“To some degree—and I say this fairly explicitly in my book—we have seen the psychodrama of the baby-boom generation play out over the last 40 years,” says Obama as we’re driving through ravishing acres of corn and soy. “When you watch Clinton versus Gingrich or Gore versus Bush or Kerry versus Bush, you feel like these are fights that were taking place back in dorm rooms in the sixties. Vietnam, civil rights, the sexual revolution, the role of government—all that stuff has just been playing itself out, and I think people sort of feel like, Okay, let’s not re-litigate the sixties 40 years later.” He rattles off some of the familiar dichotomies—isolationism versus intervention, big government versus small. “These either/or formulations are wearisome,” he says. “They’re not useful. The reality outstrips the mental categories we’re operating in.”
It’s not a coincidence that Obama’s keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention, which turned him into a sensation, rejected either/or formulations, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states …
Another of Obama’s political advantages is authenticity, that overused term which, for Obama, seems exact. “He’s real,” says Senator Jay Rockefeller, Obama’s colleague from West Virginia. “He knows who he is. And he’s someone who, I assume, would vote the way he feels.” For a party that just ran Al Gore and John Kerry—two men fundamentally estranged from themselves, terrified of saying anything that hadn’t first been printed on index cards—this trait has enormous appeal. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Obama on the Senate floor: He was telling a story to his colleagues when suddenly, quite theatrically, he struck a runner’s pose, like Jesse Owens at full tilt. It was such a strange, un-Senate-like moment to witness, totally unself-conscious and free of pomp. The other senators started laughing wildly. Later, I asked what he was doing, expecting he’d fudge an answer. Obama grinned. “Uh …” he said slowly. “We were talking about, uh, the strategy that I’d observed among some unnamed senators for, uh, ducking out of boring hearings.”
Perhaps the most captivating component of Obama’s appeal, though, is that he is only the third black candidate to be elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. And if you’re only the third black senator in 130 years, you are bound to be the vessel for many people’s hopes. To white progressives, Obama represents the fantasy of racial reconciliation, the black RFK. To affirmative-action skeptics, he’s Horatio Alger, proof that this country affords equal opportunities to anyone who works hard enough. (Obama’s mother was a middle-class woman from Kansas; Obama’s father started out as a goatherd in Kenya.) Whatever the case, Obama’s Senate campaign certainly understood the power of white guilt. Its slogan was Yes we can—an energetic rallying cry, certainly, but also a subtle appeal to black pride and white self-respect. It dared the voters of Illinois to change the face of a lily-white institution. Which they did.
And to a younger generation of black politicians, Obama is the embodiment of progress, advancement, hope. Before July of 2004, no one had even heard of Barack Obama. He was a promising but modest figure in Illinois politics, a seven-year veteran of the state senate who’d already made one disastrous attempt for a congressional seat in 2000. But in 2004, he made a longshot bid to run for an open Senate seat. In small towns where the typical response to a person of color was to roll up the car windows, people came pouring out to hear Obama speak. He was immensely popular in both the suburbs of Chicago and the city’s whitest wards. “Twenty years ago, if I’d said there would be lawn signs with pictures of an African-American—with an African surname—all over my district on the northwest side of Chicago, people would have had me tested for drugs,” says Rahm Emanuel, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “Yet there they were.”
“Barack, I think, represents a point of transition,” says Artur Davis, a 38-year-old African-American congressman from Alabama and former law-school classmate of Obama’s. “This is the first generation of African-American politicians who essentially have the same aspirations as their white compatriots. A 25-year-old black kid today who’s talented, who’s well educated, and who’s interested in politics wants to be president—and doesn’t view that as some bizarre goal. That’s what I think Barack will represent: the leading edge of the generation of African-American politicians for whom there are no glass ceilings.”