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OP-ED COLUMNIST

A Leap of Faith

By BOB HERBERT

Published: June 4, 2004



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E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com


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Elections


Obama, Barack


Senate



CHICAGO

Remember the name Barack Obama. You'll be hearing it a lot as this election season unfolds.

Mr. Obama, a Democrat, is tall, thin, youthful and very smart, and he's running (sometimes literally, depending on the schedule) for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois.

He's got a million-dollar smile and he's charismatic. At the moment he has a substantial lead in the polls. If that lead holds and he wins in November, he'll be only the third African-American to take a seat in the Senate since Reconstruction.

His partisans describe Mr. Obama as a dream candidate, the point man for a new kind of politics designed to piece together a coalition reminiscent of the one blasted apart by the bullet that killed Robert Kennedy in 1968.

In winning the Democratic primary in March, he took a startling 53 percent of the total vote in a field of seven candidates, and he ran surprisingly well among white blue-collar voters. He told me he believes strongly that while there are powerful and persistent differences at work in society, there is also "a set of core values that bind us together as Americans."

He said the basic idea of his campaign, which he described as "an experiment," was to see whether "we could recast politics" in a way that responded to his assumption "that people want to hear an expression of those common values."

"I give the same speech," he said, "in the inner city, in rural, all-white farming communities, or up in the North Shore in well-to-do suburbs."

His politics are left of center, but he said he is committed to working honestly with officials from a wide range of perspectives.

Differences can be framed and addressed in ways that are positive and constructive, he said. He doesn't believe in the "slash and burn" tactics that have such a hold on today's politics, and he hasn't allowed any in his campaign.

"There's a certain tone in politics that I aspire to," he said, "that allows me to disagree with people without being disagreeable."

In a political era saturated with cynicism and deceit, Mr. Obama is asking voters to believe him when he talks about the values and verities that so many politicians have lied about for so long. He's asking, in effect, for a leap of political faith.

So far, at least, the voters of Illinois seem to be responding. A Chicago Tribune poll released this week showed Mr. Obama with a huge lead, 52 percent to 30 percent, over his Republican rival, Jack Ryan.

Mr. Obama has not ducked the issues. He has opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning, and he delivered a stirring antiwar speech at a rally in October 2002. He supports the war in Afghanistan. He believes the Bush tax cuts went too far, and he makes that clear even in appearances before wealthy audiences. He said: "I tell them, `Look, I think we need to roll back those tax cuts that benefited you. You don't need them. Let's talk about what we could do with that money.' "

Mr. Obama, 42, is a state senator who has managed to work well with colleagues on both sides of the aisle. In a state that drew national publicity for the large number of condemned prisoners who were later found to be innocent, he was the driving force behind a new law requiring the police to videotape all interrogations in capital cases.

Mr. Obama is married and has two young daughters. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, and in 1990 was the first black person to be elected president of the Harvard Law Review. His wife, Michelle, is also a graduate of Harvard Law.

Mr. Obama has written a moving memoir called "Dreams From My Father," which details his unusual and in some ways extraordinary background. His father, who died in a traffic accident in the early 1980's, was from Kenya. He left the family early and young Barack was raised primarily by his mother, who was white and originally from Kansas. She died in 1996.

However this election goes, Mr. Obama's effort to connect in a more than superficial way with people across ethnic, economic and geographic lines should serve as a template for future campaigns in both parties. Politics that are increasingly ruthless in a country that is increasingly diverse is a recipe for disaster.  

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com


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