DENVER — It is natural to describe Barack Obama’s flight from obscure state senator to presidential nominee, from a head-turning 2004 speech in Boston to the pinnacle of American politics in Denver in 2008, as a success story beyond imagination.
Except that’s not true.
A lot of people in Obama’s life not only imagined it, they flatly predicted it. And they said so years before Obama sprang on the national scene as part of a personality-driven phenomenon virtually unprecedented in this country’s presidential history.
“If there is someone who wore fate on his sleeve, it is Barack Obama,” said former Illinois Sen. Denny Jacobs, who served with Obama and played poker with him. “You could see it happen. You could feel it. It was a matter of time.”
There is a whiff of the mystical in Jacobs’ premonition of Obama’s destiny as leader.
But that misty, glittery terrain is precisely the ground on which Democrats have chosen to wage the 2008 presidential election.
It is a choice freighted with risks. It depends on winning, over the next 10 weeks, many Americans who polls show are reluctant to embrace a movement that places its faith in intangible qualities — charisma, vision, capacity for growth — rather than in such prosaic traits as national experience or long-term identification with a policy agenda.
Obama’s remarkable ascent has been fueled by two main engines.
The first is Obama’s own preternatural self-assurance. It is a seemingly imperturbable belief in his own rhetorical and intellectual gifts.
The second is the willingness of Democrats to invest in a particular notion of the presidency — that it is an inspirational office more than an administrative one, that it rewards the skills of the preacher more than those of the policy expert or legislative tactician.
These engines each have produced their own powerful back drafts: Obama’s poise, to the eyes of skeptics, can too often curdle into arrogance.
And Republicans have served notice plainly that they will cast Obama and his partisans as a frivolous movement, lacking in substance and naive about the obligations of a commander in chief.
For now, though, hours away from Obama’s acceptance speech before an expected 80,000 people at Invesco Field, his story is a remarkable testament to the power of self-confidence.
These days, of course, his self-confidence is validated by many.
At a San Francisco fundraiser earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Obama “a leader that God has blessed us with at this time.”
This is a theme echoed by supporters from the outset, despite Obama saying on the trail that the campaign isn't about him. Michelle Obama leads the way. The word she invokes in speeches about her husband is “special,” as a year ago in Iowa, when she rhapsodized that there was “something very special about this man.”
He understood earlier than most Democrats that the Iraq war was a mistake, she said, “because he’s special.”
To spend time in Obama’s campaign orbit, as this reporter has done since before the Iowa caucuses, is to see constant reminders, in both public and private moments, of his poise. Sometimes it comes off as the signature of a well-grounded man who seems not to have the kind of hyperkinetic neediness of many politicians. Other times it simply looks brash.
At the same San Francisco fundraiser where Pelosi suggested his candidacy was divinely inspired, Obama said coolly, “I will win, don’t worry about that.”
In July, Obama smiled and offered a one-word answer when asked during a CBS interview whether he ever had doubts about his foreign policy experience: “Never.”
When he walks through a hotel lobby in the morning to catch a workout, Obama retreats with ease into an inward-looking zone. He wearsheadphones and buries his head in a newspaper, bothering to look up only when shouts or cheering from onlookers becomes too loud to ignore.
By the end of Obama’s overseas trip last month, which featured an adoring crowd of 200,000 in Berlin, an Obama sticker affixed to the wall of the campaign plane’s media cabin had been defaced: “Worship me,” it read, under a drawing of his face. (Someone has since tried to scrub the sticker clean.)
By now, the basic stepping stones of Obama’s biography are well-known: the bright child of a single mother, the Harvard Law School standout, the community organizer and rising, restless politician from Chicago.
What is less appreciated is how each of these chapters contributed to and reinforced Obama’s desire to succeed and his apparent sense of self-destiny.
At the outset, it was his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who built him up.
Fearful that her son would feel alienated as an African-American growing up in a white household in Hawaii, his mother reinforced Obama’s esteem at every turn. He moved between cultures and races as a child, learning lessons that would inform his political rise decades later.
“Barry was given a lesson that he would consume over and over: His unique racial ancestry made him someone who certainly was not to be ostracized or shunned. Far from it — he was a special person worthy of others’ deep admiration,’” Obama biographer David Mendell wrote in the 2007 book, “From Power to Promise.”
Obama traces his ambition to the successes — and shortcomings — of his Kenyan father, who was studying at the University of Hawaii when he met Obama’s mother. His father left when Obama was 2 years old but was nonetheless built up by his mother.
She told Obama that he had acquired his intellect from his father, a Harvard-educated economist who, as the senator learned later in life, had fallen short in his own professional and personal pursuits. Barack Obama Sr. married and divorced several times, cycled through a series of government jobs in Kenya and suffered from alcoholism. He died in a car crash in 1982, at 46 years old.
“In my case, you had this person who was almost a myth in our family, about how smart he was and how well he had done school and how well-spoken he was,” Obama said in a recent CNN interview. “So that was something to live up to — high expectations. On the other hand, here's somebody who wasn't there, and that I would come to learn was an alcoholic, someone who had not treated his family well. And so that was something you felt you had to make up for.”
His maternal grandfather, who helped raise Obama, also fueled his self-assurance from an early age, telling Obama of a lesson from his father: “Confidence — the secret to a man’s success,” Obama wrote in “Dreams of My Father.”
“That is how Obama’s father led his life,” Mendell wrote in his book, “and even in times of self-doubt, Obama has hearkened back to that wisdom.”
After graduating from Columbia University, Obama moved to Chicago to become a community organizer on the South Side, a job that could humble even the most confident individuals. But Obama saw success, said Gerald Kellman, who hired him.
Obama's three years as a community organizer is “very much at the root of who Barack has become,” Kellman said. “He was tested so severely, and he did well.”
Obama went onto Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American president of the law review, emerging from a crowded field as the candidate who could bridge liberal and conservative factions. The achievement earned so much national attention that some students made light of the media invasion in a memo titled, “The Barack Obama Story, a Made for TV Movie, Starring Blair Underood as Barack Obama,” according to a March 1990 article in the Los Angeles Times.
“He is a superstar,” Kellman said of Obama’s Harvard experience. “He realized people began to respond to him in a powerful way.”
As he moved up in Illinois politics, Obama was reminded frequently of his potential. Tall, handsome and smart, Obama heard from colleagues and friends that he didn’t belong in the Illinois Legislature, that could be the governor — maybe even president of the United States.
“He had this ability, immediately: You sit there and say, ‘This guy, there is something special about him,'” said Illinois Sen. Terry Link, another member of the poker group. “No matter who met him or how you met him, you walked away with that impression. 'This guy is going places. I think he will be president of the United States.' Did I think he would become more than what he was at the time? Yeah, he had this unique ability to make people feel comfortable around themselves and feel part of the process.”
Twelve years ago, Cass Sunstein, a former colleague at the University of Chicago Law School, introduced his daughter to Obama this way: “If all goes well, maybe he will be president of the United States.”
Obama analyzed issues in a way that “wasn’t impaired by ideological blinders or simple frameworks,” Sunstein explained. “I also thought he likes people, and people liked him. I thought early on, this was someone who could unify the country across political lines. There was something about his lack of dogmatism, and his problem-solving ability and the ability to connect with him."
By the late 1990s, members of the Saguaro Seminar were calling him “governor.” Obama was a first-term state senator contemplating — and openly discussing — his ambitions for higher office.
He joined the working group led by Robert Putnam, author of “Bowling Alone,” with three dozen other political leaders, clergy, philanthropists and Ivy League professors. They met several times a year, for three years, to discuss ways to rebuild “social capital” and civic life.
“So we were in the midst of one of our intensive discussions about civic engagement,” said Martha Minow, a Harvard University law professor who taught Obama. “And after one of these ranging discussions, across the political sectors, he did this tour de force summary. We just said, ‘When are you running for president?’ It became a joke. We started to nickname him ‘governor.’”
After delivering a celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama began to believe he could stand on that stage as the nominee, a four-year journey that culminates tonight in Denver.
Ever since that day, which turned him into an overnight celebrity, Obama has constantly walked the line between confident and cocky.
He can show humility, asking God in a note he pressed into the Western Wall in Jerusalem to “help me guard against pride,” or invoking his wife in stump speeches as someone who reminds him often that he is not a perfect man.
He can appear self-deprecating and genuinely uneasy about the trappings of his entourage and his following, joking to reporters that he has daydreamed about escaping the presidential campaign bubble. When he goes out to dinner in Chicago with his family, he looks loathe to engage the dozens of people who gather to see him outside restaurants and other public places.
But the flashes of Obama-as-upstart seem to be the enduring ones, fueling a narrative now central to GOP attacks.
Deflecting criticism in February during the primary that he was all rhetoric, no substance: “It's true I give a good speech. What can I do? Nothing wrong with that.”
(After his 2004 convention speech, according to Mendell, he said, &uot;I'm LeBron, baby. I can play on this level. I got some game.")
An Obama visit Sunday to a Lutheran church in Wisconsin drew attention because the sermon focused on humility and the pastor warned that one should not become “cocky.”
Known early in the campaign for her deprecating humor, describing her husband as “stinky and snore-y” in the morning, Michelle Obama just as often portrays her husband as almost otherworldly in his gifts.
The country needed Barack Obama, she said, who she would rather have at home in Chicago but “who I am willing to sacrifice because we have this window of opportunity.”
Locked in a fierce primary election battle in April, Michelle Obama paced a stage at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and promised her husband would be "one of the most dynamic leaders we have seen in a long time” — and Democrats know it.
“The thing I want to remind you is that everybody in this party knows that,” she said. “You know why I say that? Because, see, before he was running, right after that wonderful speech at the convention, everybody wanted a piece of hope. It wasn’t naive then. Barack spent the entire fall traveling around, campaigning and raising money for every single Democratic race.
“Every single person,” she said, “wanted him on stage with them, for a little piece of hope. There wasn’t anything naive about it. The problem came when Barack said, ‘I am standing back here, but maybe I can run this.'"