolling the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the ethnic diversity of the country.

The pressure on Obama might not be so great were it not for the near-panic felt by his party after the election let-down of November. Democrats can't help but to gather around anyone who might bring back some of the damaged lustre, even if it is someone as inexperienced on the national level as Obama. But he intends to resist that also. "I don't want to be fabricated into some great hope for the Democratic Party just because I am the flavour of the month now," he tells The Independent in a brief interview at the close of the town-hall meeting. And he carefully rehearses his script about paying his dues to Illinois first. "After the people have seen my work, hopefully they will feel I can make a contribution to the party and to the country."

Even that hardly has the echo of a politician slamming the door, however. And it is tempting to imagine an Obama candidacy for Commander in Chief, if not next time then in the years beyond. You can see the sentimental biographical video at the nominating convention – already scripted by his book – telling the story of his absent father and struggling mother. Of how Barack, which means "blessed" in Swahili, excelled in school but stumbled into drinking and drug use as a teen before pulling himself back. And how he graduated with a political science degree at Columbia University before going later to Harvard Law School where he became the first black ever to be president of the Harvard Law Review. It is an American story of hardships overcome and racial barriers broken to make any campaign manager drool.

When finally Obama tries to leave the hall, he finds himself ambushed by supporters asking for a photograph or his autograph on the book. The scrum lasts about 15 minutes – a smile always on his face – before aides finally steer him out through a side door.

But, in spite of all the political instincts that tell him otherwise, Obama might be advised to enjoy some of this attention while he has it. This is not to predict that he will necessarily stumble in Washington. But history argues that he may already have reached his political zenith. After all, since the early Sixties, roughly one black candidate either for state governorships or for the US Senate has actually won in every decade.

The path to the White House for an African American, whether it would be Obama or anyone else, for now, at least, remains dauntingly steep. Still, there are many Democrats who are daring to hope that he will make it and that the place that this man descended from Kansas and Kenya is dreaming of is a white building with imposing columns on Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue.