The Fresh Face

First-term Senator Barack Obama has the charisma and the ambition to run for President. But, as Joe Klein reports from the campaign trail, he's not quite ready to answer the tough questions

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Yikes. But then Obama is nothing if not candid about his uncertainties and imperfections. In Dreams from My Father, which was written before he became a politician, he admits to cocaine and marijuana use and also to attending socialist meetings. In The Audacity of Hope, I counted 28 impolitic or self-deprecating admissions. Immediately, on page 3, he admits to political "restlessness," which is another way of saying he's ambitious. He flays himself for enjoying private jets, which eliminate the cramped frustrations of commercial flying but--on the other hand!--isolate him from the problems of average folks. He admits that his 2004 Senate opponent, Alan Keyes, got under his skin. He blames himself for "tensions" in his marriage; he doubts his "capacities" as a husband and father. He admits a nonpopulist affinity for Dijon mustard; he cops to being "grumpy" in the morning. He even offers his media consultant David Axelrod's opinions about the best negative TV ads that could have been used against him in the 2004 Senate campaign. (He once--accidentally, he says--voted against a bill to "protect our children from sex offenders.")

There is a method to this anguish. Self-deprecation and empathy are powerful political tools. Obama's candor is reminiscent of John McCain, who once said of his first marriage, "People wouldn't think so highly of me if they knew more about that." Obama's empathy is reminiscent of Bill Clinton, although the Senator's compassion tends to be less damp than Clinton's: it's more about understanding your argument than feeling your pain. Both those qualities have been integral to Obama's charm from the start. His Harvard Law School classmate Michael Froman told me Obama was elected president of the Law Review, the first African American to hold that prestigious position, because of his ability to win over the conservatives in their class. "It came down to Barack and a guy named David Goldberg," Froman recalls. "Most of the class were liberals, but there was a growing conservative Federalist Society presence, and there were real fights between right and left about almost every issue. Barack won the election because the conservatives thought he would take their arguments into account."

After three years as a civil rights lawyer and law professor in Chicago, Obama was elected to the Illinois state senate and quickly established himself as different from most of the other African-American legislators. "He was passionate in his views," says state senator Dave Syverson, a Republican committee chairman who worked on welfare reform with Obama. "We had some pretty fierce arguments. We went round and round about how much to spend on day care, for example. But he was not your typical party-line politician. A lot of Democrats didn't want to have any work requirement at all for people on welfare. Barack was willing to make that deal."

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