Artifact 13: Portrait of a Future President

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In the lead-up to The Choice 2012, FRONTLINE’s hotly anticipated dual biography of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, we’re publishing “The Artifacts of Character,” a series of rarely seen objects that elucidate key moments and experiences in the candidates’ lives. Check back this afternoon for our last artifact from Mitt Romney.

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artifact thirteen

Photo Credit: Obama campaign

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Obama hung two images on his wall in his office in Springfield, Ill., where he served as a state senator.

The first was a poster from Project Vote, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit group that encouraged minority voters to register and get to the polls. Obama led its Illinois chapter in 1992.

That year was a major political moment for Chicago Democrats. In November, Carol Moseley Braun, a former Illinois state representative, became the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. Bill Clinton would also win the state in the 1992 presidential race, the first time that a Democrat had done so since 1964.

Obama “was the new guy in town, doing a big, massive registration drive in a very important political year,” Ryan Lizza, a reporter for The New Yorker, told FRONTLINE.

As Project Vote’s executive director, Obama was responsible for voter registration on Chicago’s South Side. His job was to bring as many people as possible into the political process, and his work not only deepened his engagement with the South Side’s politically active base, it also introduced the young outsider to Chicago’s Democratic power brokers. “Obama [was] at the center of that action,” Lizza said.

The second image in Obama’s Springfield office was a framed picture of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. Obama arrived in Chicago two years after Washington was elected by a coalition made up of the city’s black base and white progressives who supported his platform. While the two men never had a close personal relationship, Washington’s example offered Obama a blueprint for how to run — and win office — in a racially divided world.

Cassandra Butts, a friend of Obama’s from Harvard Law School who would later serve for a year as his deputy White House counsel, told FRONTLINE that Harold Washington had a tremendous influence on Obama’s early political development.

“[O]ne of the things that he would stress and talk about was the coalitions that Washington was able to build, coalitions that were diverse,” Butts recalled. “They represented a progressive coalition across Chicago politics. … Barack was very impressed by that. And certainly, as he thought about politics and how to succeed and how to focus on the issues and policies that were important, he saw building those types of coalitions as essential.”

It would be the model that Obama would use to run for the U.S. Senate in 2004, and later in 2008 during his historic campaign for the presidency.

Obama, then an Illinois state senator, in his Springfield, Ill. office.
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