Sunday, July 24, 2005

Obama a celebrity despite low-key approach

Obama a celebrity despite low-key approach

AP National Writer

PEKIN, Ill. (AP) -- The line forms the moment Sen. Barack Obama is done speaking, a procession of admirers clutching copies of his book, magazines, scraps of paper, disposable cameras and one homemade American flag. It doesn't take long before someone pops the question.

An elderly woman, dressed in bubble-gum pink, looks up with wide eyes. The lanky senator leans in to hear her amid the din in the stuffy library meeting room.

"In 2008 or some other time," she says, "will we get a chance to work for you for president?"

Obama grins, but demurs. He is not running for president. Not in 2008, at least.

His Senate career is just six months old. And six months before that, few people in America had even heard of this man who was just introducing himself to voters in Illinois.

But one year has passed since Obama's star-making turn at the Democratic convention, and the senator is now a player in two worlds: He's a deliberately low-key newcomer to Capitol Hill, careful to avoid upstaging the powerful old bulls on their home turf. But he's also an A-list celebrity, courted by everyone from Oprah to Gorbachev.

On a scorching July day, Obama has come to this blue-collar community just south of Peoria, seat of a county he and President Bush carried by equally lopsided margins. He's recognized everywhere. As he wraps an arm around a woman celebrating her retirement at C.J.'s Cafe to pose for a photo, a half-dozen friends at her table lift their cell phone cameras and click.

"It's been sort of a whirlwind," Obama says, sipping an iced tea. "Deserved or undeserved, I've received a lot of attention and that can translate into political influence. ... I think my colleagues legitimately see me as somebody who has potential but has just arrived."

That's the Washington way. In the Senate, the seniority system is still a reality and powerful committee chairmen and party leaders jealously guard the perks and prerogatives that come only with time. Obama knows he has to wait.

So he's taken on the age-old role prescribed for Senate freshmen: He's the diligent, shirt-sleeves-rolled-up, state-oriented lawmaker, devoted to the unglamorous issues that often matter most to folks back home.

He has pushed to spend money to modernize locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, squeeze out more dollars for Illinois highways and create tax credits for ethanol fueling stations - a plan dear to the hearts of corn and soybean growers.

He also has focused on reported inequities in disability compensation for veterans in Illinois. And with South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, he successfully proposed providing free meals for soldiers and Marines in military hospitals for extended stays while recovering from injuries received in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, Obama has ventured out a bit - as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he recently visited the United Nations to press for an end to the slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan. And he will travel to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan next month.

Obama - the only black member of the U.S. Senate - knows no matter what he does, the expectations in some circles are in the stratosphere.

"In some circumstances, there probably are people who expect me to have solved the world's problems already ... ," he says, "but I think most voters are satisfied if they know I'm thinking about them."

Obama has conducted 26 town meetings, including this one, and returns to Chicago every weekend to be with his family. He and his wife, Michelle, prefer to raise their two young daughters there rather than Washington because of "the lack of pretense."

The message is clear: There's no danger of Potomac fever.

His strategy - being a student, not a showboat - is wise, says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia who has followed Obama.

"I think people wondered if he would continue to be high profile or do what he said he would do - take a back seat as a new senator and as a freshman try to learn more," he says. "To his credit, he's done the latter. He could have been on a Sunday morning talk show every weekend. He was smart enough not to do that."

That may well be why Obama - who receives about 250 invitations a week - says yes to the American Legion in Springfield and no to Mikhail Gorbachev's request to attend the 5th World Summit of Nobel Peace laureates in Rome.

But Obama, who turns 44 next month, can't escape the cameras. Nor has he tried.

He graced the cover of Newsweek and posed for celebrity photographers Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon - before he even took office. He popped up in People magazine (in white tie) with Barbra Streisand when both were guests at Oprah Winfrey's lavish tribute to pioneering black women.

He has been mentioned on TV's "Will & Grace" and lampooned at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, where a Washington journalist playing him wore a halo and gold lame and sang a tune called "Be Bop Messiah."

Obama even made his way onto the 100 Greatest Americans nominees list compiled by the Discovery Channel - Benjamin Franklin and comic Ellen DeGeneres made the cut, too - and edged out a handful of colleagues to rank No. 1 among senators in popularity among their constituents in a recent poll.

Obama's life also has changed in one other big way this past year.

While many senators are millionaires when elected, Obama joined the club last winter, courtesy of a $1.9 million three-book contract (one will be for children.) He also continues to draw royalties from his 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," reissued after his convention speech. It has remained on The New York Times paperback best-seller list for more than 40 weeks.

It's no wonder Obama joked months ago that he made Paris Hilton look like a recluse.

Not everyone has been enamored. Former Reagan speechwriter and sometime Republican adviser Peggy Noonan replied caustically to an essay Obama wrote for Time about Abraham Lincoln.

Obama compared his humble roots to those of 16th president: His father was a Kenyan he barely knew, his mother was from Kansas. Their son, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, would become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

"There is nothing wrong with Barack Obama's resume, but it is a log-cabin-free-zone," Noonan recently wrote in an online column for The Wall Street Journal. "So far it is also a greatness-free zone. If he keeps talking about himself like this, it will always be."

Obama also angered some liberals for supporting Condoleezza Rice's nomination for secretary of state and refusing to join a group of Democrats who protested the certification of the Electoral College votes from Ohio, alleging numerous irregularities.

"There's a lot of freight placed on symbolic gestures," Obama says. "I don't think that plays well with the American people. ... Despite the fact that I come from what would be considered the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, I don't always agree with the strategy and tactics of some of my friends on the left."

Even so, the phone keeps ringing. He has helped raised money for U.S. senators in Florida, Michigan and New Jersey this year, collecting chits along the way.

Obama says his party needs to do a better job of getting its message out to voters.

"I do agree that the Democrats have been intellectually lazy in failing to take the core ideals of the Democratic Party and adapting them to circumstances," he says.

He says the Democrats should "take it big instead of making it small" as they speak about globalization, the need for a tough foreign policy and the importance of faith and family.

"It's not just a matter of sticking in a quote from the Bible into a stock speech," he says.

The town meeting in Pekin draws a standing-room-only crowd of about 200. They hear Obama soft-pedal his own power, repeating his standard line that he's 99th in seniority. The audience doesn't mind, posing a series of soft, friendly questions about the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, veterans' benefits and the environment.

Obama is confident in his answers, measured with his words. He offers no Howard Dean-like jabs, only gentle gibes. The president's tax cuts? Billionaire Warren Buffett, he says, is the real winner. Bush's education program? "You can't have No Child Left Behind if you leave the money behind," he says.

Slash-and-burn politics are not his style. "I'm just not big on demonizing people," he says.

But he can charm them in a snap: He teases a father and son about their scalp-baring haircuts, asks a college student about school, offers a hand on the shoulder and a solemn "thank you for your service" to an elderly veteran and waits patiently as a little girl spells her name M-a-r-i-s-s-a so he can autograph the paper flag she has made.

Obama says there's a disconnect between issues people raise at town meetings and those debated in Washington. "There has yet to be a serious conversation about health care on the floor of the United States Senate," he says.

In fact, he says, there hasn't been much conversation at all.

"Now that we're in the C-Span era, we really don't have debates," he says. "What we have are sequential speeches delivered to TV cameras. ... And I think that contributes to the political rancor."

Still, he says there have been great and memorable moments in his short Senate career. He recalls walking onto an empty floor, opening his desk and seeing where - following tradition - previous occupants such as Bobby Kennedy, Paul Wellstone and Paul Simon had carved their names.

"You're reminded," he says, "that a lot of important work - both for good and for ill - has been done in this job."

Obama says he is "absolutely positive" he will not run for president in 2008. Those watching him say it's premature to predict his future.

"He has great potential, but the thing about potential is it has to be followed through," says David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a black think tank.

"Clearly he has impressed a lot of people ... and what happened during the election was remarkable," he adds. "Now, it's really time for him to start building a resume as a U.S. senator."