“A Naïve Obama Gets Drubbed”

November 9, 2011

from CHAPTER 1 of Branding Obamessiah

Bobby Rush Clobbered Obama

W hen Obama took on Bobby Rush in the US Congressional primary race of 2000, he felt the sting of his first and only political loss. He had irritated some Democrats by jumping the line and running against Rush, a South Side Chicago icon. Obama’s heretofore proven strategy of missing controversial votes backfired for the first time as well. After a pair of drug dealers gunned down Rush’s son outside the son’s South Side home, Obama planned a vacation to Hawaii and was missing in action when a key handgun control bill came up for a vote on the floor. The bill failed to pass; Obama clearly miscalculated the power of the four-term incumbent congressman. 35 He also underestimated both the sympathy factor for a father who had just buried his son and the chill factor for a politician who failed to vote for a bill that the community perceived to be related to the son’s violent end.

After Rush drubbed him, Obama couldn’t even get his name on the Illinois delegation roster. Things looked bleak for the quietly ambitious politician. Undaunted, the thirty-nine-year-old junior state senator bought a plane ticket to Los Angeles for the Democratic convention, for which he lacked credentials or a ticket. Along the way, Obama persuaded a rental car agency clerk to overlook his unpaid credit card balance and made his way to the convention. “I couldn’t secure a floor pass,” Obama wrote. “I ended up watching most of the speeches on various television screens scattered around the Staples Center” or bumming along with “friends or acquaintances into skyboxes where it was clear I didn’t belong.” 36 At one reception, an undeterred Obama gushed, “Dick Durbin is not only the most popular Democrat in the state, but the most popular politician in the state.” Durbin said he had “no memory of him there” and indicated it must have been a “disastrous” trip for Obama. 37 What was Obama thinking? Was he naïve or unassumingly brilliant? Those two options would forever seem to be the choices for anyone who seriously tried to understand this chameleonic politician.

B ut only four years later it seemed like Obama had made some brilliant moves somewhere along the line. Durbin introduced his junior state senator to the nation for the Democratic National Convention keynote speech in Boston. Obama was still a relative unknown to anyone outside local Illinois politics. “Nobody knew who I was,” Obama himself recalled. “Even up to the time that I walked on the stage, where they were handing out Obama signs, people were thinking, what is this?” 38 Obama wrote that his star-making turn at the podium “remains something of a mystery to me.” 39 He fretted his Boston appearance “might not go very well.” His last thoughts before walking out on stage, he wrote, were thoughts of his “mother and father and grandfather and what it might have been like for them to be in the audience.” “Lord,” he recalled saying, “let me tell their stories right.” 40

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