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Obama Learned Lessons on the Path to the National Stage

August 28, 2008 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Sen. Barack Obama took the stage Thursday to accept the Democratic Party's nomination at the DNC, but to reach the national spotlight he had to overcome challenges along his political path. The NewsHour's Elizabeth Brackett reports on the years leading up to Obama's rise.

Now, more on who is Barack Obama and how did he get here? NewsHour correspondent Elizabeth Brackett of WTTW-Chicago begins our look at the nominee.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT, NewsHour Correspondent: Although Sen. Barack Obama was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, it was his adopted hometown of Chicago that really shaped who he became politically.

Obama moved there in the mid-1980s after graduating from Columbia University and went to work as a community organizer on the South Side in some of the poorest areas of the city.

Politically, it was an exciting time for African-Americans. Harold Washington had just been elected the city’s first black mayor, defeating Richard M. Daley, the son of long-time Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Jacky Grimshaw, now Barack Obama’s next-door neighbor, was a top adviser to Mayor Washington.

JACKY GRIMSHAW, Barack Obama Next-Door Neighbor: One of the things that Harold started was going out to the community with the budget, listening to what people wanted in their communities, and then responding.

I think, you know, Barack coming in fresh out of school, seeing this kind of leadership, I think, helped to shape him in terms of people being empowered.

Chicago's challenges

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Obama left in 1988 to attend Harvard Law School. When he returned, the political landscape in Chicago had shifted. Harold Washington had died, Richard M. Daley had become mayor, and, Grimshaw says, many of the coalitions that Mayor Washington had formed between African-Americans, Hispanics, and progressive whites were falling apart.

JACKY GRIMSHAW: Infighting happened and kind of destroyed the coalition that was successful with Harold.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So how did Barack navigate that?

JACKY GRIMSHAW: Well, I think Barack understood that you had to be inclusive, you know, that you couldn't just appeal to African-American pride or African-American issues, that, you know, you had to, in a lot of ways, you know, be respectful of all the community.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The community Obama chose to move into, Hyde Park-Kenwood, is one of the most economically and racially diverse neighborhoods in the city. He still lives there, though he has upgraded through the years.

While 16 percent of the community has incomes above $100,000, 46 percent of the residents are low-income. Abner Mikva represented Hyde Park in Congress. Mikva, an early Obama mentor, says that Hyde Park itself helped shape him.

FORMER REP. ABNER MIKVA (D), Illinois: It's a community that just thrives on intellectual disputes. It's heavily influenced by the fact that the University of Chicago is there with this great national institution.

But it's also heavily influenced by the fact that it is really the first truly integrated community that I know of in Chicago, where whites move in and blacks move in, and you don't pay any attention to these racial balance structures.

Developing credibility

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Obama taught constitutional law at the university and practiced as a civil rights attorney. But just four short years after his return to Chicago, he ran and won a seat in the Illinois State Senate.

Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend and neighbor of Obama's, says it wasn't easy for someone so new to the city to crack the old guard politics.

VALERIE JARRETT, Obama Friend and Adviser: It's very unusual. I mean, Chicago is a town that, you know, many of the political leaders here were born here. They grew up here. They were part of the political establishment.

And so Barack is unusual to have been able to move to Chicago and to have been able to develop credibility and work hard to earn the respect of so many people, being a relative newcomer to the town.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: To get elected, Obama had to reach out to two very different constituencies in his district, the liberal, reform-minded progressives of Hyde Park, and the more conservative, traditional Democratic politicians, represented by Mayor Daley.

Chicago political reporter Carol Marin says it was a careful dance that he had to continue for the years he spent in the legislature.

CAROL MARIN, Chicago Political Reporter: He is the ultimate pragmatist, and so he was able to keep a foot in both worlds, in that Hyde Park, thinky-feely independent world, but also have certain alliances with the Daley administration. And where a soft touch was required, he had it, but where a sharp elbow was, he also had it.

Losing the Congressional seat

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Obama also had to tread carefully between the old civil rights leaders, who for so many years had dominated the political world, and a new emerging force, African-American businessmen and women who didn't have such a contentious relationship with whites.

Marty Nesbitt is a neighbor and longtime friend of Obama's and is treasurer of his presidential campaign.

MARTY NESBITT, Friend of Obama: I think there is a bit of a shift in the paradigm. You know, I think the African-Americans of our generation and, you know, the non-African-Americans in this country of our generation are used to being together. And it's sort of a natural process, an evolution from the civil rights work that is now in place.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But in 2000, Chicago taught Obama one very painful political lesson when he decided to challenge Bobby Rush for his U.S. congressional seat. Rush's district included Hyde Park, but the majority of the district was very poor and nearly 90 percent African-American.

Obama was portrayed as a Hyde Park liberal with a Harvard degree who was not black enough for the district. He got clobbered.

CAROL MARIN: He was seriously stunned by his loss to Congressman Bobby Rush. He greatly overestimated what he could do. He greatly underestimated the power of an entrenched politician.

Becoming a presidential nominee

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What did he learn from that? How did it change him?

CAROL MARIN: I think the loss to Bobby Rush made him stop and re-assess. You know, victory doesn't teach you as much as a stinging defeat.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Obama returned to the state legislature and repaired relationships that had frayed because of his run against Rush. He began thinking of running for a statewide office, where success would depend on appealing to a broader range of voters than one congressional district.

In 2004, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, becoming the third African-American senator since Reconstruction.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: The next senator from the state of Illinois, Barack Obama!

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: As a candidate for the U.S. Senate, his speech to the Democratic convention catapulted him onto the national stage.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story, that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Still, few would have predicted that four years later he would return to the convention as the Democratic Party's nominee for president.