Obama: From unknown to nominee

Image: Barack Obama
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a failure in his first political foray just eight years ago, has vaulted to the pinnacle of the Democratic Party.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When Barack Obama arrived at the Democratic National Convention eight years ago, he was a politician in need of clout.

He had just been trounced in his bid for Congress. His credit card was rejected at the car rental counter. He couldn't snare a floor pass, so he ended up watching most of the speeches on TV monitors in the arena. And he went home early.

His political future was uncertain.

Four years later, Obama attended the 2004 Democratic convention. This time, though, there was a sea change: He had been tapped to be the keynote speaker, a coveted spot for up-and-comers — and as a U.S. Senate nominee generating political buzz, he fit the bill.

Obama still was a lowly state lawmaker, a virtual unknown to the cheering delegates gathered in the Boston convention hall that July night. But his words lit up the crowd.

Now jump forward to the 2008 Democratic convention.

On Aug. 28, Barack Obama will step on the stage at the 50-yard line at the Denver Broncos football stadium before a crowd of 75,000 to accept the Democratic nomination for president. He will be at the apex of American politics — a phenomenon who smashed every fundraising record, drew astounding crowds, and made history.

How did this man go so far so fast?

He's a natural, obviously — a candidate with political savvy and electrifying oratory, enormous confidence and calm, fierce ambition and a keen sense of timing, and an uncanny knack of making friends and forging connections in all the right places.

"He's just a complete political talent," says Abner Mikva, a former Illinois congressman and federal judge who is an Obama mentor. "He likes to get along with people. He likes to listen to them."

Obama has something else going for him, too — good fortune.

"He is a lucky politician," Mikva notes. "A lucky politician is one who knows how to take advantage of a break when he gets it."

Barack Obama also has a life story unlike that of any man ever nominated for the nation's highest office. And while his unconventional experiences have made him an unconventional candidate, they also have helped fuel his extraordinary rise.

"It is one of the most unlikely political biographies," says Sen. Dick Durbin, a fellow Illinois Democrat and Obama friend. "Look at his life and there are half a dozen times when he could have failed ... being abandoned by his father, his (troubled) adolescent years. ... But he seems to weather adversity better than most."

"It's a leap electing a 46-year-old black guy named Barack Obama," the Illinois senator told a crowd in July at a Missouri fundraiser.

It's not just his biracial roots and foreign-sounding name that set him apart.

It's his youth spent wrestling with questions about his racial identity and an African father he barely knew. It's his admission that he dabbled in drugs as a teen, the kind of revelation, made in his memoir, rarely divulged by politicians.

It's his odyssey from low-prestige community organizer in the poverty-ravaged corners of Chicago to the high-powered corridors of Harvard Law School.

And it's his rapid climb up the political ladder, starting in a sleepy prairie state capital where no one has made it to the White House since Abraham Lincoln.

"He has this unusual combination of life experiences that don't fit in any stereotype," says Valerie Jarrett, his close friend and adviser.

The first chapters of Barack Obama's life story are familiar by now.

The Kansas-born mother, Stanley (her father wanted a boy) Ann Dunham. The Kenyan-born father, Barack Obama Sr. Their meeting at the University of Hawaii, their marriage, the birth of Barack — "blessed" in Arabic — on Aug. 4, 1961. The father's departure two years later to study at Harvard, his return just once when his son was 10.

The exotic childhood in Indonesia, homeland of his stepfather, Lolo Soetero; the exposure to poverty and beggars, crocodiles and roasted grasshopper.

And then, after his mother's second marriage broke up, the return to Hawaii, where the young Obama — then known as Barry — enrolled in the prestigious Punahou School, a private academy in Honolulu.

Back then, there were no obvious signs (unless you count a grade school essay) that pointed to politics as his destiny.

As a teen, Obama was smart and liked to read but "he wasn't particularly driven or ambitious," says his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng. "He wasn't part of student government. He wasn't in any AP (advanced placement) classes. He was a young man concerned with ... hanging out with his buddies, playing basketball, body surfing and eating in excess."

When his mother's work as an anthropologist took her back to Indonesia, Obama stayed behind for high school, living with his maternal grandparents, Madelyn, known as Tutu or Toot (Hawaiian for grandparent), and Stanley, or Gramps.

He played golf and poker, he perfected his left-handed pump shot on a playground into the night (he had a minor role on his school's championship basketball team), he sang in the choir, he listened to the music of Earth Wind & Fire.

In some ways, he was a typical teen. In other ways, he was anything but: His mother was far away, his father was gone forever, he had already lived in a Third World nation and was growing up in the melting pot of Hawaii — all of which shaped him into someone who could easily adapt to change.

"My mother was pretty instrumental in helping Barack cultivate this internal flexibility," Maya says. "After the childhood we had, different could never be jarring or dislocating."

Those early years, though, were difficult for Obama.

"I spent much of my childhood adrift," he said in a recent speech. "Growing up I wasn't always sure who I was or what I was doing."

He struggled with questions about his race and identity, and in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," he described how he turned to drugs — including marijuana and cocaine — to "push questions of who I was out of my mind."

But he concealed that turmoil.

"He always has been a lone traveler," his half-sister says. "He's a gregarious guy and he loves people, but he also loves his own company. He doesn't expect those closest to him to be all things to him."

His personality, she adds, doesn't fit into one neat category.

"He is equal portions laid-back and deeply focused," Maya says. "It's not all fire inside of him. There are wide cool pools of water as well."

At Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama — who started using his given name, Barack — took his first plunge into politics, speaking at an anti-apartheid rally.

Obama was confident and casual on campus — he favored flip-flops, shorts and a trim Afro — and not one to dominate dorm discussions about political issues, such as the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan.

"He didn't get in people's faces," says Ken Sulzer, who lived in the same dorm and is now a California lawyer. "He wasn't trying to get people's goats or get a rise out of them."

Sulzer also remembers one particular Obama talent. While Sulzer took pages of notes during a class on political thought, Obama, he says, "would have two very pithy paragraphs and it would all be in there. ... He was a very good writer. He was succinct."

But Occidental was a small liberal arts college and Obama wanted to expand his horizons, so he transferred across the country to Columbia University in New York.

"I didn't socialize that much. I was like a monk," he said in a 2005 Columbia alumni magazine interview.

Obama graduated with a political science degree and held a few jobs in New York. It was there he received a call from an aunt in Nairobi notifying him his father had been killed in an auto accident. The news eventually led Obama on a journey to Kenya and a tearful visit to his father's grave.

After New York, Obama headed to a city where he knew no one, taking a low-paying job, facing a formidable challenge — motivating poor people to participate in a political system that had traditionally shut them out.

Going to Chicago proved to be a much smarter move than it looked at first.

Starting out as a $12,000-a-year community organizer, Obama walked the run-down streets of the South Side that had been decimated by the loss of steel mills and factory jobs.

Working for the Developing Communities Project, Obama met with black pastors and tried to mobilize people to speak up for themselves — whether it was lobbying for a job training center or cleaning up public housing.

He established an easy rapport with people in the community, many of whom treated him like a son (they teasingly called him "baby face.")

"He would tell us you've got to do things right, you've got to take the high road," says Loretta Augustine-Herron, one of the project founders. "He would talk about no permanent friends, no permanent enemies. He would say, 'Don't get personalities involved."'

Obama — who calls his organizing work "the best education I ever had" — became a skilled conciliator, says Gerald Kellman, the man who hired him.

"He became very effective at getting people who did initially did not get along ... to work together and build alliances," Kellman says. "He found a way to be tough and challenging when he didn't like something. At the same time, he was not one to burn his bridges with people."

Chicago was the city where Obama put down roots. He joined the Trinity United Church of Christ and became friends with its pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose incendiary comments about race and America would later raise questions about Obama's judgment and threaten to derail his presidential campaign. (Obama denounced the remarks after they created a national uproar; he no longer attends the church.)

Chicago also was Obama's political boot camp, where he learned how to win over skeptics who wondered why that tall, skinny guy was at their door when Harold Washington, the first black mayor, was in City Hall.

"Black people would say, 'Harold will take care of the problem. Why do we need a community organizer?"' recalls Mike Kruglik, a fellow organizer. "He'd say, 'We have to build the power ... we can't trust any individual politician."'

Obama was not all work. He attended Chicago Bulls games and wrote short fictional stories that evocatively captured the feel of the streets. (He later wrote two best-selling books, one of them a memoir.)

Obama also remained close to his family. After her father died, Maya, who is nine years younger, says Obama "really took on the role of a father," taking her on college tours, introducing her to jazz, blues and classical music — and, much later, consoling her when their mother died of ovarian cancer at age 53.

After three years, Obama had become increasingly pragmatic about what he could accomplish as an organizer. "The victories were small, they changed peoples' lives, but they didn't change American society and he wanted to do that," Kellman says.

Obama made a giant leap from the gritty South Side to the heady atmosphere of Harvard Law School, the training ground for America's elite. He made history there, as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, perhaps the most prestigious law journal in the nation.

The distinction brought a wave of publicity. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Obama said a Harvard education "means you can take risks. You can try to do things to improve society and still land on your feet."

After his first year, Obama was a summer associate at a corporate law firm in Chicago where his adviser was Michelle Robinson, another Harvard law graduate and a product of a working-class family. They later married, and had two daughters, Malia, now 10, and Sasha, 7.

As Obama prepared to leave Harvard, job offers poured in.

But he already had a plan. He would return to Chicago for a political career.

At first, he chose a behind-the-scenes job.

Obama ran a voter registration drive that added tens of thousands to the rolls. "He was very straightforward and had a no-nonsense, all-the-cards-on-the-table approach," recalls Sandy Newman, founder of the national group, Project Vote!

Obama also began carefully mapping out a path that positioned him for public office.

He joined a small, politically connected boutique law firm that did civil rights litigation. He and his wife, Michelle, lived in Hyde Park, the racially mixed neighborhood around the University of Chicago that is home to progressive politics, intellectuals and a sprinkling of Nobel Prize winners.

"By choosing to move to Hyde Park, he moved in an area where an independent can come out of nowhere to win," says Don Rose, a veteran political strategist. "By choosing to work at (that law firm), he was making a political statement to where he stood."

Many people were interested in Obama's ascent in politics, including real estate developer Antoin "Tony" Rezko, whose friendship and financial help would later provide ammunition to the senator's critics and opponents.

Rezko raised funds for many Illinois politicians, including Obama. He was recently convicted of using his influence with the administration of Gov. Rod Blagojevich to launch a $7 million fraud and extortion scheme.

Obama was accused of no wrongdoing and barely mentioned in the trial, but his association with Rezko proved an embarrassment — it was mentioned during the debates — in the primary season. Obama gave $250,000 from Rezko-related contributions to charity.

Obama also broadened his circle of acquaintances, impressing influential Democrats and party donors who proved invaluable in his campaigns.

Obama was "a great networker," Rose says. "He worked all the right circles. If you don't like the guy, he's a calculating politician. If you do, he's a smart, methodical worker. He does nothing that's different from most politicians, even the reform politicians. The difference is he's extraordinarily gifted. ... His greatest capability is he never makes the same mistake twice."

But that skill was nothing without a political opportunity. While waiting for one, Obama became a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He taught constitutional law. He was popular with students and faculty, though some found him a bit remote.

"He's a great conversationalist and a good listener," says Richard Epstein, a law school professor who was not a close friend. "But he never tips his hand to what he thinks. You feel you're on stage and have to perform. ... At the end of the day, you don't know whether you've changed his mind or not."

In 1996, Obama was elected to the state Senate, but as a member of the Democratic minority, his legislative proposals were consistently thwarted by Republicans. Some dismissed him as an ivory tower liberal.

"Law professors, especially those from a place like the University of Chicago, are viewed with a jaundiced eye" in the Illinois legislature, says state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican and Obama friend. "Some members of both parties thought that Barack was longwinded and a tad aloof and arrogant. Not me."

It didn't help that one issue he tackled was ethics reform.

Dillard recalls one prominent Democrat saying to Obama: "'How much money do you have in your campaign fund? You don't have two nickels to rub together."'

"It's a little ironic today," Dillard adds, referring to Obama's stunning success of raising an unprecedented $390 million during his presidential run.

Obama won over many lawmakers in nearly eight years in Springfield. He played in weekly poker games, befriending suburban and white rural legislators. He also had an important ally in an old-school Chicago Democrat who became Senate president when the party took control of the chamber, a change that increased Obama's influence.

Obama had several legislative successes. He passed measures that limited lobbyists' gifts to politicians, helped expand health care to poor children and changed laws governing racial profiling, the death penalty and the interrogation of murder suspects.

He generally was a liberal, but he reached across party lines to work with Republicans.

"Barack can compromise without giving up his principles," says Dillard, who appeared in an early Obama campaign commercial and is a John McCain convention delegate. "He's a realist and he knows when to fold his cards."

Obama stumbled badly, though, in 2000 when he challenged Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther member with deep roots in the community.

During that contest, Obama was dogged by the question raised by some pundits and black politicians — whether he was "black enough" for the district.

Obama says there never has been any question about his being black. In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," he wrote about how race has shaped his own life, facing indignities such as security guards trailing him in stores or people mistaking him for a parking valet.

"I know what it's like to have people tell me I can't do something because of my color, and I know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger," he wrote.

But in that congressional campaign, Obama was seen as the outsider. Rush, the insider, crushed him by 31 percentage points in the primary.

Two years later, Obama set his sights on another office: U.S. Senate.

His friend, Valerie Jarrett, was skeptical. "'My gosh, you can't lose two races in a row. You'll be done in politics,"' she recalls telling him. "He said, 'If it's OK with me, it should be OK with you. I'm not afraid of losing."'

A series of breaks helped propel Obama to a landslide win.

Months later, Obama impressed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry during a joint campaign appearance in Chicago, leading to his stirring keynote speech.

In 17 minutes, Obama went from an obscure state lawmaker to a force in national politics.

"It didn't surprise me at all," Kerry says. "If you have the ability to communicate ... and the timing is right, the moment is right, things come together. All those ingredients were there for Barack."

"I may have opened the door," Kerry adds. "He's the one who walked through it and did the heavy lifting."

When Barack Obama announced his presidential candidacy 18 months ago at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., he was still unknown to most Americans.

A freshman senator, Obama had been in Washington just two years — not long enough to leave much of a footprint. But even before he took office, some political phrasemakers started calling him a "rock star."

He appeared on numerous magazine covers, won two Grammys for recording his best-selling books, made TV appearances, received hundreds of invitations a week and traveled the country in 2006, stumping for Democratic candidates — building up chits along the way.

The spotlight only grew during the primary season, prompting a mocking TV ad this summer from John McCain, the GOP candidate, trying to portray Obama as a celebrity without the gravitas to be president.

But Obama proved to be an enormous draw on the campaign trail, packing arenas with overflow crowds as he promised an end to the Iraq war, a new era of bipartisanship in Washington and "change we can believe in."

Though he did not focus on race, it inevitably became part of the campaign as he racked up huge support among black voters.

His newcomer's status and compelling biography have helped and hurt him on his way to the nomination.

On the downside, he has been forced to spend much time debunking bogus rumors — spread on the Internet — that he is a Muslim, won't recite the Pledge of Allegiance and didn't use a Bible when he was sworn into the Senate.

But his youth and lack of seniority — Republicans call it inexperience — have been an asset, too, especially among young voters. They've been a key bloc of supporters and see Obama as a fresh face who can jolt Washington out of its well-worn groove.

As part of the Facebook generation, these younger voters have been among the more than 2 million people who've poured donations — many of them contributing small amounts — into a campaign that has become a financial juggernaut.

"He tapped into the new technology better than any candidate ever has, he knew what to do with the Internet and e-mail in a way no candidate has," says Durbin, his fellow Illinois Democrat. "He has turned it into an art form."

In Denver, though, Obama will turn to the old-fashioned powers of speechmaking when he steps on stage to address the crowd.

And this time, the tens of thousands of people will know exactly who he is.