By Alexandra Starr
Barack Obama was an unlikely choice to give the 2004 Democratic National Convention's keynote speech. He is, after all, only a state senator from Illinois. But party insiders have had high hopes for Obama since he thrashed his competition in a tough Democratic Senate primary in March.
He didn't disappoint. Even with sky-high expectations, Obama, 42, hit a home run on Tuesday night. His speech had a lot of Clintonian "I feel your pain" appeal. At the same time, he blended in enough centrist references -- denying, for example, that he wanted to return to the welfare-state policies of the past -- to calm party moderates. In doing so, Obama showed that he can rival Clinton with soaring rhetoric that's both powerful and subtle.
Obama's address wasn't just his maiden voyage on the national stage but also his official anointment as the party's brightest rising star. He's all but guaranteed to become the sole African American in the U.S. Senate. (His Republican rival for the open seat, Jack Ryan, bowed out of the race after a sex scandal.) Obama's diverse racial background -- he's the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya -- youth, and obvious political gifts open the door to his becoming the Democrats' "It" lawmaker.
The speech touched on all the issues that make Obama unusual. He talked of how his father grew up herding goats and went to school in a tin-roof shack. He referred to the military background of his maternal grandfather who, with his wife, raised Obama in Hawaii during his formative years. He sounded some centrist themes by chiding President Bush for not providing enough troops for the Iraq invasion, rather than outright opposing the war. (Obama gave a celebrated anti-war speech early in the Senate primary.)
Still, parts of his July 27 stemwinder reflected the fact that Obama is more liberal than most statewide politicians. "If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me," Obama thundered. "Even if it's not my child."
His left-of-center politics reflect his experiences. Before he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama spent three years as a community organizer in Chicago, trying to help South Side residents cope with the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs. He helped folks in the projects get their asbestos-riddled apartments tested. And he described his sadness at seeing young African-American kids drop out of school.
As an Illinois state senator, Obama now represents that South Side of Chicago. Few would dispute that he has looked after his constituents. He won legislation to expand the state's earned-income tax credit, which supplements the salaries of the working poor. He helped broaden health insurance coverage to children under the poverty line. But the measure that got the most attention required police to videotape interrogations in capital cases.
That wasn't necessarily a position that attracted suburbanites, but Obama's charismatic appeal has been broad-based. He won not just a majority of Chicago voters but also did well in the surrounding "collar" communities. On Tuesday night, he declared to cheering delegates: "There is not a liberal America or a conservative America, but a United States of America."
After tonight's speech, his fans will likely reach beyond Illinois. One of the biggest applause lines came when Obama described "the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes America has a place for him." That place probably soon will be the Senate. And that could be a stepping stone to even bigger things.
The TV networks chose not to offer any live coverage of Obama -- but they're surely kicking themselves now that a new Democratic Party star has been born.
For more on the Democratic National Convention, see BusinessWeek Online's continuing coverage at www.businessweek.com/election2004.htm
Starr is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau
Edited by Paula Dwyer