Obama Speaks

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There's a lot of reasons you could be jealous of Barack Obama: he's a great public speaker, so handsome that after every public event long lines of mostly women rush to get a picture with him, and counts Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Bill Clinton and Warren Buffett among his admirers. And he just won a spoken-word Grammy for for the audio version of his memoir, "Dreams from My Father." But here's the killer: He doesn't really gain weight. People who've met with him note he's endlessly snacking on nuts or whatever is at hand, and yet his 6'2'' frame remains as trim as ever. "At one point in the campaign, he said if he doesn't work out, he loses weight,' says Robert Gibbs, Obama's spokesman. "And I was like 'you really shouldn't say that anymore."

When he's not in the gym fighting off weight loss, Obama will be working on a bunch of projects that will make his second year in the Senate even busier than his first. He'll be flying all over the country to campaign for congressional Democrats, writing a book detailing his policy views, and taking a two-week trip to Africa that includes stops in Kenya, where some of his relatives live, and Sudan. He's also hoping to push Democrats toward reaching out to religious voters. Obama will give several speeches on the subject, and has been talking to Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who wrote the best-selling book "The Purpose Driven Life," which Obama just finished reading. Here are more of the Illinois Senator's thoughts and insights, from a pair of interviews with TIME earlier this month:

TIME: What surprised you about your first year?

Obama: I'm pleasantly surprised at how much I got done. I feel like we had some concrete accomplishments  ... disappointments ... I'm surprised at the lack of deliberation in the world's greatest deliberative body. We have press releases passing in the night and floor statements nobody is listening to.   And the fact that things move so slow. My  last year in the Illinois Senate, I passed 26 bills in a year.

People worry you're too cautious. What do you think about that?

Where you hear that from typically has been from some of my progressive friends who, I think, have been disappointed I haven't jumped on the bandwagon on some of the positions that they've taken. And truth be told, it's not that I've been cautious, it's just that I disagreed with them. The assumption (from liberals) is, it can't be because I disagree, it's that I'm positioning myself or tacking to the center, or I don't want to pick a fight. What's perceived as caution is really me trying to think through as best I can what the right position is.

I was talking to David Sirota (a liberal blogger who has been critical of some of Obama's votes, such as supporting Condi Rice's nomination to be Secretary of State) — he said you gave him a call. Can you talk about that a little?

I think there's a false choice being presented in the Democratic Party right now, between those who argue that our job is to oppose everything George Bush does and cling to the old-time religion, or the DLC faction where you just split the difference and not notice that over a number of years the goalposts are drifting further and further to the right. What I think we have to do is transcend those categories... So, when I call up a David Sirota or write I to Daily Kos, what I'm trying to do is explain my views in the hope that it bridges some of the divides that exist in the party.

You wrote eloquently on Daily Kos (urging liberals to temper their angry rhetoric after several Senate Democrats voted to confirm Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts last Fall) about how to remake the party. Is it because you perceive them (bloggers) as mattering?

I see them as mattering because there are so few people who are engaged in politics period. I want to encourage participation.  When I look at the blogs, there's a lot of stuff that troubles me about some of the blog sites. It's a lot like talk radio was for conservatives 20, 15 years ago, before it matured. Some folks just go off and they're just venting. But it's also a pretty powerful forum where people who maybe weren't engaged in politics before are really paying attention. And if they're going to take the time to pay attention, then I figured it doesn't hurt for me to give them some attention.

Is it also important  — that progressives think you're a real progressive?

My street cred as a progressive is not something I worry too much about. People can look at the ten years that I've been in politics and pull the legislation I've passed and look at my votes and get a pretty good sense of what my values are and where I'm coming from. That's not something I worry about. . . Politically, I'm very secure. Obviously, things change rapidly, but the typical course for someone like myself who is in a strong position politically is to avoid engagement or conflict. Nobody would know if I didn't write to Daily Kos. I had voted against Roberts, so it wasn't like criticism was raining down on me.

You said Democrats hadn't made the case for a filibuster (of Sam Alito) but then you voted for the filibuster.

What I specifically said was, I will be supporting the filibuster, but I think we have to recognize that if we aren't making the case for our values and winning elections, then procedures inside the Beltway will not save us. I think that's pretty indisputable. I taught constitutional law for ten years, nobody is more mindful of the importance of the courts, although I'm also mindful of the limits of the courts. One of the problems for the Democratic Party is we've been overly reliant on the courts to yank us out of some of our electoral problems. I have confidence we can win elections.

A great example is our avoidance of "red states" during presidential campaigns. The fact that we don't actively campaign in the South makes no sense to me. We may not win every one of those states, but it makes a difference that we don't even bother competing there. Why shouldn't we take our message to Mississippi or Alabama? That's part of the reason Bill Clinton did well, his attitude was, there's nobody I can't talk to.

Have you and Senator McCain made up?

John gets excited sometimes. John's been in the Senate for close to 20 years, he's a war hero, if he wants to vent once in a while, that's not a problem. I think he has good intentions, and both of us want to see a good bill (on lobbying and ethics reform) ... (After his Grammy win), I did tell someone I'm going for an Emmy next. It's going to be for "Best Actor in a Drama Involving John McCain."