U.S. senator Barack Obama insists he won’t seek higher office in 2008. But that has hardly squelched the buzz among Democratic faithful that he would be perfect atop the party ticket. As the race for the presidency heats up, our reporter parses the possibilities, including the one in which Obama makes history sooner than anyone—even he—expects.
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On November 3, 2004, the day after he was elected to the U.S. Senate with a record 70 percent of the Illinois vote, Barack Obama declared, "I can unequivocally say I will not be running for national office" in 2008. Sitting for an interview late last year in his Senate office on the 39th floor of the Loop's Kluczynski Federal Building, Obama pledges the same thing: his "game plan" on taking office, he says, included "not going national but staying focused on being an Illinois senator."
Even so, a lot of people hope this is one promise the senator won't keep. An Obama-for-president-2008 boomlet has been building ever since his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in July 2004 made him a national star. Since then, his solid Senate performance and his thoughtful comments on public issues, such as the government's response to Hurricane Katrina, have done nothing to dim his glow. With the roster of potential Democratic presidential contenders looking largely like retreads or unknowns, calls for an Obama candidacy-and questions about his intentions-lately have heated up.
Ryan Lizza, a senior editor at The New Republic, recently argued in an online column that Obama should run for president in '08. The senator's appearance early last December as the keynote speaker at the Florida Democratic convention-a popular forum for presidential hopefuls-renewed speculation about his plans, according to a report by the Chicago Tribune's Jeff Zeleny. Former Illinois Republican senator Peter Fitzgerald has said he thinks there is "a very good chance" Obama will be the 2008 Democratic vice presidential candidate. On the Web, at least one private vendor is hawking "Obama! President 2008" coffee mugs for $16.99, T-shirts for $14.99, and women's tracksuits for $45.99. And Hollywood has weighed in: George Clooney told The Sunday Times of London that his preferred candidate would be Obama.
When the senator appeared recently at a forum for black economic empowerment at McCormick Place, a motivational speaker, Iyanla Vanzant, introduced him as "Mr. President. I said, ‘Mr. President.' . . . It may not be next week or next month, but I know that before I close my eyes, you will be president of the United States." (Obama said nothing in reply, just flashed that megaton smile.)
"When I go around the country meeting civilians, I mean sane people who aren't corrupted by following politics all the time, the first person they ask about after Hillary Clinton is Barack Obama," says Joe Klein, Time's political columnist.
This political excitement improbably surrounds a 44-year-old "skinny guy with a funny name," as he likes to put it, whose entire public career comprises seven years in the Illinois state senate and one in the U.S. Senate. The success he's enjoying now makes it easy to forget that Obama won his Washington seat following several huge breaks. He was running back in the pack coming up to the Democratic primary in the spring of 2004 when the campaign of the frontrunner, Blair Hull, a financial trader, foundered on revelations of his messy divorce. In the November election, Obama's original opponent, Jack Ryan, withdrew over another messy divorce, leaving Obama to clean up against the weak GOP replacement, Alan Keyes. The one other time Obama ran for a job in Washington, the incumbent Bobby Rush trounced him in the Democratic primary for U.S. representative.
Still, Obama's only-in-America biography as the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother has become part of political folklore, and several Democratic operatives say Obama has handled his first year in the Senate without any serious political missteps. Some liberals were upset when he voted to confirm Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and failed to demand immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, but these positions are not likely to alienate mainstream voters. "I don't think he has made a political mistake yet," says Bill Daley, who was secretary of commerce under President Clinton and chaired Al Gore's failed 2000 presidential run. (Republican insiders have quite a different view, of course. See Battle Lines.)
In short, Obama has become a more or less conventional blue-state Democrat who often defers to party elders. In this posture, whatever his denials, he looks like a politician with ambitions for higher office. At the Democratic National Convention, for example, Obama gave an advance copy of his keynote speech to John Kerry's senior adviser, Robert M. Shrum. Obama had a line reading, "I don't see red states and blue states, I see American red, white and blue." By coincidence, Kerry had written the same thing for his nomination acceptance speech later that week. "That was one moment when I saw how much the guy cared about the party and about winning and would put the party ahead of his own interests," recalls Shrum. "We asked him to take that line out and he did."
Senator Obama acknowledges that he hears the presidential buzz, but insists that he does not respond even with a "Well, maybe someday." He gets 250 requests for meetings or speaking engagements a week, turning down nearly every one, and he continues to abide by his decision not to "chase the cameras." The "one exception to this rule," he says, "was Hurricane Katrina, where I felt I had a unique perspective to add to the debate. As the only African American senator, it was important for me to speak to the disproportionate impact that the disaster had on African Americans."
Yet, even that one calculated splash on national television news last September was enough to twitch the Barack-in-'08 boomlet into throwing some confetti. Obama's fans are aware that he has what the trade calls a "leadership PAC," a personal political action committee set up to give money to other politicians, thereby earning their loyalty. Obama's PAC, Hopefund, also launched a "Yes We Can" training seminar for young campaign workers in January with another session scheduled for June. Thus, Obama is building up a nationwide network of donors and workers-the kind of thing that people do when they want to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign.
Obama allows that he runs Hopefund for what he calls "a very selfish motive on my part"-he wants Democrats to regain control of the Senate. "If we're in power, I will be able to get a health care bill passed out of committee, which I can't do right now."
Accordingly, Hopefund-which by the end of 2005 had collected more than $1.2 million, according to Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs-is supporting Democratic incumbents or challengers in 18 states in this year's U.S. Senate elections. (Republicans have ruled the Senate for most of the past 11 years; the current partisan lineup is 55-44, plus one independent, and many observers consider a Democratic takeover this year to be a long shot.) "I am blessed with a greater capacity than some of my colleagues to raise money and mobilize voters, and I want to make sure that I am using that to help build up our [party] infrastructure," Obama says.
Besides donating PAC funds, Obama also makes a few selected campaign appearances with needy candidates, such as Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. Helping Nelson, he says, was the reason he spoke to the Florida convention. Governors Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey and Timothy M. Kaine of Virginia, both newly elected last November, also benefited from Obama's stumping. And "everywhere he goes, Obama becomes the story," as William Powers, a columnist for the National Journal, recently wrote.
Although Obama could not legally spend Hopefund money on his own presidential campaign, the PAC, as well as his Senate campaign fund, has drawn donations from Hollywood types and financiers. Wealthy contributors include Warren Buffett, the Omaha-based billionaire, as well as Illinois patrons such as John Bryan, the former chairman of Sara Lee. It was Bryan who introduced Obama to Vernon Jordan, the civil rights patriarch, New York investment banker, and Democratic power broker in 2004. Jordan promptly staged a fundraiser for Obama at his Washington home. Today, he says the Illinois senator may well become the first black president.
Major pollsters are already surveying voter preferences for 2008, but Obama's name is not included on their list of possible presidential candidates. The Democratic frontrunner is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, with support from roughly 40 percent of respondents, followed by John Kerry, the 2004 nominee; Kerry's running mate, John Edwards; Senator Joseph Biden; former Virginia governor Mark Warner; Iowa's Governor Tom Vilsack; and others. (Lee M. Miringoff, director of the nonpartisan Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, says pollsters are not asking about Obama because he is not widely mentioned as a potential candidate and because he has not indicated he intends to run. Pollsters are likely to throw Obama's name into the mix should he figure more broadly in speculation about 2008, Miringoff says.)
"I am too old and too smart to speculate about 2008," says Vernon Jordan. "If I were in charge of the world, the first thing I would do is round up all the political consultants in the city square and shoot them."
Jordan might be elected president himself if he ran on that platform, but pending such a development, I asked a number of political analysts and interested observers to consider Obama's potential role in 2008. In an appearance on Meet the Press in late January, Obama again vigorously denied he had plans to run. But events have a way of getting out of a politician's control, and Obama could find himself thrust into the Democratic race whether he feels ready or not. Might he actually run for president, and if so, does he stand a chance to win? If he doesn't run now, does he risk missing his best chance? What if party elders implore him to join the ticket as the vice presidential nominee? Here is a rundown of what I learned.
Bill Daley says, "The conventional wisdom would be, Don't jump too quick-see what happens in '08. There's a generational thing going on: let all these old people through the system-not that Kerry and the others are old."
In fact, most of the successful Democratic nominees of recent history did not "wait their turn" but skipped over a generation-John F. Kennedy in 1960, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992. Obama will be 47 in 2008; Clinton was 46 when elected, Kennedy 43.
Nonetheless, some Obama enthusiasts hope he stands by his pledge not to run in 2008 after just three years in the Senate. Valerie Jarrett, a close friend of Obama's and until recently the treasurer of Hopefund, says, "As his friend, I would say, ‘Pace yourself.' He's young. What I would want him to do is be prepared. I can't tell you when or if he would be prepared [to run for president]." Don Rose, a Chicago consultant who has worked for both Democrats and Republicans, thinks Obama's inexperience will preclude a 2008 candidacy. "The idea of his running for president in my mind is just too far out. He is, however, grooming himself for national office."
Time's Joe Klein points out that the hustings can be harsh to novice candidates. "If he is smart, he will take this very much one step at a time. You can get rushed into this before you are ready." Klein points, for example, to John Edwards, the vice presidential candidate in '04, who had served one term in the Senate. Edwards "was not ready," Klein says. "He might have had a better future in national politics if he had taken his time."
Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., praises Obama's political skills but cautions, "This is not the right time for him. A candidate needs substantial experience in national affairs and international affairs for people to feel comfortable with him." Obama's celebrity rests on "that one dazzling speech" at the 2004 convention, Ornstein says. "Just because you can write and deliver a speech beautifully, may show nothing about whether you would be a good president or vice president or candidate."
Still, other analysts say that prior experience in public office seems to have little to do with a president's ultimate success or failure in office. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter had each served just one four-year term as governor, Roosevelt in New York and Carter in Georgia. John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan successfully managed the cold war despite having thin foreign policy credentials. George W. Bush entered the White House after only six years as governor of Texas-with almost no foreign policy experience.
Some of Obama's supporters worry that he might miss his best chance by sitting out 2008. Here's the hypothetical math: if another Democratic nominee wins and serves two terms, by then it's 2016, when, presumably, the incumbent vice president would seek the presidential nod. Where would that leave Obama? He won't be a megastar forever.
State senate president Emil Jones Jr., a longtime friend and adviser to Obama and a fellow South Sider, does not say that he is urging Obama to run. Still, he notes, "some of the same folks who are saying ‘Don't run this time' were saying the same thing when he was running for the U.S. Senate." Jones adds, "There can be a lot of pressure on him [to run], a tremendous amount; 2008 should be a good [Democratic] year. You've got to play your cards right on that one."
The New Republic's Ryan Lizza wrote in December, "The well-known curse of the Senate is that it both elevates politicians to within striking distance of the White House and burdens them with the baggage of a complicated voting record and the stench of the Beltway. This is why Barack Obama must run for president in 2008."
Lizza cited a political "law of 14" holding that a maximum of 14 years elapse between a politician's first election to major office and his first as president or vice president (the lone exception since 1900 was Lyndon B. Johnson). Assuming that his first national appearance came in 2004, Obama would be nearing the end of his period of opportunity by 2016. Meanwhile, Lizza wrote, Obama "sounds increasingly like someone who is considering a run. And if he isn't, he should."
The presidential season is tentatively scheduled to open with the Iowa caucuses in January 2008, and the New Hampshire primary eight days later. If Iowa's Governor Vilsack runs, other Democratic candidates may skip that state's contest in deference to a favorite son. In any case, political analysts say, a serious presidential campaign would need to be launched by mid-2007 at the latest.
One scenario would see Obama bypassing Iowa and New Hampshire and running in a few selected late primaries to demonstrate that an African American could win. Then, if no candidate had a majority of delegates, a deadlocked convention might turn to Obama. Shrum thinks any such plan would be foolish. "Either you run seriously for president or you don't," he says. In the modern age of big-media and big-money politics, he contends, a deadlocked convention is just a perennial fantasy of political writers.
As for Obama, he says he's unconcerned about pressure from his supporters to jump into the 2008 race at any point. "A friend of mine said, ‘That's a high-class problem to have.' So I don't feel pressure," the senator insists. "Pressure is figuring out whether you can pay the bills. Pressure is losing your job. This isn't pressure. It's flattering but . . . I'm not one of those guys who at the age of seven said, ‘I'm gonna be president of the United States.' I don't feel some ticking clock."
Could an African American candidate win?
Answers to this question tend to divide along an optimist-pessimist, is-the-glass-half-full-or-half-empty line. Allison S. Davis, an African American Chicago real-estate developer and a longtime friend of Obama's, says, "Mobility in this society is extraordinary; he is a tangible symbol of it. The problem is, they [voters and convention delegates] have got to buy into having a black guy on the ticket. This country does not have any tradition of electing somebody who is not male and white."
But Bill Daley recalls when Al Gore in 2000 chose Senator Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic vice presidential candidate-the first Jew to join a party's national ticket. "I thought the country would be much less accepting of Joe Lieberman on the ticket than they were," Daley says. "I don't see that [the racial issue] as a big deal."
Since 1958, the Gallup Poll has asked, "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be black, would you vote for that person?" In 1958, only 37 percent of the respondents said yes, while 53 percent said no. In the most recent such poll, in 2003, 92 percent said yes.
Skeptics point out that people these days might hesitate to give an "incorrect" no answer to such a question for fear of appearing to be a bigot. But in 1995 Dick Morris, then an adviser to President Clinton, tested the appeal of a real African American candidate, not a hypothetical, nameless one. At the time, Clinton was unpopular and some Republicans were touting Colin Powell as the party's 1996 presidential nominee. "Our internal polls in the Clinton White House showed Powell defeating the president by 52-44," Morris and his wife write in a new book, Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race. "Though the general decided not to run, he clearly could have been elected."
Beyond polling numbers, what do actual vote returns show? In 2004 Obama ran in the Democratic Senate primary against six white candidates, including Blair Hull, who spent $29 million, the national record for Senate races that year. Even as Hull faltered, Obama still faced a tough field. "Our optimal goal was 38 percent of the vote in that primary, enough to win [by a plurality]," says David Axelrod, Obama's consultant. "He got 53 percent."
Obama "smashed racial barriers in Illinois," says Don Rose. He points out that in Chicago, Obama carried 18 out of 19 white and Latino wards on the North and Northwest sides, 23 of 30 Cook County townships, and all five predominantly white "collar" counties.
Of course, Illinois is not the United States. When I ask Vernon Jordan whether the party and the country are ready for a black presidential nominee, he does not directly reply but mentions that he is heading to his home state of Georgia for an event with the chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Leah Ward Sears, a black woman. Jordan pauses to let the thought sink in. "A black woman. Chief justice. Georgia."
Asked the same is-the-country-ready question, Obama answers simply, "Yes." He adds, "If I were to run, the issue would not be my race, I think. People would ask about my inexperience or youth, is he too liberal-there would be a whole host of questions there. But I'm very confident I could campaign anywhere."
Maybe so, says the American Enterprise Institute's Ornstein, but Obama seems to be seeking a moderate record in the Senate. "He is making alliances with people like Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn," Republican senators from Kansas and Oklahoma, respectively, Ornstein observes. "Some people on the left are very uneasy about those kinds of alliances."
Political analysts look past the usual liberal-conservative, Democratic-Republican divide to parse the electorate according to demographics and voter registration and turnout figures. In 2004, there were nine states in which either Kerry or Bush won with no more than 51 percent of the vote. In particular, a small change in Ohio would have delivered that state's electoral votes-and the White House-to Kerry.
By one line of thinking, an African American on the ticket in 2008 might excite the minority and liberal bases of the party enough to tip the vote. "What you get with Barack Obama is an extra few [percentage] points [of the vote] generated by additional minority voters and white suburbanites," says Larry J. Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who is often quoted on national politics. "Supporting an articulate, polished African American candidate like Obama almost becomes a badge of a suburbanite's honor: ‘Look at me-I'm racially progressive.'"
In this view, a black candidate might become the Democrats' key to making decisive gains in traditionally Republican white suburbs. As Lewis Manilow, the former Chicago developer and major Democratic donor and fundraiser, observes, Obama's "two constituencies" in 2004 were "the black community and I guess what you would call suburban women."
Exit polls as reported by CBS News in 2004 showed that Obama's voters in the November general election broke down like this: white male, 32 percent; white female, 41 percent; non-white male, 11 percent; non-white female, 16 percent. Also, 24 percent of his support came from people who voted for Bush for president but crossed party lines for the Senate race. Granted, Obama's Republican opponent, Alan Keyes, was a tremendous turkey. Still, Obama's biracial and bipartisan appeal was established.
Shrum allows that "a marginally higher African American turnout in Ohio and you have a different outcome in the election. Missouri is another state where he [Obama] might make a difference." At the same time, Shrum doubts that Obama will run, and notes that the turnout issue cuts both ways.
Democrats increased their turnout in 2004 by 16 percent over 2000, but Republicans boosted their own turnout by 23 percent, according to The Almanac of American Politics. Going back to the 1980s, the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson's Democratic presidential campaigns certainly raised black voter registration numbers, but Jackson's campaigns also provoked a conservative reaction in both parties. Even now, the upshot is not clear. "[Obama] has a potential for increasing black turnout, but the question is, will there be a counterforce because of that?" says Rose.
Could he raise the money?
"Table stakes" for entering the 2008 primaries will be $50 million to $60 million, says Ornstein. Perhaps some people advising Obama not to run in '08 are actually afraid his candidacy would threaten their fundraising for other candidates (Hillary Clinton, maybe? Just guessing). Lew Manilow insists, however, there is lots of money sloshing around. "When I was first raising money, a $10,000 contribution was a big contribution; you were really a big-time player," Manilow recalls. "Then Paul Kirk [Democratic national treasurer and then chairman during the 1980s] started going for $100,000 contributions. Whooo! Well, now people find a way to give a million dollars [in ‘soft money'].
"One thing Karl Rove did for the Democratic Party," Manilow continues, "by moving to his [Republican] base, he energized our base so we have got as much money and activism as we need. There is plenty of money out there and it is looking for a winner." Who that winner might be, he says, it's too early to tell.
Larry Sabato agrees that money would not be an obstacle to an Obama candidacy. Democrats "hate George W. Bush," he says. "Every day that he is president is an insult to their sensibilities. That tends to make a party pragmatic and we are precisely there. If it is a big Democratic year, even she [Senator Clinton] could win."
he will be on that short list, whoever the [presidential] nominee is," as Bill Daley put it.
When the conversation gets more detailed-just which nominee Obama might help the most and how-it gets murky. The traditions of nominees' selecting running mates for geographic or ideological balance, or to carry a big state's electoral votes, are gone with the wind. Lyndon Johnson, who won Texas for Kennedy in 1960, was probably the last veep who delivered a major state for his ticket.
"You would never pick Barack Obama if you were simply trying to add a big state's electoral votes," says Sabato. Illinois has become reliably Democratic in presidential years. Even Florida, with its black population of 14 percent, probably would not swing Democratic merely because of the identity of the vice presidential hopeful. Rather, Sabato says, Obama's effect would be to stimulate turnout and enthusiasm nationwide.
"If I were the presidential candidate in making this decision," says Rose, "I would do an awful lot of testing and polling" to tell exactly where and how Obama might boost the ticket.
Although former Bill Clinton consultant Dick Morris foresees a Hillary Clinton–Obama ticket in 2008 (see A Ticket to Ride), he argues that no Democratic presidential nominee besides Senator Clinton would choose a black running mate. That is because, he says, the party already has the black vote in its pocket. "They basically say, ‘I've got 12 percent of the [national] vote; now the whole election is about how I win the other 39.'"
Susan Estrich, who as Michael Dukakis's campaign manager in 1988 was the first woman to run a presidential campaign, has written a book, The Case for Hillary Clinton. Like Morris, she expects Clinton will be the 2008 presidential nominee, but she does not look for a Clinton-Obama ticket.
"People will put him on the short list so that they can say they had an African American on it," Estrich says. However, "the first woman to run for president will make a very safe and conventional choice for vice president. I know who her closest adviser will be [Bill Clinton], and he would think, ‘Don't take two risks.'
"I would expect Hillary to choose an old, gray-haired white man with glasses. That would be just fine for Barack. There are lots of opportunities for him in a Clinton administration. He could be vice president in the second term."
In the event that a white male is nominated for president in '08, which one would be most apt to pick Obama as his running mate? Political logic suggests, Estrich says, that "the more conservative the nominee, the more he [Obama] would help."
Beyond such speculation, Daley thinks Obama's supporters might press him to accept the second place on the ticket or even to angle for it. "I'm sure there will be a lot of people saying, ‘If you can get the vice presidential spot, take it. Even if you don't win, you can run the next time around.' That is where his real pressure will come."
Such pressure could come in the form of pleas from party elders for Obama to join the ticket for the sake of a Democratic victory in 2008. "You may never know about it unless he is selected," says Shrum. "It's possible that Obama will not want it. He could put out privately to the nominee, ‘I don't want to do this.'"
Asked how he might respond to a vice presidential draft, Obama is noncommittal: "There is a lot of speculation out there."
And if he doesn't run?
With his popularity and influence, Obama stands a chance to be a potential president-maker, effectively bestowing the nomination with a well-timed endorsement during the primaries. But asked whether he might endorse someone in the primaries, Obama thinks for a moment, then calls it "unlikely" for reasons of protocol: "Three-quarters of the candidates will probably be my [Senate] colleagues." He alludes to Senators Clinton of New York, Kerry of Massachusetts, and Biden of Delaware (no doubt there are other presidential wannabes in the Senate).
In the meantime, Obama seems to be resisting what his consultant David Axelrod calls "breathing those intoxicating fumes" of presidential fever. Paul M. Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University, says, "Basically, he has stayed hot by staying cool. When you are that hot, you can burn out quickly."
"A couple of things help me maintain some perspective," Obama says. "My political success comes relatively late, although I'm young for a senator. . . . Politics is fickle and dependent on a lot of things that have nothing to do with the merits of the candidate."
He points out that he has had the humbling experience of losing an election-"spanked like a baldheaded stepchild." His 2000 challenge of Bobby Rush came after Richard Daley had thrashed Rush in the 1999 mayoral election. Obama got just 31 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary in Rush's South Side congressional district. ("There were a lot of people who convinced Barack to run, probably white people who did not live in the district," says Bill Daley, the mayor's brother. "Rich never thought that Bobby Rush was vulnerable in his own district.")
Obama now attributes his defeat in part to the fact that he did not first bring his wife, Michelle, fully on board, just assumed she would "carry the load" in the family while her husband was off campaigning. Obama says Michelle and their daughters, Malia, 7, and Sasha, 5, keep him grounded.
Michelle Obama, like her husband, is a Harvard Law graduate, though she first met Barack in Chicago. She formerly worked for the Daley administration and now is vice president for community affairs at University of Chicago Hospitals. The couple recently moved into a new home near Barack's mother-in-law's house in Hyde Park, where Michelle grew up.
At the black enterprise forum last October at McCormick Place-one of the rare Obama appearances that have attracted no coverage from the mainstream media-the public radio and TV host Tavis Smiley asked the senator how he stood up under all the African American aspirations heaped on his head. "This is something the outside world imposes on our community, this notion that there is one black leader," Obama said. "My whole thing is, we have got a collective leadership. . . . That comforts me because that tells me that I don't have to carry this all on my shoulders."
Further, "I got into politics because it makes me angry and sad when I see little kids in my neighborhood who nobody is looking after, who are running around with no education, no opportunity. . . . That is such an overwhelming task that the task itself will keep you humble."
Most important, Obama concluded, is religious faith. He attends the huge Trinity United Church of Christ and said he prays every night for three things: "Forgive my sins; protect my loved ones; make me an instrument of your will."
At one point during his talk, Obama told the audience that to become successful, you need "honest self-assessment." He said he never reads positive press notices-he just wants to read negative reviews to learn where he might need to improve.
These days, Obama must lack for reading matter.
Photography by Jeff Sciortino