The Magazine

Saint Barack of Iowa

The Democratic contest comes down to Hope versus Muscle.

Dec 17, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 14 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Obama returned to Chicago to practice law and teach constitutional law at the University of Chicago. He also began writing the memoir that became Dreams from My Father, a critically-acclaimed examination of his ancestry, his early life (including teenage drug use), and the role of race in America. In 1996, Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate, and, in 2004, to the U.S. Senate. Most Americans first came to know him during that year when, as a candidate virtually assured of becoming the third black American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction, he was invited to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention.

Even in this hyperpartisan setting, Obama sought words that would place him above the back-and-forth sniping of left and right.

Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us--the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of "anything goes." Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America--there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America--there's the United States of America.

He took his shots at Republicans and praised John Kerry, but those passages were short and quickly forgotten. Even his partisan comments did not sound partisan. The 17-minute speech showcased a young man who was poised, but not slick; confident, but not cocky; opinionated, but not dogmatic; and wise-seeming despite his youth. Obama overshadowed everyone who spoke from the podium that week, including Kerry. And on the floor of the convention that night, many Democrats lamented that they did not have an inspirational figure like Obama to challenge George W. Bush and the Republicans.

They do now, of course. Harris Wofford, the former Pennsylvania senator who endorsed Obama in Iowa last week, says he hasn't seen such an uplifting leader for decades. "I haven't had this kind of hope since the days of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King," he says. "He's touched my soul."

This is the kind of overstatement often generated by an exciting day on the campaign trail. But Wofford is qualified to make it. He worked with the Kennedys and walked alongside King. Bill Clinton appointed him CEO of AmeriCorps, and Wofford helped Hillary Clinton craft her failed national health care plan.

The themes Obama laid out in his convention speech still feature prominently in his campaign rhetoric. In fact several lines were repeated verbatim in the stump speech he was delivering during the middle of last week. It was College Week, as Obama participated in town halls at two Iowa schools and gave speeches at four others.

At each stop, he began his remarks with process. He thanked his precinct captains, often by name, and then provided a thorough tutorial on the Iowa caucuses. (He uses an index card to make sure he gets names right but otherwise speaks without notes.) At the University of Iowa, he joked that students would not have anything better to do on January 3 as their Hawkeyes will not be playing in a bowl game that night.

Obama's message of idealism naturally appeals to younger voters, and his looks--a cross between Denzel Washington and Alfred E. Neuman--make him look like one of them. But there is a problem with his popularity amongst this age group. Students will be away on winter break during the caucuses. At each stop, he tells them to caucus in their Iowa hometowns or if they are from out of state to come back. Although the latter request often elicited laughter, it's clear people are taking him seriously. "I'm coming back to caucus," says Zoe Sigman, a freshman at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. Sigman, whose dark hair features prominent blonde streaks and who wears black fingernail polish, says that she will drive the four hours from Chicago back to campus to support Obama. And she insists that many out-of-state students will do the same.

When Obama finally turns to substance, he speaks with an authority his limited experience would suggest he hasn't earned. It doesn't matter. He sounds like a man who knows what he's talking about and knows what he wants to do. There are no questions that catch him off guard, no issues he hasn't considered. His answers almost always include precisely the right mix of policy wonkery ("I know enough to be your president") and small talk ("I'm cool enough to be your friend").