The resistible rise of Barack Obama

Jonah Goldberg devotes a good column to the thesis that Barack Obama believes in nothing more than he believes in himself. He collects quotes that illustrate Obama’s adolescent grandiosity, a grandiosity that was dramatically on display in his treatment of Jeremiah Wright.

In a long New Yorker article Ryan Lizza documents the rise of Barack Obama in Chicago from community organizer to United States Senator. Lizza’s article coincidentally demonstrates that Obama’s grandiosity is a quality that can be traced through his years in Chicago. The entire article is worth reading. Below I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting excerpts that illuminate Obama’s character and self-understanding during these years:

Ivory Mitchell, the ward chairman in Obama’s neighborhood, says of Obama that “he was typical of what most aspiring politicians are: self-centered—that ‘I can do anything and I’m willing to do it overnight.’”


Many people who knew Obama then remember him for his cockiness.


{Obama secured the endorsement of state senator Alice Palmer to succeed her while she unsuccessfully sought the Democratic endorsement for a congressional seat and then refused to step aside to let her reclaim her position. Palmer filed a petition for a place on the ballot.] Obama was conciliatory about the awkward political situation, telling the Hyde Park Herald that he understood that some people were upset about the “conflict between old loyalties and new enthusiasms.” Privately, however, he unleashed his operators. With the help of the Dobrys, he was able to remove not just Palmer’s name from the ballot but the name of every other opponent as well. “He ran unopposed, which is a good way to win,” [former D.C. Circuit Judge Abner] Mikva said, laughing at the recollection.


[Obama confronts welfare reform in the state senate.] In an interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer, published a few days after Clinton said that he would sign the welfare-reform bill, Obama talked about the Presidential campaign, saying that Bob Dole “seems to me to be a classic example of somebody who had no reason to run. You’re seventy-three years old, you’re already the third-most-powerful man in the country. So why? . . . And Bill Clinton? Well, his campaign’s fascinating to a student of politics. It’s disturbing to someone who cares about certain issues. But politically it seems to be working.”

Soon, Obama began writing a regular column—“Springfield Report”—for the Hyde Park Herald. In the first one, on February 19, 1997, he wrote, “Last year, President Clinton signed a bill that, for the first time in 60 years, eliminates the federal guarantee of support for poor families and their children.” The column was earnest and wonky. It betrayed no hint of liberal piety about the new law, but emphasized that there weren’t enough entry-level jobs in Chicago to absorb all the welfare recipients who would soon be leaving the system,

The new welfare law was one of the first issues that Obama faced as a legislator. “I am not a defender of the status quo with respect to welfare,” he said, choosing his words with care during debate on the Illinois Senate floor. “Having said that, I probably would not have supported the federal legislation, because I think it had some problems. But I’m a strong believer in making lemonade out of lemons.” Perhaps the law’s most punitive aspect was that it cut off aid to poor legal immigrants, a provision that Clinton, in his 2004 memoir, called “particularly harsh” and “unjustifiable.” The law that Obama helped pass in Illinois restored benefits to this group. (In a continuing effort to produce lemonade, Obama’s first ad of the 2008 general-election campaign says that he “passed laws moving people from welfare to work.”)


[Tony] Rezko was one of the people Obama consulted when he considered running to replace Palmer, and Rezko eventually raised about ten per cent of Obama’s funds for that first campaign. As a state senator, Obama became an advocate of the tax-credit program. “That’s an example of a smart policy,” he told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin in 1997. “The developers were thinking in market terms and operating under the rules of the marketplace; but at the same time, we had government supporting and subsidizing those efforts.” Obama and Rezko’s friendship grew stronger. They dined together regularly and even, on at least one occasion, retreated to Rezko’s vacation home, in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.


In another episode that has Obama’s old friends feeling frustrated, Obama recently blamed his first campaign manager, Carol Anne Harwell, for reporting on a 1996 questionnaire that Obama favored a ban on handguns. According to her friends, Harwell was furious that the campaign made her Obama’s scapegoat. “She got, as the saying goes, run over by a bus,” Lois Friedberg-Dobry said.


Obama’s subtle understanding of the way the city’s politics had changed—with fund-raising replacing organization as the key to victory—surely encouraged him in his next campaign. Almost as soon as he got to Springfield, he was planning another move. He was bored there—once, he appeared to doze off during a caucus meeting—and frustrated by the Republicans’ total control over the legislature. He seemed to believe, according to colleagues at the time, that he was destined for better things than being trapped in one of America’s more notoriously corrupt state capitals.


Obama made a serious misstep when, visiting his grandmother in Hawaii, he missed a crucial vote on gun-control legislation in Springfield. Even worse, on the day of the vote a column by Obama about how the gun bill was “sorely needed” appeared in the Hyde Park Herald, under the headline “IDEOLOGUES FRUSTRATE GUN LAW.”


[Obama helped design his new senate district running from the South Side to the North.] The new district was a natural fit for the candidate that Obama was in the process of becoming. “He saw that when we were doing fund-raisers in the Rush campaign his appeal to, quite frankly, young white professionals was dramatic.”


In the end, Obama’s North Side fund-raising base and his South Side political base were united in one district. He now represented Hyde Park operators like Lois Friedberg-Dobry as well as Gold Coast doyennes like Bettylu Saltzman, and his old South Side street operative Al Kindle as well as his future consultant David Axelrod. In an article in the Hyde Park Herald about how “partisan” and “undemocratic” Illinois redistricting had become, Obama was asked for his views. As usual, he was candid. “There is a conflict of interest built into the process,” he said. “Incumbents drawing their own maps will inevitably try to advantage themselves.”


[Lizza reports that Obama supporter Bettylu Saltzman sought to recruit University of Chicago “Israel Lobby” Professor John Mearsheimer to the 2002 antiwar rally in downtown Chicago at which Obama was to speak. Mearsheimer was otherwise engaged. Obama spoke at the rally.] “Let me begin by saying that although this has been billed as an antiwar rally, I stand before you as someone who is not opposed to war in all circumstances,” he told the crowd. He then went further, defending justifiable wars in almost glorious terms. “The Civil War was one of the bloodiest in history, and yet it was only through the crucible of the sword, the sacrifice of multitudes, that we could begin to perfect this union, and drive the scourge of slavery from our soil. I don’t oppose all wars. My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton’s Army. He saw the dead and dying across the fields of Europe; he heard the stories of fellow-troops who first entered Auschwitz and Treblinka. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil, and he did not fight in vain. I don’t oppose all wars.” It took some nerve to tweak the crowd in this way. After all, it was unlikely that many of the protesters knew who Obama was, and in a lengthy write-up of the event in the Chicago Tribune the following day he was not mentioned. Yet the speech reads as if it had been written for a much bigger audience.


[Marty Nesbitt is one of Obama’s closest friends. Nesbitt discusses Obama’s thinking about a possible 2004 Senate campaign.] “[H]e just laid out an economic analysis. It becomes about money, because he knew that if people knew his story they would view him as a better candidate than anybody else he thought might be in the field. And so he said, ‘Therefore, if you raise five million dollars, I have a fifty-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise seven million dollars, I have a seventy-per-cent chance of winning. If you raise ten million dollars, I guarantee victory.”


Obama has frequently been one step ahead of his friends and the public in anticipating his own rise. Perhaps it is all those people he has met over the years who told him that he would be President one day. The Reverend Alvin Love, a South Side Baptist minister and a longtime Obama friend, said that Obama called him in December, 2006, seeking advice about whether to run for President. “My dad told me that you’ve got to strike while the iron is hot,” Love recalls saying, and Obama replied, “The iron can’t get any hotter.”

Obama has always had a healthy understanding of the reaction he elicits in others, and he learned to use it to his advantage a very long time ago. Marty Nesbitt remembers Obama’s utter calm the day he gave his celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which made him an international celebrity and a potential 2008 Presidential candidate. “We were walking down the street late in the afternoon,” Nesbitt told me. “And this crowd was building behind us, like it was Tiger Woods at the Masters.”

“Barack, man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said.

“Yeah, if you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow,” Obama replied.

“What do you mean?”

“My speech,” Obama said, “is pretty good.”

In this very long article, Obama’s assessment of Bob Dole is one conspicuous item. In Obama’s view, Dole had already risen to become one of the most powerful men in the country as Senate Majority Leader when he chose to run for president against Bill Clinton. By Obama’s reckoning, Dole’s age and eminence told against him. For Obama, on the other hand, seeking the presidency of the United States is a career move that logically fulfills the destiny foretold by his election to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review.

I generally hesitate to make predictions, but here is one that’s a good bet. We’ll be hearing some version of the quoted portion of Obama’s 2002 antiwar speech on August 28 when Obama addresses the multitudes in his sermon on the mount at Invesco Field.

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