MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Senator Barack Obama's official title - junior senator from Illinois - doesn't come close to capturing his national stature at the moment. Since arriving in Washington two years ago, the Democratic senator has catapulted to national celebrity. Now that he's on a publicity blitz for his new book, his star is again on the rise again, but so too is the scrutiny. What are his presidential ambitions? And what exactly has he achieved to deserve all this attention?
Senator Obama's book is called The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It sketches his views on politics, faith and social policies, among other things. And much like his first book, it reveals much about his personal life.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democratic, Illinois): I got in the habit of, when I write, trying to be as honest as I could. And now that's harder when you're in political life, because I think there's a strong impulse when you're in public life to try to control your image as much as possible. I found that the best way for me to approach quote, unquote, “image making” is to be myself and let there everybody know what I'm thinking. And that way, I don't end up tripping myself up saying one thing and doing another.
NORRIS: So no image polishing?
Sen. OBAMA: Well, look, I'm sure that if you ask my wife whether I adequately listed my failings in the book, she would say no, that she could supplement it substantially.
NORRIS: We'll look forward to her book.
Sen. OBAMA: Yeah right, exactly. And, you know, if you ask my political opponents whether, you know, I was entirely objective in terms of how I view the issues that I talk about in the book, they'd say no. And I acknowledge that in front of the book. I say, look, I'm a Democrat and so, you know, my views are not going to perfectly balanced. I try to describe both sides of the issue, because part of what the book is about is trying to figure out how do we build common ground. Ironically, if I get criticized, usually it's because people feel that I take too much care to see all points of view.
NORRIS: In your chapter on politics, you write about Washington and the Washington money-machine with a certain amount of surprise and disdain. You talk about the need to win, but also the need not to lose. How do you avoid becoming part of that system? I mean some political observers say that you're already becoming a part of a system that you've openly criticized.
Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that so far I have hit the right balance. But it's difficult. Look, you have to raise money to be in politics. Raising money means that you are around people and spend a lot of time talking to people that are representative of the country as a whole. The people who contribute to campaigns who can afford to write a $2000 check are typically the top one percent of the population. And so they're going to have different perspectives than, you know, the single mom who is trying to figure out how to pay the bills and struggling with a lack of healthcare.
NORRIS: It's been pointed out that the Hope Fund, your PAC, has taken in more money than any other leadership PAC except for those of John McCain, John Kerry and Bill Frist. This is according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Which leads some to ask, why are you raising all that money, particularly if you're so concerned about the money-machine in Washington.
Sen. OBAMA: Well, because it helps me elect Democrats. The whole issue of money in politics is one that I'm constantly struggling with because my preference would be that we've got public financing of campaigns and nobody has to raise money whatsoever.
But I'm also somebody who believes in winning, and so the question then you constantly have to ask yourself is are the means that you're using to make sure that you're competitive in elections in any way undermining those core values that brought you into politics in the first place? And I feel confident so far that hasn't happened, but it's something that you constantly have to monitor.
NORRIS: Senator, not long ago when you were asked if you were considering a run for the presidency, your answer wasn't emphatic. I actually found a transcript where you said, clearly, I'm not running for president, I'm not running for president in four years, I'm not running for president in 2008. When asked that question now, your answer seems to have evolved. You seem to be keeping your options open at this point. What changed?
Sen. OBAMA: You know, the - look, I was I think first asked this question the day after I'd been elected to the Senate. So it was an eight in the morning press conference, I'd just come out of the election and I remember laughing at the question because presumably it would make sense for me to be sworn in to my new office before I started thinking about the next one.
Now with respect to ‘08, the only answer that I think is adequate is to say that if I ever decide that I'm running for president, I will have an announcement. And everybody's going to be invited, and I'll tell people I'm running for president. Because, you know, what's happened I think is that we create this parlor game where, you know, there's constant speculation and is this person running, is this person not running. And then candidates who do decide to run end up stretching out their announcement over the course of the year and they have four different announcements and…
NORRIS: I'm sorry to interrupt you, but you could end all this today, if you're talking about the speculation. You could say enough of this. You know, I'm going to run, or I'm not going to run, or let's not talk about this right now.
Sen. OBAMA: Well, let's not talk about this right now. I'm focused on '06. And if I decide to run for president, then I'll make an announcement and everybody will be invited and that will end the speculation at that point.
NORRIS: The speculation continues, though. As I travel around Washington, I keep seeing these blue and white stickers that seem to be placed at eye level so you catch them when you're driving around the city in your car, and they say: He's ready, why wait? Obama ‘08.
Sen. OBAMA: I haven't seen those yet.
NORRIS: I've seen a lot of them, and so - and the question that people must have when they see these stickers is are you ready to run for president and are you ready to serve as president? Do you have the requisite experience?
Sen. OBAMA: Look, I think that's an important question that everybody has to ask. Politics shouldn't be a game, and one of the things I write about in the book is that there is always an element of ambition in politics.
You know, people wouldn't put themselves through the rigors of campaigns if they weren't ambitious at some level. But I think you ask a good question, which is when you make a decision to run for president, and I think this is true of any public service, you're making a commitment to serve people. You know, it can't be solely based on your belief of what you want to be or the title that you want to have. It's got to be based on you feeling that somehow you can be useful, that you can offer something that is unique and will help create a better life for the people you seek to represent. And those are questions that I'm constantly asking myself.
NORRIS: Your picture was in sort of - there were half a dozen photos of you in a single edition of a newspaper recently. And I'm wondering if, you know, you're at serious risk of overexposure. And what would you say to constituents who see you on the cover of all these magazines at the drug store and the grocery store and perhaps think what about us?
Sen. OBAMA: You know, I think I've been at serious risk of overexposure for the last two years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Sen. OBAMA: You know, it's part of the celebrity culture that I think we all are bombarded with all the time.
NORRIS: Senator Obama, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.
Sen. OBAMA: Great to talk to you, Michele.
NORRIS: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. You can hear more of this interview and read an excerpt from the book, The Audacity of Hope, at npr.org.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
One more story to note. The stock market has hit another milestone, or at least the Dow Jones Industrial Average has. The Dow closed over 12,000 today for the first time, 12,011 to be exact. For the year, the Dow is up 12 percent. The S&P 500, which is a broader measure of the stock market, is up more than 9 percent. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.