Obama’s meteoric rise from obscurity to nomination


Washington : Barack Obama was an obscure state legislator from Chicago when he challenged a popular, four-term black US congressman in the Democratic Party primary in 2000.

Support TwoCircles

He lost in a landslide, but Obama caught the attention of Chicago’s political establishment by showing what Chicago politics expert Paul Green called “the audacity to challenge an incumbent congressman in that district”.

Just eight years later, Obama is heading for a general election in November that could make him the first-ever African-American president.

In 2004, as the Democratic nominee for a US senate seat from Illinois, Obama got an unusual opportunity to deliver a prime-time address to the party’s national convention.

He captured the imagination of the national media and Democrats across the country with a speech advocating typical centre-left policies, but skilfully leavened with idealistic calls for unity.

In words that are now standard components of his presidential stump speech, Obama struck a chord at the Boston convention: “There is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America.”

Young and charismatic, he ran away with Illinois’ senate seat in the November 2004 general election, and arrived in Washington with a team of unusually prominent advisers for a freshman senator.

It soon became clear that Obama was weighing a presidential bid, and in February 2007 he declared himself a candidate.

Well organised from the beginning, his campaign was quickly able to compete with Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s own formidable fundraising machine, making him an immediate, legitimate contender.

After posting a surprise victory in the January 2008 Iowa caucus, Obama battled Clinton to a draw in the so-called Super Tuesday primaries a few weeks later.

He dominated the former first lady for the rest of February and never again relinquished his lead in the race to the Democratic nomination, which has been among the closest contests in the history of the major US political parties.

He was the youngest candidate in the 2008 presidential field and will be 47 when he accepts the nomination at the Democratic convention in August in Denver, Colorado.

The roots of Obama’s success can be seen in his early political career.

The son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, he is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School who chose social activism and community organising in poor neighbourhoods on Chicago’s South Side over what could have been a high-powered legal career.

As a presidential candidate, Obama has what is often described as a “post-racial” appeal that crosses social lines with unusual ease.

The outlines of the unusual coalition that secured his presidential nomination were already visible in his Illinois state legislative district: progressive, urban professionals and disadvantaged minority communities.

Obama’s failed 2000 congressional bid actually saw him do better with voters in mostly white suburbs than among the inner-city blacks who were a majority in the district.

Battling an African-American incumbent, Obama found himself accused of being “a white man with a black face,” Green recalled.

“He’s always had the ability to get votes from upper-income, well-educated white folks,” said Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Obama’s presidential run was ignited in 2007 by support – and an unprecedented flood of campaign donations – from a similar base of affluent, mostly white voters.

Only after proving his viability in the Iowa caucus did African Americans, who have been the Democratic Party’s most reliable constituency, move en masse to back Obama.

Despite the unifying themes of his lofty rhetoric, Obama’s positions on issues are the conventional stuff of the centre-left Democrats: rapid withdrawal from Iraq, scepticism toward free trade, higher taxes on the wealthy, government-organised health care.

“He is who he is. He’s basically a Kansas Kenyan,” said Green. “It’s now working for him.”