Sen. Barack Obama As the Democratic party struggles, a name that often comes up as potential leader of the party is Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois. Obama talks about the state of the party, education and energy policy and takes caller questions.
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Sen. Barack Obama

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Sen. Barack Obama

Sen. Barack Obama

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Fissures have formed lately within the tightly orchestrated Republican Party base. Key administration officials await the possibility of indictments in the CIA leak case. Dissatisfaction within the party mounts over the president's handling of the war in Iraq, his nominee for the Supreme Court, Harriet Miers and his budget. President Bush's approval ratings are at their lowest. Many see this as an opportunity for Democrats. The Democratic Party still struggles, though, with its own message and its own leadership. One name that comes up often as a potential hope for the future is that of Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois. We'll be talking with him in a moment. We want to invite you to join the conversation, (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is

Senator Obama joins us now from the studios at the Senate Hart Building on Capitol Hill.

And, Senator, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Great to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: What do you make of this moment in terms of what it could mean for the Democratic Party?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, what I'm interested in is what it could mean for the country, because it's my perspective at least that over the last several years, we've been living in a situation in which we're not willing to make shared sacrifices, that there's a detachment between the enormous challenges we face in terms of globalization, education, energy and the actually policies that are being pursued by the administration and by Congress. And if the Democrats can provide a sharp contrast to how they would deal with the day-to-day problems that people are experiencing back home, then I think that we'll do well. I think that this is a moment in time where good policy can potentially lead to good politics.

CONAN: Yet people complain, among them Democrats, that the Democrats can't agree on a single message or one coherent set of messages. What would you say to that?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, it's always tough when you don't have the organizing force of a White House. I think this has been true whether it's Republicans or Democrats. When you're out of power, then there are going to be a whole host of ideas and you've got nobody disciplining you in the way that a president and a White House does, or a presidential candidate does. But I do think that what you're starting to see is a broad set of ideas that most Democrats can get behind and I think most of the American people can get behind; ideas like energy independence and pursuing, for example, biodiesel fuels as an alternative to our reliance on petroleum and investing in that in a meaningful way.

You know, I think there's a consensus around the need to drastically ramp up our educational performance and an assessment that No Child Left Behind hasn't done the job and that there are a host of innovations that are being done at the local level that need to be reflected in national policy. So I think what you're going to see over the next year is a set of broad principles around which Democrats rally, and then it's up to us to make sure that we communicate those effectively, you know, through the various mechanisms of campaigns.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, let's talk about some specifics. Yesterday, you came out with a proposal to help improve schools around the country, or ideas to create what you call 20 innovation districts. What are those? What would they do?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, one of the things that's frustrated me--and I think Democrats are complicit in this--is that our educational debate, at least at the national level, has been stuck in what I call a either/or position instead of a both/and position. You know, you've got one side that argues that we basically can't do anything about the public schools, that it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with culture, bureaucracy, so we just blow them up, privatize them and let everybody fend for themselves. On the other side, you've got many, including many Democrats, who suggest that the problem is only money and we don't have to initiate serious reforms. And I think that both are half-right. I think that we've got to have more money in the system, but it's got to be used in innovative ways.

So rather than try to rewrite No Child Left Behind or an entire national policy, the idea is to set up innovation districts in which we find best practices, particularly around teacher recruitment training and retraining, we put a lot of money into one district that is committed to innovation and where teachers and school board members and parents and students are willing to try significant innovation around these issues, and then we see what works. And we keep on funding those things that work, we stop funding those things that don't work and then we take what we learn from these districts and we can apply them more broadly.

CONAN: The lesson might be a lot of money that is applied to those districts. But I wonder, how do you measure success? By the same kinds of tests that we see in No Child Left Behind?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, one of the interesting things that's happened--and we talk about this specifically in our proposal--is that it turns out that there are some very good measures of success that are out there; it's just that we don't use them. You know, what we use are test scores, partly because they're just easier to administer. But it turns out that when you combine the use of standardized tests with peer review, with assessments of progress that students have made as opposed to just absolute scores, that, in fact, you can get a pretty good idea not only of which schools are doing a good job teaching, but also which teachers are doing a pretty good job teaching.

CONAN: And which principals are doing a good job...

Sen. OBAMA: Absolutely.

CONAN: ...administrating and leading and all that sort of thing, I guess.

Sen. OBAMA: Absolutely.

CONAN: We're talking with Senator Barack Obama, the junior senator from the state of Illinois. He's a Democrat. If you'd like to join the conversation, our number is (800) 989-8255; that's (800) 989-TALK. And you're listening--or you can also send us e-mail:

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And we want to give listeners an opportunity to join the conversation. Let's talk with Patrick, Patrick calling us from Statesville, North Carolina.

PATRICK (Caller): Hi, Neal. Nice to speak with you, Senator.

Sen. OBAMA: Nice to talk to you, Patrick.

PATRICK: I'm here in Statesville. I'm active in the Democratic Party here. But one of the main problems we have here is people from African-American origin supporting the Democratic Party here. Like, you know, that there'll usually be two or three that'll turn up to a meeting, and we can't seem to be able to reach out to them, especially the younger generation. You know, I don't know what's wrong with that and why that's happening here, considering, you know, like, when we see that the African-American support for President Bush is about 3 percent or something like that.

Sen. OBAMA: Mm-hmm. Right.

PATRICK: This doesn't seem to translate. I'd like to know the secret of your success up there in Illinois.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: Well, the--you know, I think getting young people involved, or younger people involved, is always tough. You know, that's true across all demographic groups. But one thing that I do think I found is that younger audiences, whether African-American or white or Latino, I think this younger generation is more sophisticated, in some ways a little bit more cynical about soundbite answers to complicated questions...

PATRICK: Yeah, I agree.

Sen. OBAMA: ...and, you know, reaching out to them requires that you address that skepticism and talk to them straight as opposed to just advertising your, you know, checklist of policy positions. I mean, they want to be involved and engaged, they want to be listened to, and, you know, part of what I think I've been successful with in Illinois--and we attracted a lot of young people during the campaign--was just giving them a lot of responsibility and telling them--admitting sometimes when I didn't have a good answer to a problem and asking them to go try to figure it out or what did they think, how should we approach doing outreach instead of just scolding them about not getting involved.

PATRICK: Sure. Oh, OK.

CONAN: Good luck, Patrick.

PATRICK: Well, thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Sen. OBAMA: Thank you, Patrick.

PATRICK: Bye-bye. ...(Unintelligible).

CONAN: Senator Obama, let me ask you, as a obviously extremely high-profile African-American--of course, there are many others--but nevertheless, do you find yourself being turned to on many an occasion as, you know, to be a spokesman for the entire African-American community? And are you comfortable with that?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I am happy to be one voice among many that represents the breadth of views in the African-American community. I am deeply rooted in the African-American community. I don't feel limited by it and I don't feel bound by it. I don't feel that I can only speak to issues that relate to African-Americans any more than I am restricted to speaking only to issues that affect 44-year-old male White Sox fans. The...

CONAN: We'll let that go for just a moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: But what I do think is that the African-American community in the Democratic Party is looking for a voice in a broader range of policies than--and consultation on a broader range of policies, whether it's foreign policy or health-care policy or technology issues than I think sometimes in the past we've been given access to. I think there's a tendency to think that, `Well, we'll defer to Barack on civil rights issues or issues related to poverty, but not on nuclear proliferation.' And those are certainly, you know, constraints that I would reject.

CONAN: Get another caller on the line. This is Mike. Mike calling us from Dearborn, Michigan.

MIKE (Caller): Yes, my question is about I guess the ideological coherence of Democratic messages, 'cause The Democratic Party seems to--and Democratic candidates seem to have all sorts of excellent ideas on policy-specific issues, but I guess a lot of us are interested in the fundamental, ideological coherence...

CONAN: And we're going to leave you a whole minute and a half to say that, Senator Obama.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, very quickly, I think it is true that the Democrats have not told a story about this country and our vision for the future as effectively as the Republicans have. I can give you some suggestions in terms of what the themes that make me a Democrat are: a belief in upward mobility and opportunity for everybody; a belief in tolerance and inclusiveness, that everybody gets a shot at the American dream; a belief in a foreign policy that is informed by our highest ideals. You know, so there's some broad themes, I think, that draw us together as Democrats, but we have to stitch those together more effectively than we have, I think, over the last several election cycles if we're going to be successful, because ultimately, people don't vote for a hodgepodge of position papers; what they vote for is somebody who can help explain to them where this country is going and where it should be going.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Senator Obama, I'm afraid we're running out of time, but--well, let's put it this way, if the White Sox go on and win the World Series, will you come back and join us again on the program?

Sen. OBAMA: Neal, I don't think that's an `if' question there. It's just a matter of when. Whether it's tonight or the next night, I think it's going to happen.

CONAN: Well, good luck to the White...

Sen. OBAMA: We're very excited on the South Side of Chicago.

CONAN: Well, in that case, we'll look forward to having you back on the program. We appreciate your time today.

Sen. OBAMA: Thanks. Talk to you soon.

CONAN: Senator Barack Obama is a Democrat from Illinois, and he joined us from the studios at the Hart Building on Capitol Hill.

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