Before Midterms, a Chat with Sen. Barack Obama Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) talks about the language of politics, the public spotlight, upcoming elections, and his new book, The Audacity of Hope.
NPR logo

Before Midterms, a Chat with Sen. Barack Obama

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6423210/6423211" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Before Midterms, a Chat with Sen. Barack Obama

Before Midterms, a Chat with Sen. Barack Obama

Before Midterms, a Chat with Sen. Barack Obama

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/6423210/6423211" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) talks about the language of politics, the public spotlight, upcoming elections, and his new book, The Audacity of Hope.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're hoping that Senator Barack Obama will be joining us momentarily. He's at an airport in Richmond, Virginia, as he's on the campaign trail working for various Democratic candidates in the days leading up the midterm elections. It's been almost two weeks since Senator Obama grabbed a larger than usual share of the headlines with his announcement on NBC's Meet the Press that he was considering a run for president of the United States in 2008.

He hasn't been far from the media spotlight since then, and that of course can be a good thing and a bad thing. This week's story about John Kerry's botched joke tells us what we already know - that constant attention on everything a politician says or does requires an unusual level of discipline and skill to avoid disaster.

Barack Obama will be joining us as soon as we can contact him. We arranged this a few days ago. His new book is The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. This from the author earlier of Dreams from my Father, which told the story of his search for his father - a Kenyan goatherd at one point who came to this country and married his mother but left when Barack Obama was just two years old to first go to school in New York City and then return to Kenya.

It tells the story of Barack Obama's return to Africa. Sort of a Roots-like effort to find out more about his family and his father, who was dead by then, and his coming to terms with a lot of things that were different about him and about Kenya, and some things that he learned about his father that were also disturbing. That, Dreams From my Father.

The Audacity of Hope has been described by some as a campaign book. Barack Obama denies that it was written on those terms. But nevertheless it is hardly unusual for candidates for president of the United States to issue books in the years running up to the Election Day to talk about the possibility, to talk about their hopes and their ambitions and about what they might do as president of the United States.

The Audacity of Hope doesn't seem to be quite in those terms as it's, again, a quite revealing interior look at the man who's serving now as junior senator of Illinois. Of course, the major questions being asked is, well, his relative youth and his relative inexperience. He had previously served as a state senator in Illinois and then ran two years ago and won a seat to the United States Senate and was elected and would not even serve out one full term in the United States Senate before perhaps running for the highest office in the land.

I do understand that Senator Obama now is on the phone with us. And, Senator, nice to have you again on TALK OF THE NATION.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Neal, it's great to talk to you. Sorry we came in a little late. There was phone problems.

CONAN: Well, stuff happens, Senator, as I'm sure you know. We just mentioned John Kerry in the intro - I'm not sure you got to hear that part of it. But he has apologized for what he says was a botched joke about the president getting us stuck into Iraq. He apparently, in misconstruing his own words, inadvertently offended many U.S. forces and has caused a political firestorm here in Washington, D.C. in the days running up to the election. Was an apology the right thing to do, do you think?

Sen. OBAMA: You know, I think it was in the sense that, you know, John misspoke. And, you know, I think it's important. You know, I misspeak, and all of us do, and I think when you do then you want to make sure that you get that cleared up.

I do think that we've got some more important issues to deal with between now and Election Day. You know, I've been traveling all across the country, and everywhere I go people are concerned about, obviously, Iraq and what our plan is for bringing our troops home. People are concerned about healthcare and education and energy and jobs.

And, you know, this is a not unusual distraction during election season. You know, it seems like we always have these little flare-ups right before Election Day. But, ultimately, I think the American people are paying a lot of attention to the substance of these races, and I think that's where it's going to be determined.

CONAN: At some level, this kind of thing can happen to any politician who's under constant scrutiny. And I wonder, do you find yourself relying more and more on scripts, or do you still trust yourself to speak off the cuff?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I speak off the cuff, but I'm not immune to mistakes. And I think all of us end up going through stuff like this when we're in the public eye constantly, as you said.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Sen. OBAMA: And I think the American people, you know, hopefully understand that, you know, unless we want just robotons who are reading from a script all the time, that people who are on the road and making speeches day in, day out are going to make some mistakes.

CONAN: Yeah, and I think there could also be a cost of being too careful. I mean, for example, it's difficult to talk honestly and openly about issues like race without the possibility of offending somebody.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, that's exactly right. And, you know, one of the things that I'm always battling - and I've only been on the national stage for a couple of years now - is that tendency to edit yourself so much that, at a certain point, you stop sounding like a regular person and you start taking on, you know, the persona of, you know, those bad politicians in TV movies...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: ...with the blow-dried hair and the, you know, the phony smile. And that, I think, is probably a bigger danger because at that point, when you're so afraid to make mistakes and you're so fearful, then it really drains from you any sense of purpose or passion as to why you wanted to serve in the first place, and you become much more concerned with just, you know, being in office than you are about making a difference.

CONAN: Robert Redford played one of those characters in one of those movies, and I think people wanted him to run anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: Actually, The Candidate is a great movie, and probably gives one of - as good of an insight into sort of that process as just about any film out there. It's a danger that we all face. And, you know, I think the one thing that, you know, I find is helpful is just to keep a sense of humor about yourself and not take yourself too seriously and understand that when you're in this process, you know, there're going to be some days where, you know, you get knocked around a little bit.

CONAN: I wanted to read an excerpt from your book, The Audacity of Hope. From what I've observed, there are countless politicians who have crossed these hurdles, kept their integrity intact, men and women who raise campaign contributions without being corrupted, garnered support without being held captive by special interests and managed the media without losing their sense of self. But there's one final hurdle that once you've settled in Washington you cannot entirely avoid, one that is certain to make at least a sizable portion of your constituency think ill of you, and that is the thoroughly unsatisfactory nature of the legislative process. What did you mean by that?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, yeah, as I go on to explain, typically - particularly at the national level - when you're voting on a bill, half the time the bill is a hodgepodge - maybe more than half the time - the bill is a hodgepodge of different things, some good and some bad. And oftentimes, particularly when you're in the minority party, you're voting on legislation that you had no input in that strikes compromises that you yourself would not want to strike.

When you get the budget bills, there is, you know, billions of dollars of spending that you have no assurance is going in the right direction. And, you know, you can't vote none of the above. You have to vote yea or nay. And if you vote nay, it may turn out that some of the good things that were in the legislation that deserve support are things that people are angry that you voted against. And if you vote aye, then there are probably some bad things in there that you didn't intend to support.

CONAN: Either that you voted for a bridge to nowhere, or you voted against armor for troops.

Sen. OBAMA: There's a classic case in point. Sometimes you may not even know it's in there...

CONAN: Yeah.

Sen. OBAMA: ...when you get these big omnibus bills. And what you're aware of throughout the process is that after having taken 1,000 votes or so, no matter how well-intentioned you are and how seriously you take the issues and, you know, hew to principle - there's going to be something in there that, come election time, somebody's going to be able to run a TV spot on. And I think that intimidates a lot of elected officials and is the reason why sometimes we end up having such unsatisfactory outcomes.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Joshua Drexler in Columbus, Ohio.

No person running for president can avoid compromising somewhat on his or her principles. That's the reality of life in general, and running for public office in the U.S.A. today more particularly. Have you gone about figuring how you will draw your own line, how you'll decide at what point ambition for office must give way to principle? How will you know when you've crossed the line and allowed ambition to go too far?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, it's something that I think that all of us have to wrestle with individually, and, you know, as I indicated last week when I was asked this question, I have thought about running for president, but I'm not a declared candidate. It is something I have to struggle with as a U.S. senator, and, you know, there are a couple of principles, I guess, that guide me. Number one is making sure that, you know, I'm operating in a way that is consistent with my core values: honesty, empathy, compassion. You know, there are certain things that are gut to you that you can't betray just because of short-term political interests.

Now there are other things where you're going to make compromises. You know, if I've got a healthcare proposal that intends to provide healthcare coverage for all 46 million uninsured Americans, and the best deal that you end up getting is something that's going to cover 23 million Americans and that's the best you're going to be able to do, then taking half a loaf probably makes sense.

So a lot of times the way I approach it, at least, is if I look at an issue or if I look at how I approach campaigning, if it's something that is consistent with my broader values and is just a matter of, you know, tactics - having to take half a loaf - then that's something I'm comfortable with, and that's sort of the nature of the process. If it's something that violates my core beliefs, then it's not worth it.

CONAN: We're speaking with Senator Barack Obama. His new book is The Audacity of Hope. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line, and this is Brian - Brian with us from Elks Grove in California.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Brian, go ahead, please.

Sen. OBAMA: Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hi. I'm a 32-year-old African-American male, and I was listening to the, you know, the possibilities of your being there first African-American president, and what I really began to think about it, like, all of a sudden I had this very emotional reaction to it, and I began to actually cry. And it was very strange for me, because I'm like, why am I crying? But then I just realized, you know, as an African-American, you know, our struggle it's, you know, really close to my heart.

And I'm thinking, like, I'm wondering if other African-Americans would have this reaction. And also on the other side, if there's going to be, you know, other people - namely you know, white Americans or Caucasian Americans - who are going to have a negative emotional reaction. And so my question to you, Senator, would be is that kind of factoring into your reasons for either running or not running because of that reaction and kind of being, you know, really a target for that emotional - either love or hate.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, it's a wonderful question, and I'm glad, you know, you're feeling passionate about politics generally. I - look, race is a powerful force in our society. You know, I devote an entire chapter in the book to race, and my basic take on it is that we've made enormous progress since I was a child. You know, I was born in 1961, and at the time that I was born, I think for me to do many of the things that I've done in my life would've been an impossibility, and certainly for a 22-year-old. You know, he's benefited from the enormous struggles that were engaged in by grandparents and parents of ours.

The problem is not that things haven't gotten better. The problem is that they're not good enough, and we still have a lot of work to do. How it plays out politically is complicated. I think that there is no doubt whether if you're a African-American or a woman or a Latino or an Asian, that you go into a political race with people making some assumptions about you or stereotypes about you that provide additional hurdles that you've got to overcome.

What I've discovered - in my own experience, at least - is that I think we've come to the point in this nation where if people get to know you, then they are willing to make good decisions about you and judge you on the basis of individual character rather than on the basis of stereotype.

Now the question, I think, for any candidate for public office - but especially the presidency - is can people get to know you well enough in the midst of just negative campaigning and, you know, the intense media scrutiny and so forth so that people have a well-rounded view of you and are able to go ahead and make those choices on that basis.

And that's something that is not clear. I think that's something that hasn't truly been tested yet, and I think we will probably see the results of that over the next several years, whether I end up running or not.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And I think we have time for an e-mail, this from Dia Anna(ph) in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.

I recently read an article about you, which included in an excerpt from your book, The Audacity of Hope. In this excerpt, you frame religion and faith in uncompromising Christian terms. How do you expect to help a pluralistic society where large groups of Americans do not frame their religion, faith or belief on the Christian religion?

Sen. OBAMA: Oh, you know, but what I argue is not that the Democratic Party or elected officials should pretend that they base their political agenda or policies on faith when they don't. You know, nothing's worse than inauthentic faith. And I argue that it's critical for those who are religiously motivated in some way to be able to describe their motivations in universal terms that are accessible to other people and amenable to argument.

You know, there's a reason that we have separation of church and state in this country and that we've been spared a lot of the religious and sectarian strife of many other countries. And I think a lot of it has to do with the wisdom of our founders.

But, you know, I think what I was trying to describe in the book was the tendency for those of us who believe in religious tolerance to then believe that any mention of religious faith is somehow suspect.

CONAN: Senator...

Sen. OBAMA: And I think that for the Democratic Party in particular, that has led, I think, to large swaths of the electorate that I think would be amenable to a progressive message shutting us off because the perspective is somehow that we don't get their faith, and I think it's that kind of...

CONAN: Senator Obama, I hate to cut you off, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

Sen. OBAMA: It was great to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: We've posted an excerpt from Senator Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, at our Web page at npr.org/talk. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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.

Excerpt: 'The Audacity Of Hope'

Cover of 'The Audacity of Hope' by Barack Obama

It's been almost ten years since I first ran for political office. I was thirty-five at the time, four years out of law school, recently married, and generally impatient with life. A seat in the Illinois legislature had opened up, and several friends suggested that I run, thinking that my work as a civil rights lawyer, and contacts from my days as a community organizer, would make me a viable candidate. After discussing it with my wife, I entered the race and proceeded to do what every first-time candidate does: I talked to anyone who would listen. I went to block club meetings and church socials, beauty shops and barbershops. If two guys were standing on a corner, I would cross the street to hand them campaign literature. And everywhere I went, I'd get some version of the same two questions.

"Where'd you get that funny name?"

And then: "You seem like a nice enough guy. Why do you want to go into something dirty and nasty like politics?"

I was familiar with the question, a variant on the questions asked of me years earlier, when I'd first arrived in Chicago to work in low-income neighborhoods. It signaled a cynicism not simply with politics but with the very notion of a public life, a cynicism that -- at least in the South Side neighborhoods I sought to represent -- had been nourished by a generation of broken promises. In response, I would usually smile and nod and say that I understood the skepticism, but that there was -- and always had been -- another tradition to politics, a tradition that stretched from the days of the country's founding to the glory of the civil rights movement, a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.

It was a pretty convincing speech, I thought. And although I'm not sure that the people who heard me deliver it were similarly impressed, enough of them appreciated my earnestness and youthful swagger that I made it to the Illinois legislature.

Six years later, when I decided to run for the United States Senate, I wasn't so sure of myself.

By all appearances, my choice of careers seemed to have worked out. After spending my two terms during which I labored in the minority, Democrats had gained control of the state senate, and I had subsequently passed a slew of bills, from reforms of the Illinois death penalty system to an expansion of the state's health program for kids. I had continued to teach at the University of Chicago Law School, a job I enjoyed, and was frequently invited to speak around town. I had preserved my independence, my good name, and my marriage, all of which, statistically speaking, had been placed at risk the moment I set foot in the state capital.

But the years had also taken their toll. Some of it was just a function of my getting older, I suppose, for if you are paying attention, each successive year will make you more intimately acquainted with all of your flaws -- the blind spots, the recurring habits of thought that may be genetic or may be environmental, but that will almost certainly worsen with time, as surely as the hitch in your walk turns to pain in your hip. In me, one of those flaws had proven to be a chronic restlessness; an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of me. It's a flaw that is endemic to modern life, I think -- endemic, too, in the American character -- and one that is nowhere more evident than in the field of politics. Whether politics actually encourages the trait or simply attracts those who possess it is unclear. Lyndon Johnson, who knew much about both politics and restlessness, once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else.

In any event, it was as a consequence of that restlessness that I decided to challenge a sitting Democratic incumbent for his congressional seat in the 2000 election cycle. It was an ill-considered race, and I lost badly -- the sort of drubbing that awakens you to the fact that life is not obliged to work out as you'd planned. A year and a half later, the scars of that loss sufficiently healed, I had lunch with a media consultant who had been encouraging me for some time to run for statewide office. As it happened, the lunch was scheduled for late September 2001.

"You realize, don't you, that the political dynamics have changed," he said as he picked at his salad.

"What do you mean?" I asked, knowing full well what he meant. We both looked down at the newspaper beside him. There, on the front page, was Osama bin Laden.

"Hell of a thing, isn't it?" he said, shaking his head. "Really bad luck. You can't change your name, of course. Voters are suspicious of that kind of thing. Maybe if you were at the start of your career, you know, you could use a nickname or something. But now…" His voice trailed off and he shrugged apologetically before signaling the waiter to bring us the check.

I suspected he was right, and that realization ate away at me. For the first time in my career, I began to experience the envy of seeing younger politicians succeed where I had failed, moving into higher offices, getting more things done. The pleasures of politics -- the adrenaline of debate, the animal warmth of shaking hands and plunging into a crowd -- began to pale against the meaner tasks of the job: the begging for money, the long drives home after the banquet had run two hours longer than scheduled, the bad food and stale air and clipped phone conversations with a wife who had stuck by me so far but was pretty fed up with raising our children alone and was beginning to question my priorities. Even the legislative work, the policy-making that had gotten me to run in the first place, began to feel too incremental, too removed from the larger battles -- over taxes, security, health care, and jobs -- that were being waged on a national stage. I began to harbor doubts about the path I had chosen; I began feeling the way I imagine an actor or athlete must feel when, after years of commitment to a particular dream, after years of waiting tables between auditions or scratching out hits in the minor leagues, he realizes that he's gone just about as far as talent or fortune will take him. The dream will not happen, and he now faces the choice of accepting this fact like a grown-up and moving on to more sensible pursuits, or refusing the truth and ending up bitter, quarrelsome, and slightly pathetic.

Denial, anger, bargaining, despair -- I'm not sure I went through all the stages prescribed by the experts. At some point, though, I arrived at acceptance -- of my limits, and, in a way, my mortality. I refocused on my work in the state senate and took satisfaction from the reforms and initiatives that my position afforded. I spent more time at home, and watched my daughters grow, and properly cherished my wife, and thought about my long-term financial obligations. I exercised, and read novels, and came to appreciate how the earth rotated around the sun and the seasons came and went without any particular exertions on my part.

And it was this acceptance, I think, that allowed me to come up with the thoroughly cockeyed idea of running for the United States Senate. An up-or-out strategy was how I described it to my wife, one last shot to test out my ideas before I settled into a calmer, more stable, and better-paying existence. And she -- perhaps more out of pity than conviction -- agreed to this one last race, though she also suggested that given the orderly life she preferred for our family, I shouldn't necessarily count on her vote.

I let her take comfort in the long odds against me. The Republican incumbent, Peter Fitzgerald, had spent $19 million of his personal wealth to unseat the previous senator, Carol Moseley Braun. He wasn't widely popular; in fact he didn't really seem to enjoy politics all that much. But he still had unlimited money in his family, as well as a genuine integrity that had earned him grudging respect from the voters.

For a time Carol Moseley Braun reappeared, back from an ambassadorship in New Zealand and with thoughts of trying to reclaim her old seat; her possible candidacy put my own plans on hold. When she decided to run for the presidency instead, everyone else started looking at the Senate race. By the time Fitzgerald announced he would not seek reelection, I was staring at six primary opponents, including the sitting state comptroller; a businessman worth hundreds of millions of dollars; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's former chief of staff; and a black, female health-care professional who the smart money assumed would split the black vote and doom whatever slim chances I'd had in the first place.

I didn't care. Freed from worry by low expectations, my credibility bolstered by several helpful endorsements, I threw myself into the race with an energy and joy that I thought I had lost. I hired four staffers, all of them smart, in their twenties or early thirties, and suitably cheap. We found a small office, printed letterhead, installed phone lines and several computers. Four or five hours a day, I called major Democratic donors and tried to get my calls returned. I held press conferences to which nobody came. We signed up for the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade and were assigned the parade's very last slot, so that my ten volunteers and I found ourselves marching just a few paces ahead of the city's sanitation trucks, waving to the few stragglers who remained on the route while workers swept up garbage and peeled green shamrock stickers off the lampposts.

Mostly, though, I just traveled, often driving alone, first from ward to ward in Chicago, then from county to county and town to town, eventually up and down the state, across miles and miles of cornfields and beanfields and train tracks and silos. It wasn't an efficient process. Without the machinery of the state's Democratic Party organization, without any real mailing list or Internet operation, I had to rely on friends or acquaintances to open their houses to who ever might come, or to arrange for my visit to their church, union hall, bridge group, or Rotary Club. Sometimes, after several hours of driving, I would find just two or three people waiting for me around a kitchen table. I would have to assure the hosts that the turnout was fine and compliment them on the refreshments they'd prepared. Sometimes I would sit through a church service and the pastor would forget to recognize me, or the head of the union local would let me speak to his members just before announcing that the union had decided to endorse someone else.

But whether I was meeting with two people or fifty, whether I was in one of the well-shaded, stately homes of the North Shore, a walk-up apartment on the West Side, or a farmhouse outside Bloomington, whether people were friendly, indifferent, or occasionally hostile, I tried my best to keep my mouth shut and hear what they had to say. I listened to people talk about their jobs, their businesses, the local school; their anger at Bush and their anger at Democrats; their dogs, their back pain, their war service, and the things they remembered from childhood. Some had well-developed theories to explain the loss of manufacturing jobs or the high cost of health care. Some recited what they had heard on Rush Limbaugh or NPR. But most of them were too busy with work or their kids to pay much attention to politics, and they spoke instead of what they saw before them: a plant closed, a promotion, a high heating bill, a parent in a nursing home, a child's first step.

No blinding insights emerged from these months of conversation. If anything, what struck me was just how modest people's hopes were, and how much of what they believed seemed to hold constant across race, region, religion, and class. Most of them thought that anybody willing to work should be able to find a job that paid a living wage. They figured that people shouldn't have to file for bankruptcy because they got sick. They believed that every child should have a genuinely good education -- that it shouldn't just be a bunch of talk -- and that those same children should be able to go to college even if their parents weren't rich. They wanted to be safe, from criminals and from terrorists; they wanted clean air, clean water, and time with their kids. And when they got old, they wanted to be able to retire with some dignity and respect.

That was about it. It wasn't much. And although they understood that how they did in life depended mostly on their own efforts -- although they didn't expect government to solve all their problems, and certainly didn't like seeing their tax dollars wasted -- they figured that government should help.

I told them that they were right: government couldn't solve all their problems. But with a slight change in priorities we could make sure every child had a decent shot at life and meet the challenges we faced as a nation. More often than not, folks would nod in agreement and ask how they could get involved. And by the time I was back on the road, with a map on the passenger's seat, on my way to my next stop, I knew once again just why I'd gone into politics.

I felt like working harder than I'd ever worked in my life.

This book grows directly out of those conversations on the campaign trail. Not only did my encounters with voters confirm the fundamental decency of the American people, they also reminded me that at the core of the American experience are a set of ideals that continue to stir our collective conscience; a common set of values that bind us together despite our differences; a running thread of hope that makes our improbable experiment in democracy work. These values and ideals find expression not just in the marble slabs of monuments or in the recitation of history books. They remain alive in the hearts and minds of most Americans -- and can inspire us to pride, duty, and sacrifice.

From The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama. Copyright (c) 2006. Available from Crown Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.