Barack Obama, Still on the Rise

Sen. Barack Obama i i

Sen. Barack Obama's public exposure has been stunning, given his relative lack of political experience. David McNew/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption David McNew/Getty Images
Sen. Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama's public exposure has been stunning, given his relative lack of political experience.

David McNew/Getty Images

Ode to Obama

NPR's Nina Totenberg and Fred Childs perform a song about the Democrats' infatuation with Barack Obama. The words are from a cartoon by Jules Pfeiffer.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) has been in office for just under two years. He has few legislative accomplishments. His previous job was state senator from Illinois. But he has somehow become a "dream candidate" for the 2008 presidential race. What's up?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

In the contest for the White House in 2008, there's a handful of potential candidates in the field, and then there is Illinois Senator Barack Obama. He gets a rock star reception wherever he goes. His latest book is a runaway bestseller. And this weekend, a much anticipated event among many Democrats, he's making his first visit to New Hampshire.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Barack Obama is a certified political phenomenon. After only two years in the United States Senate, and without much of a legislative record to speak off, he's already appeared on magazine covers over the headline The Next President. And that was even before he appeared on “Meet the Press” on October 22nd.

(Soundbite of television show, “Meet the Press”)

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (Host, “Meet the Press”): That is fair to say you're thinking about running for president in 2008.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): It's fair, yes.

LIASSON: With those three short words, Barack Obama made front page headlines. And Obamamania reached a new fever pitch. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who run Al Gore's presidential campaign, hasn't seen anything like it.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (Democrat Political Strategist): Senator Barack Obama right now is one of the hottest commodities in American politics. He's drawn huge crowds. He's selling record numbers of books. He's raised enormous money for Democratic candidates.

(Soundbite of music)

LIASSON: And it's not just Democrats who are excited about Obama. He gets invitations to talk to audiences no other Democrat would. Last Friday, he was at the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest, California.

Senator OBAMA: I want to say, first of all, how blessed I am to be here today and how grateful I am to Saddleback and to Pastor Rick.

LIASSON: Rick Warren is a national Evangelical leader, the best selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Obama was at Warren's church to talk about fighting AIDS. But he also talked easily about his faith, something other Democrats sometimes struggle to do.

Senator OBAMA: Living his example is a hardest kind of faith, but it's surely the most rewarding. It is a way of life that can not only light our way as people of faith, but guide us also to a new and better politics as Americans.

LIASSON: Obama fans say he transcends politics. And with his biracial family history - mother from Kansas, father from Kenya - he seems to transcend racial divisions, too. His potential candidacy has complicated the strategies of the handful of Democrats, hoping to be the alternative to Hillary Clinton and has forced Clinton herself to accelerate her plans. Democratic operatives are lining up for a chance to work for Obama. And then there are the non-professionals.

Mr. BEN STANFIELD (Draftobama.org): This is Ben Stanfield. I am a computer technician in Rockville, Maryland. And in my off hours I founded draftobama.org.

LIASSON: Stanfield is 26. He's volunteered for Democratic candidates before, but only at the envelope staffing level. We met him at a restaurant during his lunch hour.

Mr. STANFIELD: I'm a regular guy. I'm not a wealthy person and don't have a lot of wealthy friends. And so I started draftobama.org to encourage him from a regular guy standpoint to run for president.

LIASSON: Have you ever felt this way about another politician?

Mr. STANFIELD: I don't think so. I feel hopeful when I watch him. He seems like such a charismatic leader and at the same time somebody whose story all Americans can relate to.

LIASSON: In addition to the Draft Obama movement, there are Web sites selling Obama T-shirts and buttons and there's even an Obama song.

(Soundbite of music)

NINA TOTENBERG: (Singing) Obama, we just met a man name Obama.

LIASSON: Inspired by the Democrats' Obama infatuation, cartoonist Jules Pfifer wrote it. We asked NPR's own Nina Totenberg and Fred Child to perform it.

TOTENBERG: (Singing) You're usually in our thoughts. And you're against the war.

LIASSON: According to Donna Brazile, Obama has a powerful, even mesmerizing effect on people who meet him.

Ms. BRAZILE: When you're in his presence whether you're sitting right across the table from him or in a large crowd, you feel like he's talking to you.

LIASSON: Again, Donna Brazile.

Ms. BRAZILE: Not at you, not past you, but really to you. And I think that's what's been missing in the Democratic Party. That's what been missing in our nominees.

LIASSON: Whether Obama is the real thing or, as one Republican says dismissively, just a blank canvass where people project their desires, there's no doubt he has a lot of political talent. Here's one small example. Recently, a young reporter named Nicholas Lovelady wrote about how two years ago he'd ask the senator a question at a press conference. Obama mistook him for a college student and even said he had a baby face. Lovelady was humiliated. And even worse, he wrote, Obama ruined his chances to impress a girl, an intern at another paper that he was trying to date. After the column appeared, Lovelady got a phone call.

(Soundbite of ringing telephone)

Mr. NICHOLAS LOVELADY (Reporter): Lovelady, newsroom.

Mr. OBAMA: Yeah. Is this Nicholas?

Mr. LOVELADY: This is he.

Mr. OBAMA: Nicholas, this is Barack Obama.

Mr. LOVELADY: Hey. How's it going?

Mr. OBAMA: Man, I'm calling to publicly apologize for messing up your game. You know, I read that, I felt terrible. And I didn't know there were any ladies around.

Mr. LOVELADY: Oh, man.

Mr. OBAMA: I just want to let you know that, you know, I'm deeply sorry.

LIASSON: How did NPR get this tape? Obama's aides recorded the call and sent it to us, which just goes to show he's got a savvy staff, smart enough to ride the Obama wave without letting it get out of control. Right now, the betting in Democratic circles is that Obama will run. These Democrats figure that Obama understands this is his moment, the moment when he is so new and has so little baggage and before he becomes just another United States senator.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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