The First Time I Met Illinois Senate Candidate Barack Obama

Stuart Rothenberg January 17, 2017 · 8:30 AM EST

With the end of the Obama Administration approaching, I recently looked back at the notes from my two meetings with Barack Obama during his run for the United States Senate.  Obama was not well known then, and he was regarded as nothing more than a long-shot for the Democratic nomination. 

I first met then-state Sen. Barack Obama on September 13, 2002, almost a year to the day after the attacks of 9/11. The second meeting was almost a year later, on September 26, 2003. 

The initial meeting was relatively brief and introductory. Normally, I wouldn’t meet a candidate for a 2004 race before the 2002 elections were over, but Democratic consultant Joe McLean, who phoned me to meet his Democratic Senate hopeful, wouldn’t take no for an answer. 

Initially, McLean told me only that he had a terrific candidate. It was only after I agreed to meet the man that Joe told me his name: Barack Obama. When I heard the name, I was doubly sure that I would be wasting my time. After all, Osama bin Laden was in the news often, and some Illinois voters were likely to confuse Osama and Obama.

I was skeptical that this Obama could compete in Chicago’s ethnic wards, the suburbs or downstate. But I had given my word to Joe.

Much of the meeting was devoted to Obama’s bio. My notes show “born Hawaii” and identify his father as “from Kenya.” We talked about Obama’s state senate district, his education, his work as an organizer and his experience teaching constitutional law. We also talked about his failed 2000 primary challenge to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a race where Obama did well among white voters but Rush swamped him in the African-American community.

Obama identified his possible primary opponents for the Senate race, mentioning state Comptroller Dan Hynes, attorney Gerry Chico and wealthy businessman/trader Blair Hull. That was about it, except that my notes also show that Obama had hired two well-regarded campaign consultants for his team: David Axelrod and Paul Harstad.

I do remember having a very specific reaction to Obama from that initial meeting. I found him well-spoken and smart, but very cool and serious. Serious isn’t bad, of course, unless it prevents a candidate from connecting to voters.

Some candidates came into meetings wanting to bond with me, either by being funny or very likable. I never got the sense from Obama that he cared about doing that. I didn’t know whether he could.

Years later, when others started talking about Obama being “cool” or “distant,” I chuckled, since that was also my initial reaction to the would-be senator.

My second interview with Obama, one year and two weeks later, was very different, since the Democratic primary election was just six months away, on March 16, 2004.

Obama talked about his fund raising and cash-on-hand. He said that he needed to close the name recognition gap that he still had against Hynes but that he was already “leading in the Chicago media market.”

Obama also talked strategy and numbers. The race had become a four-way contest: Obama, Hull, Hynes and Maria Pappas, the treasurer of Cook County, a well-known political figure.

It was clear that Obama thought he had considerable upside appeal among white Democrats, a reasonable assessment since he carried white voters in his primary challenge to Rush only a few years earlier. 

After talking about a Hynes poll and Hull’s expected television buy, Obama identified two domestic issues that he said were over-riding: jobs, especially manufacturing job losses, and health care.

On the jobs front, he mentioned the need for “fair trade” and “incentives” to keep jobs in the United States. On health care, he mentioned three specific problems: prescription drugs, the uninsured and increasing premiums for those with insurance. 

These were generically Democratic positions, though Obama’s comments now seem more interesting after the Affordable Care Act, his record on trade in the White House and Donald Trump’s criticism about U.S, trade policy.

Then Obama switched gears to foreign policy. My notes show he said “We spend a lot of time talking about war and foreign policy.” He talked about the cost of the war in Iraq and mentioned that he had “appeared at the first anti-war rally in Chicago.”

My ears perked up when, as the interview started to draw to a close, candidate Obama said that he had two certain “applause lines” when he spoke: mention then-Attorney General John Ashcroft and “criticize Democrats on Capitol Hill for not standing up” to Pres. George W. Bush.

“When I’m known,” said Obama confidently, “I get votes. Now, it’s a race against time to get known among Democratic voters.” 

Obama did get known and win the primary and the general election, both under rather odd circumstances.

Hull was headed for victory in the Democratic primary until reports surfaced that his wife had called him a violent man in divorce papers. Unsealed divorce papers only fueled the fire (they alleged physical abuse), and Hull’s chances in the Senate race went up in smoke.

After Hull’s candidacy imploded, Democrats looked for a candidate without baggage and turned to Obama.

Nominee Obama was headed for a competitive race against a very formidable Republican nominee, Jack Ryan. But Ryan’s candidacy started to unravel two weeks later, when a judge ruled that some of Ryan’s sealed child custody papers should be opened. 

Three months later, the papers were released, and they all but sunk Ryan’s candidacy. A month later, he dropped his Senate bid, and Illinois Republican officials selected Alan Keyes to replace Ryan as the GOP nominee, all but handing the race, and the Senate seat, to Obama.

Without the first scandal, Hull would have become the Democratic nominee, Without the second one, Ryan may well have won the Senate seat. In each case, Obama would not have been positioned to run against Hillary Clinton in 2008, nor become the Democratic presidential nominee that year. 

And to think that Joe McLean had to twist my arm to get me to agree to meet some long-shot Senate candidate named Barack Obama.