Obama's Ascent

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SAMANTHA APPLETON / AURORA FOR TIME

ROCK STAR Obama, here on Columbus Day in Chicago, draws racially mixed crowds around the state

In January Barack Obama, 43, will become the only African American in the U.S. Senate—and just the third in the past 100 years. Although that alone should be ample cause for contemplation, Obama's is really a story about what might be. In the past year, Obama has been compared, in all seriousness, to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bill Clinton. Democrats debate whether he should run for President in 2012 or 2016. "No Chicago pol has heard this kind of flattery since an Alderman compared Richard J. Daley to Jesus Christ," noted the Chicago Reader.

In Washington the test begins. As the only black Senator, Obama will face expectations that will be hard to fulfill—especially if he wants to be a national candidate someday. "My greatest fear for Barack is that he'll be in the background, another black face in the sea of whiteness," says Donna Brazile, a veteran strategist who ran Al Gore's campaign in 2000. For now, she says, "he doesn't have to become the next black leader. He has to become a great Senator from the state of Illinois."

Luckily, one of Obama's gifts is that he is meticulously self-aware, and he knows that the frenzy that surrounds him doesn't entirely make sense. Shortly before his victory, we met at his campaign headquarters in Chicago—sandwiched between his appointments with Charles Barkley and celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz. "What's going on? I'm not entirely sure," he said, looking tired but steady. "I think what people are most hungry for in politics right now is authenticity."

The inflection point in Obama's career came in Boston on the night of July 27, when he delivered one of the best speeches in convention history. Facing thousands of needy Democrats, he described a country that America wants very badly to be: a country not pockmarked by racism and fear or led by politicians born into privilege and coached into automatons. He described a place in which an African immigrant could marry a Midwestern white woman and their middle-class son could go to Harvard Law School and run for the U.S. Senate. Say what you will about America's current reputation in the world, but few would argue with his central, shining point: "In no other country on earth is my story even possible."

Since then, Obama has become a repository for all kinds of breathless hopes: black and white, red and blue. At rallies, people lean in to touch him, to whisper their thanks. The media often reduce his appeal to melting-pot Mad Libs, but no one raises a $14.3 million war chest just because he has an "unusual background." "I don't think that's by any stretch of the imagination the largest part of the story," says Ronald Walters, a former adviser to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "You have to ask yourself, Why has this guy been so successful?"

"this young man has set Illinois on fire and set America on fire. He's the future of the Democratic Party!" said Gwen Moore, a Democrat running for Congress, when she introduced Obama at a rally for Senator Russ Feingold in Milwaukee, Wis., on Oct. 9. By then, Obama—45 points ahead of his opponent, Republican Alan Keyes—was spending much of his time campaigning for other politicians. On this bright Saturday morning in a swing state, Moore could be forgiven for getting carried away. "He's all of us! He's not black! He's not white! He's not, you know ... ," she faltered in mid-sentence. "I was going to say, 'He's not male. He's not female,'" she said, laughing. Obama strode onto the stage wearing a black blazer and a white collared shirt, squinting into the sun as the crowd roared. He kept one hand in his pocket and surveyed the scene. As always, the bigger the crowd, the better his speech, and he warmed up quickly this time. "My wife knows whether I'm a man or a woman. I just wanted Gwen to know that," he said calmly. Then he got louder as he talked about how, until recently, no one knew his name. And if people did know it, they couldn't pronounce it. Then, with his humility established, Obama began to describe his vision for the Democratic Party. "There is another tradition in politics that says we're all connected," he said. "I don't just have to worry about my own child. I have to worry about the child that cannot read. It's not enough that I am part of the African-American community. I've got to worry about the Arab-American family that John Ashcroft is rounding up, because I might be next." It was Obama as Everyman, and the crowd was mesmerized.

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