Saturday, January 06, 2007

Barack the Blessed

Everyone expects Barack Obama, the new golden boy of US politics, to comfortably overcome his own revelation he used cocaine and marijuana in high school and college. Obama made the confession in his memoir “Dreams of my Father.” The Illinois Democrat senator finally admitted recently he was considering a bid for presidential nomination. The book revelation offers him the chance to wash his dirty linen in public now so that it will not become an election issue in 2008. Given similar indiscretions in the past by Bill Clinton and George W Bush, the admission may even be an electoral plus.

Obama is the US’s hottest political phenomenon. He is now being seriously talked up as America’s first black president. His fresh-faced appeal, allied to his intelligence, charisma, and common touch are turning heads across the country. Though Obama has only been a senator for two years, a November 2006 poll for CNN placed him second only to Hillary Clinton on a list of potential Democrat candidates in 2008. The polls show he has 17% support of registered Democrats compared to Clinton’s 28%. He heads other potential nominees such as Al Gore and John Kerry and the one man who has formally put his hat in the ring, John Edwards. Obama’s increased support comes at the expense of Clinton and Gore. Clinton’s vote has dropped ten percentage points since the previous poll in September. The same poll shows John McCain and Rudy Giuliani running neck and neck on the Republican side.

The ambitious Obama is starting to work the marginal states. Virginia came into the picture after Democrat James Webb upset incumbent Republican George Allen in a race for senatorship in the 2006 midterm elections. Many believe that Obama’s turn at a Richmond fundraiser in February could be a keynote speech if he formally announces his presidential candidacy as expected this month. The Virginia primary is one of the earliest in the race (February 2008) and Kerry won it easily last time to effectively knock John Edwards and Wesley Clark out of the running.

Obama is 45 years old and the only African-American currently in the Senate. His father, also named Barack Obama (the word barack means “blessed” in the Central African language of Luo), was a goat-herder from Kenya and his mother, Ann Dunham was born in Kansas and moved to Honolulu. They met while studying at the University of Hawaii. Barack himself was born in Honolulu in 1961. His parents divorced when he was two and his father returned to Kenya. Ann remarried to another international student of the university. Barack's new stepfather was an Indonesian, Lolo Soetero. The family moved to Jakarta when Barack was six. Aged 10 he returned to Hawaii to live with his mother’s parents. He studied at New York’s Columbia University where he emerged with a degree in political science. After working for a communities project in Chicago, Barack went to Harvard law school and gained his doctorate in law in 1991. He returned to Chicago where he worked for a civil rights law firm and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

In Clinton’s second election year of 1996, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate. He ran for the federal House of Representatives in 2000 but lost comfortably to incumbent Bobby Rush who was a member of the Black Panthers in the 1960s. Obama was re-elected to the Illinois senate in 2002 and the Democrats won control of the chamber. He was rewarded with the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Obama quickly won a reputation as a consensus politician which won him support when he ran for the federal Senate. He secured his status as a rising star with a rousing speech at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004.

Aided by this publicity and support from two of Chicago’s most influential newspapers, the Tribune and the Sun-Times, Obama emerged from a crowded field to comfortable win the Democrat nomination. His republican opponent Jack Ryan withdrew due to sexual allegations and Obama easily beat Ryan’s late replacement by a margin of 43%. Obama spent his first year as senator building up his credentials. His first act was to sponsor a higher education bill for needy students. He has also been heavily involved in immigration, weapons non-proliferation, and funding accountability bills. He has been on international missions to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Enthusiastic crowds turned out to greet him in Kenya, his late father’s homeland. He was treated as a rock star by adoring crowds who followed his every move. Obama took a voluntary HIV test in a Kenyan clinic to encourage locals to do the same. He laid a wreath at the site of the US embassy bombing and he mad a major speech at Nairobi University where he accused Kenyan leaders of corruption and implored the country to rise beyond its ethnic tensions.

Back in the US thoughts have turned to 2008. After repeatedly denying interest in running for the top job throughout 2006, Obama left the door open in October. In an interview with Meet the Press he said “I don’t want to be coy about this, given the responses that I’ve been getting over the last several months, I have thought about the possibility”. Despite the favourable polls his thinking may well be to delay to 2012 when he will have 8 years as a senator under his belt. Even by 2016 he will only be 54, easily young enough to contest the presidency.

Obama often jokes that people are always getting his name wrong, calling him "Alabama" or "Yo Mama". However no mix-up has been quite as bad as CNN’s “The Situation Room” which last week confused Obama with Osama Bin Laden. A package promoting a story on the search for the al-Qaeda leader aired with the headline "Where's Obama?" CNN said the blunder was a "bad typographical error" by its graphics department. Senator Obama's press secretary, said: "Though I'd note that the 's' and 'b' keys aren't all that close to each other, I assume it was just an unfortunate mistake, and don't think there was any truly malicious intent." CNN won’t be making that mistake again. Osama may have disappeared off the radar, but Obama is here to stay.

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