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

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Obama is charismatic, but not in a jovial, Clintonian kind of way. He is intense, surprisingly so. He has a way of telling you something as if it's the only time he has told it to anyone (even if, like all politicians, he is working you with the same line he has used at every ballroom in the state). His brow is almost always furrowed, and his voice is deep, even somber, despite his boyish face. And unlike, say, John Kerry, Obama is a master at shaping his own mythology. When he talks of his childhood, we hear little of his Hawaii years, of his fondness for bodysurfing and sashimi. Instead we hear in every speech that his mother was from Kansas ("That's why I talk the way I do") and his father was from Kenya ("He grew up herding goats, went to school in a tin-roof shack").

Ahem. Obama does not have a Kansas accent; he grew up in Honolulu except from ages 6 to 10, when he and his mother lived in Indonesia. His father, though a potent symbol in his childhood, left when Obama was 2. Aside from letters and one visit, he was absent from his son's life. When Obama was 21, his father died in a car accident in Kenya.

But Obama's background resonates because it proves his points. Like other young African-American politicians, from Congressmen Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee to Artur Davis of Alabama, Obama doesn't sound like a civil-rights-era black politician. His style is, as he puts it, "not accusing but challenging Americans to live up to the highest ideals." Some call that pandering to whites. But it can appeal to blacks too. "When he talks, you don't think about his color," says Eric Robinson, an African-American barber from Decatur, Ill., at an Obama rally in October.

In 2003 Obama pushed through a bill requiring police to videotape homicide confessions. Similar bills had failed before. But Obama won over police and lawmakers because he didn't just talk about injustice. He talked about efficient policing, and he noted that videos could also serve as a "powerful tool to convict the guilty." Says New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine: "There's an optimism and lack of anger. There is a reach for a positive framing of even negative issues."

Obama walks a careful line on every issue, not just race. He delivers crowd-pleasing attacks on George W. Bush, the outsourcing of jobs and the Iraq war (which he unequivocally opposed from the beginning), but he always accessorizes with a reasonable caveat. His stump speeches call for more federal dollars for Illinois highways and schools. But he disarms critics by talking early and often about the limits of government. "When you've traveled across the state, what you consistently find is a common set of values: hard work, self-respect, delayed gratification," he says. "We all have to acknowledge that government cannot transmit those values. They come from the bottom up." luckily for us, when Obama wrote Dreams from My Father, his autobiography, nine years ago, his political radar was less refined. In Dreams, we are introduced to another, even more interesting Obama. Far from "wrapping himself in the American flag," as Walters and others have accused him of doing in his convention speech, this Obama railed against the suffocating strictures of race. At the elite Punahou prep school in Honolulu, he was one of only seven or eight black students. He found himself filled with a creeping rage for the assumptions his classmates made about him. At the same time, he was terrified by a sense of not belonging. "I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds," he wrote, "convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere."

He spent his afternoons on the basketball court, scraping and searching for an identity. He used marijuana and tried cocaine. His grades slipped. He was acutely aware of the low expectations some white people had for him. "People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves," he wrote. "Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry." Even then, though, "he had powers," remembers his half sister Maya Soetoro-Ng. "He was charismatic. He had lots of friends." In high school, he used to stroll over to the Manoa campus of the University of Hawaii to "meet university ladies," says Soetoro-Ng, who still lives in Honolulu.

As he grew older, Obama wove in and out of the Establishment. After graduating from Columbia University in New York City, he moved to Chicago to be a community organizer—probably the most thankless job in activism, and that's saying something. He pleaded with people at the Altgeld Gardens public-housing project to come to meetings and listen to him patter on about community coalitions. But he was ambitious, and the victories, like bringing a job-intake center to the neighborhood, were not enough. Four years later, Obama went to Harvard Law "to learn power's currency," he wrote. Laurence Tribe, who argued on behalf of Gore before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000, taught Obama constitutional law and chose him as a research assistant. Of the thousands of students Tribe has had, he calls Obama the most impressive overall. "I've known Senators, Presidents. I've never known anyone with what seems to me more raw political talent," says Tribe. "He just seems to have the surest way of calmly reaching across what are impenetrable barriers to many people."

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