IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Barack Obama's favorite Republican?

Barack Obama has been dropping the name of Senate colleague Dick Lugar a lot lately.  Who is the Indiana Republican? And why does the Democratic presidential nominee like him so much?
Sens. Richard Lugar and Barack Obama leave the home of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, following their visit to Russia for talks on nuclear facilities. Lindsey Parnaby / EPA
/ Source: NBC News

Since the first day of his presidential campaign, Barack Obama has been dropping the name of his Senate colleague, Republican Dick Lugar.

On February 10, 2007, when he announced his candidacy in Springfield, Ill., Obama proclaimed, "I've worked with Republican Sen. Dick Lugar…"

In a rally this summer in Indiana he told the crowd, "I've worked with Indiana's own Republican Sen. Dick Lugar…"

Obama even featured him in a campaign ad, saying, “What I did was reach out to Sen. Dick Lugar, a Republican…"

And during Wednesday's final presidential debate, the Democrat gave Lugar his highest praise yet. He said the Republican was among a handful of people "who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House."

So why does the Democratic presidential nominee keep invoking the name of a 76-year-old Republican from Indiana?

Meet Dick Lugar
Dick Lugar may not be a household name, but he's well known within international security circles. And he's famous to world leaders who are trying to protect their countries from nuclear attack.

In 1991, Lugar teamed up with Sam Nunn, then a Democratic senator, to create a program aimed at securing and dismantling the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons inside the former Soviet Union.

And it was a success. The Nunn-Lugar Act facilitated the destruction of more than 700 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the deactivation of some 7,000 nuclear warheads.

Obama would later find a way to link his name to this legislation — connecting himself to its authors’ global security efforts.

Fighting loose nukes together
As a candidate for U.S. Senate in 2004, Obama frequently spoke of the need to keep “loose nukes” out the hands of terrorists and rogue nations. He often cited the accomplishments of the Nunn-Lugar Act. And that caught the Indiana senator’s attention.

The day after Obama was elected to the Senate, Lugar wrote him a letter. At the time, he was the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and advised Obama to ask the Democratic leadership for a spot on panel.

The freshman senator followed up with a phone call to Lugar. And when the Republican dropped the gavel at first committee meeting of the 109th Congress, Obama was seated at the very end of the dais. He was the panel’s newest Democratic member.

That summer, Obama joined the GOP legislator on a 10-day trip to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Russia to see the Nunn-Lugar program in action.

The trip allowed the much younger Democratic senator to spend quality time with the veteran, globetrotting Republican. Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher described it as the kind of one-on-one face time that no longer defines how Capitol Hill relationships are solidified. "You have dinners together, travel together, talk about issues, and take long bus rides.”

A few months later, the unlikely duo offered its own legislation to expand the Nunn-Lugar program. The bill sailed easily through Congress and was signed into law by President Bush. To this day, it remains a selling point for Obama on the campaign trail.

The bill gave the former Illinois state legislator international recognition on a topic that translated easily to voters. "The single most important national security threat we face is nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists," said Obama in the presidential campaign ad that included pictures from the Lugar trip.

"What I did was reach out to Senator Dick Lugar — a Republican — to help lockdown loose nuclear weapons."

At a news conference in July, Lugar was asked about being featured in a Democratic campaign commercial. The Republican senator said the ad was "accurate" and added, "I'm pleased we had the association Sen. Obama describes." 

And as recently as Wednesday, Lugar was willing to look past party lines and applaud Obama‘s foreign policy platform.

At the National Defense University, the senator said, “As Sen. Obama has argued, isolating regimes, though sometimes necessary, rarely leads to a resolution of contentious issues.”

“He correctly cautions against the implication that hostile nations must be dealt with almost exclusively through isolation or military force,” continued Lugar. “In some cases, refusing to talk can even be dangerous.”

Obama’s singular sensation?
In a presidential race that pits John McCain's 26 years of congressional experience against Obama’s four, passing the Lugar-Obama bill is arguably one of the senator’s high marks in his legislative career.

But while it may bolster Obama's credentials on bipartisanship cooperation and national security, the McCain campaign is not impressed.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers applauded the duo's work, but quickly added "that was a non-controversial issue." The bill passed both houses of Congress virtually unopposed.

"It just doesn't serve as an example of the kinds of tough stands and alliances that Sen. McCain has built over the years," Rogers said.

He cited the Arizona senator’s previous work on campaign finance and immigration reform where McCain "basically alienated the party base."

The Republican echoed that sentiment during Wednesday’s debate. "I have fought against spending. I have fought against special interests. I have fought for reform," said McCain as he grilled Obama during their final debate on Wednesday. "You have to tell me one time when you have stood up to the leaders of your party on one single major issue."

While the Lugar-Obama legislation wasn’t raised in a response to this statement, the Indiana Republican’s name was brought up later in the debate.

“Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee,” he said. 

"Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House."

Lugar, the stalwart Republican
Lugar has made it clear from outset that he is a loyal Republican and McCain supporter. He says he’s not looking for a seat at the table of a possible Obama administration.

Fisher says that the senator "has endorsed McCain, voted for him in the Indiana primary, and will vote for him in the general."

In a recent interview with the South Bend Tribune in his home state, Lugar said, "From the time that I came back from the Navy…I've wanted to be my own boss — an independent spirit."