Artifact Seven: Obama’s First Big Loss

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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. Each Monday and Thursday for the next three weeks, we’ll publish a new artifact for each candidate.

Courtesy of WTTW11, Under license from WTTW Digital Archives

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<object width = "512" height = "328" > <param name = "movie" value = "http://dgjigvacl6ipj.cloudfront.net/media/swf/PBSPlayer.swf" > </param><param name="flashvars" value="video=http://video.pbs.org/videoPlayerInfo/2284363561&player=viral&end=0" /> <param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param > <param name = "allowscriptaccess" value = "always" > </param><param name="wmode" value="transparent"></param ><embed src="http://dgjigvacl6ipj.cloudfront.net/media/swf/PBSPlayer.swf" flashvars="video=http://video.pbs.org/videoPlayerInfo/2284363561&player=viral&end=0" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" wmode="transparent" allowfullscreen="true" width="512" height="328" bgcolor="#000000"></embed></object><p style="font-size:11px; font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; color: #808080; margin-top: 5px; background: transparent; text-align: center; width: 512px;">Watch <a style="text-decoration:none !important; font-weight:normal !important; height: 13px; color:#4eb2fe !important;" href="http://video.pbs.org/video/2284363561" target="_blank">Barack Obama’s Early Debate Against Bobby Rush</a> on PBS. See more from <a style="text-decoration:none !important; font-weight:normal !important; height: 13px; color:#4eb2fe !important;" href="http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/" target="_blank">FRONTLINE.</a></p>

Nobody, not even his wife Michelle, wanted Obama to challenge Rep. Bobby Rush for his seat in the House of Representatives when he ran against him in 2000.

Rush, a former Black Panther with a strong following in Chicago’s predominantly black South Side, had years of experience and connections in the city. He had been a U.S. representative from Illinois since 1993 and was a clear favorite for re-election.

Rush aggressively attacked his young opponent, painting Obama as an upstart elitist from Harvard who didn’t truly understand the needs of Rush’s black constituents. He charged that Obama didn’t have much experience in politics, either, since he had only been a state senator for a few years.

“Barack is a person who read about the civil rights protests and thinks he knows all about it,” he told the Chicago Reader at the time. “I helped make that history, by blood, sweat, and tears.”

But Rush had recently lost a bid for mayor, and Obama thought the veteran politician had been weakened. Obama figured he could win by arguing that it was time for new leadership. “He never has let the fear of failure get in the way of giving it a good try,” Jarrett told FRONTLINE.

During the campaign, Obama, Rush, and a third challenger, Donne Trotter, also a state senator who took a similarly dismissive view of Obama, engaged in a debate that highlighted Rush’s experience and skill. In the discussion, held on the WTTW program Chicago Tonight, Rush looks at ease in a brown suit and a “Bobby Rush” pin on his lapel. Obama, in a more formal suit, doesn’t even know when to look at the camera. He comes across as overly conciliatory, avoiding any direct criticism of his tenure, and even admitting that there are “not a lot of ideological differences” between the two of them.

Rush, for his part, waves off Obama’s careful words, and homes in on a particular criticism: To win his state senate seat five years earlier, Obama knocked off the other Democratic candidates by challenging the signatures on their nominating petitions, thereby sailing to victory. Rush suggests Obama “got a pass” in that race and therefore lacks real political experience needed to serve his constituents.

Rush defeated Obama by a 2-to-1 margin. It was a major blow to the young state senator, straining his marriage with Michelle, who had opposed the campaign, and leaving Obama wondering if he was down for the count.

Editor’s Note (4 pm): An earlier version of this story contained a quote from Valerie Jarrett that referred to Obama’s later campaign for the U.S. Senate. We have removed the quote and regret the error.

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