Bid For Congress Was Obama's Political Boot Camp A dozen years ago, Barack Obama ran an unsuccessful campaign for a U.S. House seat. Though his ambition proved no match for his opponent's experience, Obama honed his speaking style and cultivated relationships that would eventually help propel him to the White House.

Bid For Congress Was Obama's Political Boot Camp

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Over the next six months, we'll be talking a lot about the differences between President Obama and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but we'll also explore some of their similarities in a series we're calling Parallel Lives. Both candidates are Harvard-educated, both profoundly influenced by their churches and both suffered early political setbacks.

On MORNING EDITION today, we told you about Romney's loss to Ted Kennedy in a Massachusetts Senate race. Now, NPR's Scott Horsley has the story of the one political contest Mr. Obama lost.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: A dozen years ago, Barack Obama was a young man in a hurry. He'd served less than two full terms in the Illinois State Senate. But campaign manager Dan Shomon says he was already aiming higher.

DAN SHOMON: He had aspirations to be heard. And in Springfield, when you're a state senator, you're even less important than a Chicago alderman.

HORSLEY: Obama decided to challenge a Democratic Congressman named Bobby Rush. Rush had just lost his own bid for the Chicago mayor's office. But the onetime Black Panther turned civic activist was still popular in his South Side district.

Political columnist Laura Washington says in trying to topple the veteran lawmaker, 38-year-old Obama showed a certain audacity.

LAURA WASHINGTON POLITICAL COLUMNIST: It's very difficult to knock of a black incumbent. Black voters are very loath to reject one of their own. So it took a lot of gumption and some hubris. And I think that that race knocked some of that hubris out of him. And he realized he had a lot to learn.

HORSLEY: Obama's ambition proved no match for Rush's experience. The young state senator was little known outside his University of Chicago neighborhood, and he had a limited advertising budget to introduce himself. Inexpensive radio ads stressed his background as a community organizer, the work that originally brought Obama to Chicago. They also hinted at the priorities that would define his political career.


HORSLEY: With limited staff, Obama drove himself through unfamiliar neighborhoods, sometimes calling Shomon for directions late at night when he got lost. The congressional district was heavily African-American, but also included the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Beverly, where Obama marched in what had been an all-white Saint Patrick's Day Parade.

SHOMON: We were not allowed to have our own float. But Representative Dart, who's now the Sheriff of Cook County, invited us to be his guest. So I gave then-Senator Obama a green vest, and I said: Wear this, and then you'll be good. But he wouldn't do the O-apostrophe-Bama.

HORSLEY: Obama had not yet discovered his family's Irish roots. He also had not discovered the speaking style that would later make him famous. Columnist Washington says to some African-American voters, Obama still sounded too much like the bright young law professor he was.

COLUMNIST: Some people felt that he was talking over people's heads. And I remember folks talking about, you know, the way he dressed and the way he carried himself and the fact that he'd gone to Harvard. And I think Bobby Rush was very effective at using that against him. He was sort of perceived as not one of us.

HORSLEY: Obama later wrote: It was a race in which everything that could go wrong, did. His own mistakes were compounded by tragedy. Rush's adult son was shot and killed by drug dealers, causing a wave of sympathy for the incumbent congressman.

Later, Shomon says, Obama missed a high-profile vote on a gun bill in the state senate, when his daughter got sick during a family trip to Hawaii.

SHOMON: It really was a meaningless vote, but it caused us to have to explain to everyone. And whenever you're explaining and you're on defense, you're not winning a campaign.

HORSLEY: Obama lost by a two-to-one margin. Years later, the defeat still burned.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: That race was probably my last involvement in vanity politics. Since that time, I had to really look into myself and say, why am I doing this? Is it to get attention or is it to help people?

HORSLEY: Even in losing, though, Obama was impressive. Political writers downplayed the loss as a bump in the road, rather than a dead end. Shomon says many still saw the young politician as destined for higher office.

SHOMON: In that race in 2000, a couple people said that, you know, this guy is going to be the first black president of the United States. And we kind of would laugh about it and say, look, he can't even get elected to Congress.

HORSLEY: In politics, Obama wrote, there's no second place. But there are second acts, and his was just beginning. His speaking style evolved as he visited hundreds of churches during the campaign. And he also proved he could win votes in a variety of neighborhoods, including that Irish Catholic community where he celebrated St. Patrick's Day.

With his white mother and African father, Obama had a gift for moving comfortably in lots of different circles. Columnist Washington says it was during the 2000 race that others began to see that political potential.

COLUMNIST: Folks with money, people that normally wouldn't be involved in a congressional race on the South Side of Chicago. And he cultivated those relationships and took them with him all the way to the White House.

HORSLEY: Shomon suspects Obama never would have made it that far had he beaten Bobby Rush a dozen years ago.

SHOMON: Think about the course of history. If he had won that race, he would have been a back-bencher, among 435 members of Congress. He would have been the most junior African-American congressman from Illinois.

HORSLEY: Shomon calls the unsuccessful 2000 campaign a political boot camp for Obama. He came into the contest ill-prepared, but he came out battle ready for all the elections to come. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at 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.