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What Makes Obama Run?

Lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author Barack Obama doesn't need another career. But he's entering politics to get back to his true passion--community organization.

By Hank De Zutter
December 8, 1995

When Barack Obama returned to Chicago in 1991 after three brilliant years at Harvard Law School, he didn't like what he saw. The former community activist, then 30, had come fresh from a term as president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a position he was the first African-American to hold. Now he was ready to continue his battle to organize Chicago's black neighborhoods. But the state of the city muted his exuberance.

"Upon my return to Chicago," he would write in the epilogue to his recently published memoir, Dreams From My Father, "I would find the signs of decay accelerated throughout the South Side--the neighborhoods shabbier, the children edgier and less restrained, more middle-class families heading out to the suburbs, the jails bursting with glowering youth, my brothers without prospects. All too rarely do I hear people asking just what it is that we've done to make so many children's hearts so hard, or what collectively we might do to right their moral compass--what values we must live by. Instead I see us doing what we've always done--pretending that these children are somehow not our own."

Today, after three years of law practice and civic activism, Obama has decided to dive into electoral politics. He is running for the Illinois Senate, he says, because he wants to help create jobs and a decent future for those embittered youth. But when he met with some veteran politicians to tell them of his plans, the only jobs he says they wanted to talk about were theirs and his. Obama got all sorts of advice. Some of it perplexed him; most of it annoyed him. One African-American elected official suggested that Obama change his name, which he'd inherited from his late Kenyan father. Another told him to put a picture of his light-bronze, boyish face on all his campaign materials, "so people don't see your name and think you're some big dark guy."

Obama, running to be the Democratic candidate for the 13th District on the south side, was also told--even by fellow progressives--that he might be too independent, that he should strike a few deals to assure his election. Another well-meaning adviser suggested never posing for photos with a glass in his hand--even if he wasn't drinking alcohol.

"Now all of this may be good political advice," Obama said, "but it's all so superficial. I am surprised at how many elected officials--even the good ones--spend so much time talking about the mechanics of politics and not matters of substance. They have this poker chip mentality, this overriding interest in retaining their seats or in moving their careers forward, and the business and game of politics, the political horse race, is all they talk about. Even those who are on the same page as me on the issues never seem to want to talk about them. Politics is regarded as little more than a career."

Obama doesn't need another career. As a civil rights lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author, he already has no trouble working 12-hour days. He says he is drawn to politics, despite its superficialities, as a means to advance his real passion and calling: community organization.

Obama thinks elected officials could do much to overcome the political paralysis of the nation's black communities. He thinks they could lead their communities out of twin culs-de-sac: the unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation--which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks to "move up, get rich, and move out"--and the equally impractical politics of black rage and black nationalism--which exhorts but does not organize ordinary folks or create realistic agendas for change.

Obama, whose political vision was nurtured by his work in the 80s as an organizer in the far-south-side communities of Roseland and Altgeld Gardens, proposes a third alternative. Not new to Chicago--which is the birthplace of community organizing--but unusual in electoral politics, his proposal calls for organizing ordinary citizens into bottom-up democracies that create their own strategies, programs, and campaigns and that forge alliances with other disaffected Americans. Obama thinks elected officials--even a state senator--can play a critical catalytic role in this rebuilding.

Obama is certainly not the first candidate to talk about the politics of community empowerment. His views, for instance, are not that different from those of the person he would replace, state senator Alice Palmer, who gave Obama her blessing after deciding to run for the congressional seat vacated by Mel Reynolds. She promised Obama that if she lost--which is what happened on November 28--she wouldn't then run against him to keep her senate seat.

What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn't just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he's running to fill a political and moral vacuum. He says he's tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up--at the speaker's rostrum and from the pulpit--and then allowed to dissipate because there's no agenda, no concrete program for change.

While no political opposition to Obama has arisen yet, many have expressed doubts about the practicality of his ambitions. Obama himself says he's not certain that his experimental plunge into electoral politics can produce the kind of community empowerment and economic change he's after.

"Three major doubts have been raised," he said. The first is whether in today's political environment--with its emphasis on media and money--a grass-roots movement can even be created. Will people still answer the call of participatory politics?

"Second," Obama said, "many believe that the country is too racially polarized to build the kind of multiracial coalitions necessary to bring about massive economic change.

"Third, is it possible for those of us working through the Democratic Party to figure out ways to use the political process to create jobs for our communities?"

Obama's intriguing candidacy is the latest adventure in a fascinating life chronicled in Dreams From My Father, published this summer by Times Books. In Obama's words, the book is "a boy's search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American." In the book, which reads more like a novel than a memoir, Obama comes to terms with the legacy of the African father who left his mother and him when he was two, dropped by when he was ten, and died in an auto accident when he was finishing college. While doing so, Obama takes readers on a multicultural odyssey through three continents and several political philosophies. He casts a skeptical if sympathetic eye on white liberalism, black nationalism, integration, separatism, small-scale economic development, and the transient effectiveness of charismatic black political leaders like the late mayor Washington. While Obama credits all these political movements with bringing some progress to middle-class blacks, he believes that none have built enduring institutions and none have halted the unraveling of black America.

Obama is the product of a brief early-60s college romance and short-lived marriage between a black African exchange student and a white liberal Kansan who met at the University of Hawaii. His critical boyhood years--from two to ten--were spent neither in white nor black America but in the teeming streets and jungle outskirts of Djakarta. Obama's boyhood experiences in Indonesia--where his mother took him when she married another foreign exchange student--propelled him toward a worldview well beyond his mother's liberalism.

"The poverty, the corruption, the constant scramble for security . . . remained all around me and bred a relentless skepticism. My mother's confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn't possess. . . . In a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring hard-ship . . . she was a lonely witness for secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism."

When Obama moved back to his grandparents' home in Hawaii, to attend the prestigious Punahou School, he encountered race and class prejudice that would darken his politics even more. At first embarrassed by his race and African name, he soon bonded with the few other African-American students. He quickly learned that integration was a one-way street, with blacks expected to assimilate into a white world that never gave ground. He participated in bitter bull sessions with his buddies on the theme of "how white folks will do you." Obama, who had to reconcile these sentiments with the loving support he had at home from his white mother and grandparents, dismissed much of his buddies' analysis as "the same sloppy thinking" used by racist whites, but he found the racism of whites to be particularly stubborn and obnoxious.

Obama objected when his Punahou basketball coach upbraided the team for losing to "a bunch of niggers." Obama writes that the coach "calmly explained the apparently obvious fact that 'there are black people, and there are niggers. Those guys were niggers.'"

"That's just how white folks will do you," Obama writes. "It wasn't merely the cruelty involved; I was learning that black people could be mean and then some. It was a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people that brought forth our bitter laughter. It was as if whites didn't know they were being cruel in the first place. Or at least thought you deserving of their scorn."

Obama's politics were tinged with nihilism during his undergraduate years at Occidental College outside Los Angeles. There he played it cool and detached, and began to confuse partying and getting high with rebellion. After he and his buddies joked about the Mexican cleaning woman's forlorn reaction to the mess they'd created at a party, Obama was jolted back to reality by the criticism of a fellow black student, a young Chicago woman. "You think that's funny?" she told him. "That could have been my grandmother, you know. She had to clean up behind people for most of her life." Obama later transferred to Columbia University, where he was shocked by the casual tolerance of whites and blacks alike for the wide disparity between New York City's opulence and ghetto poverty. He graduated from Columbia with a double major in English literature and political science, and a determination to "organize black folks. At the grass roots." He wrote scores of letters looking for the right job, and almost a year later got an offer to come to Chicago. He gave up a job as a financial writer with an international consulting firm and became a $1,000-a-month community organizer.

Here in Chicago, Obama worked as lead organizer for the Developing Communities Project, a campaign funded by south-side Catholic churches to counteract the dislocation and massive unemployment caused by the closing and downsizing of southeast Chicago steel plants.

From 1984 to '88 Obama built an organization in Roseland and the nearby Altgeld Gardens public housing complex that mobilized hundreds of citizens. Obama says the campaign experienced "modest successes" in winning residents a place at the table where a job-training facility was launched, asbestos and lead paint were negotiated out of the local schools, and community interests were guarded in the development of the area's landfills.

Obama left for Harvard in 1988, vowing to return. He excelled at Harvard Law and gave up an almost certain Supreme Court clerkship to come back as promised. Here he met and married his wife, Michelle, a fellow lawyer and activist, joined a law firm headed by Judson Miner, Mayor Washington's corporation counsel, moved into a lakefront condominium in Hyde Park, and launched a busy civic life. He sits on the boards of two foundations with long histories of backing social and political reform, including his own community work--the Woods Fund and the Joyce Foundation. Recently he was appointed president of the board of the Annenberg Challenge Grant, which will distribute some $50 million in grants to public-school reform efforts.

In 1992 Obama took time off to direct Project Vote, the most successful grass-roots voter-registration campaign in recent city history. Credited with helping elect Carol Moseley-Braun to the U.S. Senate, the registration drive, aimed primarily at African-Americans, added an estimated 125,000 voters to the voter rolls--even more than were registered during Harold Washington's mayoral campaigns. "It's a power thing," said the brochures and radio commercials.

Obama's work on the south side has won him the friendship and respect of many activists. One of them, Johnnie Owens, left the citywide advocacy group Friends of the Parks to join Obama at the Developing Communities Project. He later replaced Obama as its executive director.

"What I liked about Barack immediately is that he brought a certain level of sophistication and intelligence to community work," Owens says. "He had a reasonable, focused approach that I hadn't seen much of. A lot of organizers you meet these days are these self-anointed leaders with this strange, way-out approach and unrealistic, eccentric way of pursuing things from the very beginning. Not Barack. He's not about calling attention to himself. He's concerned with the work. It's as if it's his mission in life, his calling, to work for social justice.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I'm one of the most cynical people you want to see, always looking for somebody's angle or personal interest," Owens added. "I've lived in Chicago all my life. I've known some of the most ruthless and biggest bullshitters out there, but I see nothing but integrity in this guy."

Jean Rudd, executive director of the Woods Fund, is another person on guard against self-appointed, self-promoting community leaders. She admires not only Obama's intelligence but his honesty. "He is one of the most articulate people I have ever met, but he doesn't use his gift with language to promote himself. He uses it to clarify the difficult job before him and before all of us. He's not a promoter; from the very beginning, he always makes it clear what his difficulties are. His honesty is refreshing."

Woods was the first foundation to underwrite Obama's work with DCP. Now that he's on the Woods board, Rudd says, "He is among the most hard-nosed board members in wanting to see results. He wants to see our grants make change happen--not just pay salaries."

Another strong supporter of Obama's work--as an organizer, as a lawyer, and now as a candidate--is Madeline Talbott, lead organizer of the feisty ACORN community organization, a group that's a thorn in the side of most elected officials. "I can't repeat what most ACORN members think and say about politicians. But Barack has proven himself among our members. He is committed to organizing, to building a democracy. Above all else, he is a good listener, and we accept and respect him as a kindred spirit, a fellow organizer."

Obama continues his organizing work largely through classes for future leaders identified by ACORN and the Centers for New Horizons on the south side. Conducting a session in a New Horizons classroom, Obama, tall and thin, looks very much like an Ivy League graduate student. Dressed casually prep, his tie loosened and his top shirt button unfastened, he leads eight black women from the Grand Boulevard community through a discussion of "what folks should know" about who in Chicago has power and why they have it. It's one of his favorite topics, and the class bubbles with suggestions about how "they" got to be high and mighty.

"Slow down now. You're going too fast now," says Obama. "I want to break this down. We talk 'they, they, they' but don't take the time to break it down. We don't analyze. Our thinking is sloppy. And to the degree that it is, we're not going to be able to have the impact we could have. We can't afford to go out there blind, hollering and acting the fool, and get to the table and don't know who it is we're talking to--or what we're going to ask them--whether it's someone with real power or just a third-string flak catcher."

Later Obama gets to another favorite topic--the lack of collective action among black churches. "All these churches and all these pastors are going it alone. And what do we have? These magnificent palatial churches in the midst of the ruins of some of the most run-down neighborhoods we'll ever see. All pastors go on thinking about how they are going to 'build my church,' without joining with others to try to influence the factors or forces that are destroying the neighborhoods. They start food pantries and community-service programs, but until they come together to build something bigger than an effective church all the community-service programs, all the food pantries they start will barely take care of even a fraction of the community's problems."

"In America," Obama says, "we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations."

In an interview after the class, Obama again spoke of the need to organize and mobilize the economic power and moral fervor of black churches. He also argued that as a state senator he might help bring this about faster than as a community organizer or civil rights lawyer.

"What we need in America, especially in the African-American community, is a moral agenda that is tied to a concrete agenda for building and rebuilding our communities," he said. "We have moved beyond the clarion call stage that was needed during the civil rights movement. Now, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we must move into a building stage. We must invest our energy and resources in a massive rebuilding effort and invent new mechanisms to strengthen and hasten this community-building effort.

"We have no shortage of moral fervor," said Obama. "We have some wonderful preachers in town--preachers who continue to inspire me--preachers who are magnificent at articulating a vision of the world as it should be. In every church on Sunday in the African-American community we have this moral fervor; we have energy to burn.

"But as soon as church lets out, the energy dissipates. We must find ways to channel all this energy into community building. The biggest failure of the civil rights movement was in failing to translate this energy, this moral fervor, into creating lasting institutions and organizational structures."

Obama added that as important and inspiring as it was, the Washington administration also let an opportunity go by. "Washington was the best of the classic politicians," Obama said. "He knew his constituency; he truly enjoyed people. That can't be said for a lot of politicians. He was not cynical about democracy and the democratic process--as so many of them are. But he, like all politicians, was primarily interested in maintaining his power and working the levers of power.

"He was a classic charismatic leader," Obama said, "and when he died all of that dissipated. This potentially powerful collective spirit that went into supporting him was never translated into clear principles, or into an articulable agenda for community change.

"The only principle that came through was 'getting our fair share,' and this runs itself out rather quickly if you don't make it concrete. How do we rebuild our schools? How do we rebuild our communities? How do we create safer streets? What concretely can we do together to achieve these goals? When Harold died, everyone claimed the mantle of his vision and went off in different directions. All that power dissipated.

"Now an agenda for getting our fair share is vital. But to work, it can't see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It's time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces--the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies.

"The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out. Instead of investing in our neighborhoods, that's what has always happened. Our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.

"The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted," said Obama. "People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change.

"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer," he wondered, "as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.

"The right wing, the Christian right, has done a good job of building these organizations of accountability, much better than the left or progressive forces have. But it's always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia. And they also have hijacked the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility.

"Now we have to take this same language--these same values that are encouraged within our families--of looking out for one another, of sharing, of sacrificing for each other--and apply them to a larger society. Let's talk about creating a society, not just individual families, based on these values. Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant, not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more."

Obama said he's not at all comfortable with the political game of getting and staying elected, of raising money in backroom deals and manipulating an electable image.

"I am also finding people equivocating on their support. I'm talking about progressive politicians who are on the same page with me on the issues but who warn me I may be too independent."

Although Obama has built strong relationships with people inside Mayor Daley's administration, he has not asked for their support in his campaign. Nor has he sought the mayor's endorsement.

"I want to do this as much as I can from the grass-roots level, raising as much money for the campaign as possible at coffees, connecting directly with voters," said Obama. "But to organize this district I must get known. And this costs money. I admit that in this transitional period, before I'm known in the district, I'm going to have to rely on some contributions from wealthy people--people who like my ideas but who won't attach strings. This is not ideal, but it is a problem encountered by everyone in their first campaign.

"Once elected, once I'm known, I won't need that kind of money, just as Harold Washington, once he was elected and known, did not need to raise and spend money to get the black vote."

Obama took time off from attending campaign coffees to attend October's Million Man March in Washington, D.C. His experiences there only reinforced his reasons for jumping into politics.

"What I saw was a powerful demonstration of an impulse and need for African-American men to come together to recognize each other and affirm our rightful place in the society," he said. "There was a profound sense that African-American men were ready to make a commitment to bring about change in our communities and lives.

"But what was lacking among march organizers was a positive agenda, a coherent agenda for change. Without this agenda a lot of this energy is going to dissipate. Just as holding hands and singing 'We shall overcome' is not going to do it, exhorting youth to have pride in their race, give up drugs and crime, is not going to do it if we can't find jobs and futures for the 50 percent of black youth who are unemployed, underemployed, and full of bitterness and rage.

"Exhortations are not enough, nor are the notions that we can create a black economy within America that is hermetically sealed from the rest of the economy and seriously tackle the major issues confronting us," Obama said.

"Any solution to our unemployment catastrophe must arise from us working creatively within a multicultural, interdependent, and international economy. Any African-Americans who are only talking about racism as a barrier to our success are seriously misled if they don't also come to grips with the larger economic forces that are creating economic insecurity for all workers--whites, Latinos, and Asians. We must deal with the forces that are depressing wages, lopping off people's benefits right and left, and creating an earnings gap between CEOs and the lowest-paid worker that has risen in the last 20 years from a ratio of 10 to 1 to one of better than 100 to 1.

"This doesn't suggest that the need to look inward emphasized by the march isn't important, and that these African-American tribal affinities aren't legitimate. These are mean, cruel times, exemplified by a 'lock 'em up, take no prisoners' mentality that dominates the Republican-led Congress. Historically, African-Americans have turned inward and towards black nationalism whenever they have a sense, as we do now, that the mainstream has rebuffed us, and that white Americans couldn't care less about the profound problems African-Americans are facing."

"But cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done. Anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up. We've got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We've got communities to build."

Send a letter to the editor.


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David Bwakali at 11:49 PM on 12/13/2007

It is quite refreshing and gratifying to see that way back then, Barack Obama believed in what he still believes in now - that we must all roll up our sleeves and work as a community that belongs together.

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aleks h at 2:41 AM on 1/4/2008

I really admire Obama, but I worry about what's underneath all that charm and all the uplifting but vague statements. It's good to see he has deep roots.

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KA at 2:38 PM on 1/4/2008

I keep hearing everyone say about Barack, "vague comments" or "no substance behind what he says". To everyone who says that, I say, he put all the substance in his books. Read "The Audacity of Hope" and you'll find tons of substance.

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PR at 6:52 PM on 1/4/2008

In this article Obama critizes everything achieved thus far by Blacks as lacking; from the Church and it's pastors,the civil rights movements, million man march,et., etc., etc. Ego, Ego, Ego

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inspired at 12:02 AM on 1/8/2008

Quoted from PR "In this article Obama critizes everything achieved thus far by Blacks as lacking; from the Church and it's pastors,the civil rights movements, million man march,et., etc., etc. Ego, Ego, Ego"

PR, Baracks observations in this article show his vision of how to sustain momentum by establishing community that perpetually exerts peer pressure on itself to move forward.

He sees the end game and I think he sees it correctly. Are you African American? Do you honestly not see the shortcomings with where we are as a people. There are reasons for that and a good deal of the responsibility rest with those in our leadership. It's not all external forces that have hindered our progress. We've built a lot of sand castles, caught a lot of fish, but without teaching folk how to fish and so we've gone a bit hungry.

Barack also has some very astute observations about how politicians learn to play the game elevating their own self-preservation before the needs of their constituents.

I think the article is fascinating in Barack's observation about how politicians view themselves and their service.

Wouldn't you find the very idea that a politician paid by the people to make things better for the people might willfully hedge on that contract, upsetting?

Perhaps he or she draws out the length of time it would take to get something done because it might give him or her something to get accomplished in the next term or right before election time or something. And all that power crap, I hate. I really think that there should be no such thing as a lifetime politician. There needs to be term limits for every position. Folk need to see their time in office as that of necessity of the moment, do their level best for the time that they're in to implement their visions and then move on.

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Patrick David at 8:38 AM on 1/8/2008

Uncle Barrack, may God richly bless U as u are moving up. and always remember your brothers down.It is now time for the good people to win(Lead)America for a better day.

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Wayne at 6:50 PM on 1/30/2008

Obama, talks about not being this political machine . . .to rid "politics as usual." But, with his ties to Chicago politics, Ted Kennedy, and Rezko this guy's agenda come right out of the ultimate political playbook. I read somewhere that he had "sweet words," but no "emotion," I agree totally. To think he was even remotely involved with those housing horrors that hurt poor people makes me want to run as far as I can from this guy's bid for the White House.

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WAYNO at 12:20 PM on 2/10/2008

Hey Wayne, did you actually read this article? How could you not see the emotion behind what people said about him and from his own words?
As far as the ties you refer me one person, not just a politician, who does not have someone in their past who they would have rather not been a part of had they known the truth about them from the start?
Do you expect perfection? Because you might as well keep living in your la-la land if so.
Peace out. GO OBAMA!

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Stan at 10:23 PM on 2/21/2008

"Obama writes that the coach "calmly explained the apparently obvious fact that 'there are black people, and there are niggers. Those guys were niggers.'" "

This same explanation was given to me at work years ago - by an African American woman, after I "Tsk"d her for saying the "N" word !

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Megan at 6:36 PM on 2/24/2008

"These are mean, cruel times, exemplified by a 'lock 'em up, take no prisoners' mentality that dominates the Republican-led Congress. Historically, African-Americans have turned inward and towards black nationalism whenever they have a sense, as we do now, that the mainstream has rebuffed us, and that white Americans couldn't care less about the profound problems African-Americans are facing."


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John at 4:56 PM on 3/5/2008

""Now all of this may be good political advice," Obama said, "but it's all so superficial. I am surprised at how many elected officials--even the good ones--spend so much time talking about the mechanics of politics and not matters of substance. They have this poker chip mentality, this overriding interest in retaining their seats or in moving their careers forward, and the business and game of politics, the political horse race, is all they talk about. Even those who are on the same page as me on the issues never seem to want to talk about them. Politics is regarded as little more than a career.""

He has become everything that he did not want to be. Sad.

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MJF at 7:07 PM on 3/6/2008

I'd love to lambast you, John, and I kind of will, but I think I see where you're coming from. It's very easy to be prematurely disillusioned. Obama has set a practically impossible bar for himself, in trying to be basically an honest politician. Notice he doesn't go on the offensive very often--he counterattacks. He avoids taking big money handouts...if he can. It chips away at his image of integrity. But if you were Obama, what would you do? Leave politics to those with less integrity? More polarity? He's said in debate that everybody's hands get dirty in politics. It's impossible to associate with only honest folk.

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Eliot at 9:33 AM on 3/17/2008

Clearly, Obama has evolved (as "The Audacity of Hope" also reveals), but at the same time he has remained amazingly consistent and true to his roots in organizing for community-based systemic change, which has been, not surprisingly, the key to the success of his current campaign.

As for Rezko, sure, he supported Obama, just as he supported dozens of other politicians - Republicans and Democrats alike - but there were never any strings attached; Rezko never once asked Obama for anything. In fact, just the opposite: apparently Obama vociferously objected to Rezko's proposed gambling interests while in the Illinois Senate. Furthermore, the Chicago papers have investigated and searched for the supposed political landmines for years and have concluded "there's no there there." Period. Read the Chicago Trib's 3/16/08 op-ed (that's the conservative paper, by the way):,0,2616801.story. One might also consider that after years of dredging for dirt, the Trib has seen fit to endorse Obama over Clinton.

The the Clinton campaign repeatedly attempts to arouse suspicion, suggests that Obama has "gotten a pass," and continues to agitate for "vetting" - knowing full well that the Chicago media has already done its job and even noted that Obama filed "unusually frank ethics disclosure reports" - indicates to me that greater scrutiny for honesty and integrity should be directed at Clinton, who has yet to release her tax returns, White House archives and donor lists for the Clinton Presidential Library. Given the flak the Clintons have sent Obama's way, her refusal to offer full disclosure of her own past is totally hypocritical and lacking in integrity. I should think that someone who has been the target of persistent innuendo and accusation a la Whitewater, Travelgate, the missing Rose Law firm files, the Foster suicide ... would be a little more conscientious with the conduct of her own campaign.

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Zee at 12:34 PM on 3/26/2008

Oh, sure, Rezco never asked for anything...that's why Obama simply out of the goodness of his heart recommended that he be given all that taxpayer money...which the slumlord pocketed while Obama's elderly and minority constituents froze in those publically funded run-down buildings without any heat.

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Adrian at 10:50 PM on 3/27/2008

It turns out that the black agenda I suspected he had is real. As stated in the article he is tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up--at the speaker's rostrum or from the pulpit--and then allowed to dissipate because ther's no agenda, no concrete program for change. So now is is all set the give us the black agenda (he also gives a nod to the Latinos and Asians). Is he really interested in the white folk I wonder? I think he is a brilliant leader who will deeply divide this country. He scares me.

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Uh, Adrian at 10:56 PM on 3/27/2008

Just what is it that could be done to improve the lives of black Americans that you think is going to be bad for white ones?

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RYAN76 at 5:37 PM on 3/29/2008

Im with Megan. This guy can say nothing more eloquently than anyone I've ever seen. The Dems are about to nominate a community activist. He is a divider not a uniter. He is a partisan not a maverick. He is a hater not a lover. He is the polar opposite of what he claims to be.

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Caleb Standafer at 8:12 PM on 3/29/2008

How has his theory about building communities worked out? What are the results? As far as I can tell, he talked about it, and is still talking about it. Meanwhile, the businessmen create businesses that give jobs to workers. They are not talkers. I guess that's why they are not politicians. Obama seems to be an excellent talker about doing, but he lacks actual accomplishments in the areas he is advocating.

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OWS at 9:00 PM on 3/29/2008

The people he denounces - Mayor Daley and big business - have done far more for the people than any of his communities. The man he speaks of most admiringly - Harold Washington - was a terrible and ineffectual mayor. Obama's narcissism prevents him from seeing these obvious truths.

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bastrop at 9:24 PM on 3/29/2008

It is really disheartening to see so many people on the right unwilling to acknowledge and accept the intellectual heft of this man. You are unable to see his profound understanding of the human condition, something that so many of you do not. I like that one of his undergraduate degrees is in Literature. A man who enjoys reading, and understands what he reads. Additionally, he has a life experience, that gives him a broad worldview. So many of you sound hollow and empty in your constant negative reframes. Stop projecting your negative emotions onto him. Own your own feelings, whatever they are. Part of his success is his approach to problem-solving, working from the botttom up. Do not fear that he has an agenda for the blacks or minorities. America is still a majority white country. He wants to be the president for all Americans. How unusual? This is "no ordinary man."

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Claire at 10:03 PM on 3/29/2008

So he helped Mosely Braun's election. Great. His judgment is already in question regarding the folks he reveres and takes as mentors and contributors. Alan Dixon was a really good man; and Mosely Braun, who was cashing her mom's wefare checks while the old lady was in a State-paid nursing home, and who let taxpayers fund her boyfriend's trips to Africa with her was just the type of pol he purports NOT to admire. Sorry, but his emphasis on collectivism has turned me off entirely.

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Thomas at 10:20 PM on 3/29/2008

Bastrop, if a white politician spoke repeatedly of working with pastors in white neighborhoods to ensure that whites get "their share", which he insists they are currently denied. If a white politician spoke of the need for long-lasting institutions to be created beyond the temporal excitement created by a politician who furthered the power of the race to which he belonged, and the need for real change to be initiated after the conclusion of such marches in which he'd participated as one led by Lester Maddox (a rough equivalent to Louis Farrakhan and his Milloin Man March), would you really be writing, "He wants to be the president for all Americans?"

What evidence of that is there in this article? I see none.

His role as community organizer was merely to further the material standards of blacks and Hispanics merely in the community he resided - unfortunatly that's wholly different than an elected official's position to look out for the concerns of his state or nation at large - he doesn't see the difference.

E.g., when he speaks of anti-Semitic statements not doing the job of lifting black communities - do you get a sense of outrage at the existence of anti-Semitic statements? I don't. Again, if a white politician spoke of anti-black statements not doing the job for the frustated ambitions of poor whites - shouldn't we feel umbrage at such a nonchalant reference to the existence of such bigotry?

Obama is pretty frank in describing himself as one who wants to improve the lot of those of his race - rather like Frank Rizzo when he created the National Association of White People. Rizzo and Obama - trying to help their self-identified racial communities.

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TNH at 12:49 AM on 3/30/2008

Obama is a windbag.

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Michael Smith at 6:56 AM on 3/30/2008

Obama is a socialist, plain and simple. He eschews individualism, calling it a "myth" that individual effort and hard work can allow people to work their way out of poverty -- while evading the fact that millions of people, black and white, have done precisely that.

No, instead, he wants to offer blacks an alternative to the notion that they must work for a living; he wants to promise them a "share of the pie" -- a pie they did not produce, by the way -- to be achieved by "collective action". Translation: if enough of us stick together and become a big enough block of voters, then we can get government to further loot the taxpayers and give us more of their earnings.

That is all Obama is promising: more of the same government looting that has been on the rise for decades. Obama is not a candidate of change; Obama is a candidate of "staying the course" on the march to socialism in America.

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Murphy at 11:32 AM on 3/30/2008

So Obama is a "community organizer" – what does that mean? As far as I can tell from this article, Obama get funds from unnamed people of wealth and grant money from various government entities. Then he impresses other people and gets invited to sit on their 501c3 Board of Directors. Next he holds classes for aspiring "community organizers" and spouts some really nifty phrases like: "I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community……"

Not only does it sound like something Miss Congeniality would say, this actually is Obama’s shtick and is nothing more than patronage. Has Obama ever had a real job or owned a business? The swooning over 12 hour days!! Oh the humanity!

This qualifies Obama as President???

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claspur at 9:34 PM on 3/30/2008

Skimmed through this article and missed referrence to Nobama marching with Calypso Louie?
I'm drooling with hope that Barry and Hillbillary show-up and duke it out on stage at the "Demo" cornvention.
This mess with these two is better to watch than wolfn'-down Apple Butter on Sour Dough bread. :oP

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Sandra G. at 7:25 AM on 3/31/2008

Obama is half white (American mother) and half black (Kenyan father) - correct? He was raised by his white mother and white grandparents.
Why does he only identify himself as a black man? Why has he forgotten the heritage of his white mother?

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Jan Voorsicht at 10:43 AM on 3/31/2008

Obama is saintly man. Deep in his heart he does not want to be the next US president. He wants to be the president or prime minister of Kenya. But Kenya is a highly developed super power, full of happy, prosperous people living in harmony with each other while the US is a third world poverty ridden country. Leaving the US for Kenya means a brain drain for the US. Kenya, a paradise doesn't need the titanic Promethean genius of this statesman. Underdeveloped US does.

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ruth at 11:16 AM on 3/31/2008

Obama became involved in politics to advance black people...This article shows that clearly.. If you want to know how Obama really feels inside study J. Wright's sermons.Obama is like satan.. he promises everyone everything but gives nothing and will take everything

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Sanju at 11:58 AM on 3/31/2008

Ruth is satan. Read the audacity of hope and study the more than 14 years of elected office.

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laughs@themessiah at 4:28 PM on 3/31/2008

That "mean cruel times" and "white Americans couldn't care less" business is perfect. Along with Wright and all the crazy stuff from Michelle we are getting a terrific picture of the real Obama. Of course it was fine in the Democratic primary but this guy is toast once all this is pounded home in the general election.

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Siam at 7:09 PM on 3/31/2008

Those who read this article and fail to see the deep humanity, residing in Obama's soul are just simply being hypocritical. Any person who consistently thinks about the welfare of society, without thinking about his personal welfare is a noble person. Names like Ghandhi, Martin Luter king, Jesus, Mohammed, Nelson Mandela etc all share the same trait: selflessness. That is what set these people apart. Its a character that is divinely given. You cannot pretend it,and cannot fake it. It remains consistent from infancy to old age. Obama has displayed that selflessness and our failure to see it only attest to our moral blindness and ineptitude.

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ofoo at 7:28 AM on 4/2/2008

read this

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steve@strangetrip org at 3:12 PM on 4/4/2008

let's play a word game, shall we?

community sounds good, development sounds good... but the federal government implementing communities seems to almost be a contradiction in terms? shouldnt individuals within the community take the responsibility of developing their own communities since they are the ones that will be living there? we did such a great job developing iraq's communities. if that's what you want, run with it but... no not in my direction, away .... f a r t h e r.... yeah that's better.

the last time the federal government came around talking about community development our working lower income citizens became neatly packed into their own community but .... hey do you see any real difference other than looking new again?
same people, same policy of divide and conquer. the government divides us so it can conquer the lower income citizens one way and the mid-range income citizens another way. the concept seems very villiage- like, all working for the common good. you know communities, togetherness is good, blending in, mixing up... sure it sounds good. but wait... too late. divided. one side the suburb, the other da block... the thing about the community concept is that is is still a form of segmentation..
so much talk about racial relations... almost seem to divide us more, ya know? why not let your community schedule activities with other communities? get to really know something about each other rather than what we see from the eoutside looking in... when you go to someone else's home, and sit with a glass of tea... perhaps a "unity barbecue" that rotates hosting???
i'm sure you are aware that they train police working in low-income areas of primarily non-white citizens, than those working in higher income areas. they recruit different kinds of teachers, the same reason the other side has more street lights... they're baking cakes down there and they're skiing up there...

this whole thing of race identification... i don't define my self as a white man, i see myself as an free human being. when you're being you're doing and as long as you keep it up, there's no time to fit ourselves into labels. can't we just be who we are and then if someone asks who we are we can ask them "hummm... havent tought about it much really, how would you describe us?

the label thing is almost like the community thing. when you stop re-defining yourself, you're stuck being who you were, not who you could be...

if my skin is white but i live beside you, feed your cat when you're on vacationing, i change the melton's oil for them... you know with his back and everything.... in doing so it becomes much more in touch and finally seeing you as an independent human be-ing. sometimes just want to stop trying. but then i'd be dying. as humans, we like what feels comfortable and predictable. change is scary.. what if i fail? only to realize you might feel the same way!

when you stop using labels to define who you are, you forget to give everybody else a label too

labels. names. so now are you my bla.... oh wait.... breakin old habbits so hard to do.. luckily, a label only has the power we give it. its the paradox of still photography of a moving dancer. when you stop to look at it, it stops be-ing, do- ing. go-ing

share the One Love. that is what brings us all together. keep sharing it, dont let it stop

just some thoughts.

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Anthonytampafl at 10:04 PM on 4/12/2008

Hitler did good things
for his community.
I want a President not
a good speeker
I want to talk about his votes and non-votes
What he wont say and when He wont say it.
He spoke asap for the black woman when she was hated by a white man but when Rev Wright showed hatered for his Country and the white man Obama took days and had to be asked to speek out,
He had to be told to speek out Hello!

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Yvonne at 9:28 PM on 4/14/2008

Elitest, people get real. Someone that just paid off there student loans and have been down in the trenches with the poor and downtroded. Some of us do not want to see our country as it is. OBAMA is man enough to voice cocerns of the people, Yes, I am bitter, angry, disallusioned every time I fill my car with gas, have to pay $5.99 for a gallon of milk, have to help my mom pay for prescriptions, see my copmany continue to outsource jobs to Mexico and Manila. I get very upset to know that a pregnant illegal immigrant can come into this country and get the best FREE healthcare and now her new baby is a US citizen and on and on and on. OBAMA 08

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KidFromSmallPATown at 9:58 PM on 4/14/2008

I can relate to what OBAMA is saying... Good to see a politician who get it.

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Tracy at 3:42 AM on 4/18/2008

well, this sounds great. i can respect what he was saying here. but he doesn't talk like this now. why is he making so many offensive "typical white person" "bitter" remarks and pissin off people? he needs to revisit his old voice and get back on message, or the way politics works... he will be history. Until i read this, I've just about written him off as a grade A a#%hole

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Mr. Unite Us at 6:50 PM on 4/18/2008

Tracy he is still saying many of the same things, but the media truncates much of what he says.

Read hat he really said in San Francisco.

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Well Tracy at 10:54 PM on 4/18/2008

If you thought he was an a-hole, it's because there are people who work to manufacture that perception.

The trivial fabricated snippets and Fox sound-bites are not intended to inform anyone. They're intended to preserve power for those who currently hold it.

Obama is human. He's a good person and he'll make a great president. At this time in history, his election will serve to right the (partially) right the ship of state. Intelligence isn't everything, but used well by people with big hearts, it can accomplish many things. Obama has that combination of intellect and heart. His positions on the economy and foreign policy will set this country on a better course.

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Mr. Unite Us at 2:34 AM on 4/20/2008

Tracy he was referring to her grandmother's feelings over 30 years ago. They were "typical" back then. I recall watching a couple of older newscasters say, Obama is wright.

Gov. Rendell said some Whites in his state are not ready for African American.

Read the last paragraph.
"But cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done. Anti-Semitic and anti-Asian statements are not going to lift us up. We've got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We've got communities to build."

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Michelle Fan at 7:50 AM on 4/20/2008

Obama will be the Democratic nominee and at the first debate with McCain, the nation will see old man McCain attempting to keep up with a vibrant, intelligent Barack Obama and it will be a wrap. McCain will still get the white male vote and that third of white women who long for days of Dixie...but everybody else uses common sense and votes for Barack, especially in the larger states and he gets the electoral votes. I can't wait for that day, it'll be great to see the neo-cons losing their racist, elitist minds.

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Dave Bigdee at 5:10 PM on 4/20/2008

Barack Obama made some quite impressive speeches back then that he echoes now. He has come a long way, and he is obviously quite the visionary, but I also have to question the progress toward bettering impoverished, uninspired and worn-out neighborhoods. (Case in point: the deadly Chicago shootings over the weekend--an obvious media downplay). As a voter--an American who cares about our children's future--I have a right to question not only Obama's past accomplishments, but his past associations as well. This is not racist, but unfortunately, race will continue to come front and center. Mr. Obama gets my utmost respect, but is not sufficiently answering the hard questions--not nearly enough to earn my vote.

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Kisha at 4:29 AM on 4/21/2008

This article gave me goosebumps as I read it! Could this be the president we've been waiting for? I have a feeling that by electing Obama, we'll be setting America on a whole new PROGRESSIVE track!

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Concerned about Chicago at 12:59 PM on 4/27/2008

Fascinating article. Clearly he had noble ideas back then. I'm wondering what he did with the power he won in that election. He talked about holding elected officials accountable for their achievements. Did his election make things better for the people of his community? Did their housing improve? Did they get jobs? Or was his time in the Illinois State Senate (and US Senate) simply a stepping stone along the way to his next election? I have a feeling that the fine young man written about in this story lost his way as he, like so many others before him, was seduced by the corridors of power.

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Sean at 11:46 PM on 4/27/2008

I think this article is illustrative of the fact that Obama has not just come about his politics out of expedience, but out of a lifetime of thinking deeply about how communities can help themselves. No, he isn't perfect. But at least he aspires to an ideal, rather than the likes of Clinton who are so cynical and steeped in old politics that they have no moral compass.
Obama has my vote

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Natasha at 4:34 PM on 4/28/2008

If Obama is so good at this, how come all of Chicago's problems are not solved after 20 years of organizing there (or at least significantly better)?

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Jim W at 3:39 AM on 4/30/2008

This entire article confirms what many have suspected all along. Obama is a SOCIALIST.

He eschews the individual and favors the collective. It's pretty obvious what "collective" he favors.

That is why he was so drawn to the racist hate monger, Jeremiah Wright.

Never once has Obama ever spoken about personal responsibility. Never once do you ever hear him speak of the very black problem of out of wedlock births in that community that cause the majority of the black communities problems.

To him socialism is the answer. Take from those who are productive to those who live grievance lifestyles.

This guy is dangerous. He will be the most racially divisive man in the history of this country if people are insane enough to elect him. He will be a one term failure of a president that is for sure. If he does get to the White House, he will guarantee no other black person is ever elected president for at least two generations.

I won't even bother getting into the failure and total weakness he would represent on a foreign policy front.

If Obama was white, he would have been eliminated already in the early primaries. He offers nothing but larger government taking from those who have earned and giving it to those who do nothing to help themselves. He offers nothing but the failure of socialism.

Most people are idiots. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Obama has never run anything larger than his senate office staff. This country will be in for much larger disaster than the Jimmy Carter years where Carter weakened this country abroad and at home gave us 17% interest rates.

Obama spells failure for this country.

He won't get elected now anyway. Jeremiah Wright is seeing to that. Plus Obama's cozy friendships with terrorists and other corrupt Chicago power players have yet to even see much light of day.

The public already sees that Obama's wife hates this country. They are starting to see now that Obama also hates his country. He wouldn't stay friends with rabid racists and hate mongers like Jeremiah Wright if he actually loved this country.

if anything the Obama campaign is showing America that "Black Liberation Theology" is nothing but pure hatred. No different than the KKK.

White people in the general election will not vote for a black dude who hates white people. Obama doesn't have a chance. Not anymore. Not since the real Obama is starting to come to the surface.

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Let us Rise... at 3:10 PM on 4/30/2008

This campaign has been and continues to be an interesting journey. It truly holds out a mirror for America to view itself; and for those hearts not hardened by fear, cynicism or ignorance, the door of opportunity to face those aspects of who we are, that divides us, is open.

Slavery has had a heinous effect on both blacks and whites alike. The pervading culture in America seems afraid to embark on that path of change and healing I would venture to guess that those with such strong stances in regards to Barak being a "Pro Black" candidate have no African American FRIENDS. Not acquaintances or co-workers but genuine bonds of good feeling between each other. If you did, you would see that everyone wants the same thing. At the core, everyone wants health, liberty and security. It is simply the cultural differences on how to achieve life's blessings that are currently causing so much hardship.

Many African Americans appear to be so rooted in the pains of the past that they continue to inflict self defeating wounds, continuing to fan the flames of fear in their fellow Americans.

African Americans are an oppressed people, whether you like them or not is irrelevant to that fact. Slavery is a direct cause (not the only) of that oppression. This is reality. African Americans can only go back about 2 or 3 generations because their families were broken up and sold like you'd sell car parts. Imagine it. Put yourself in that place. Do you really feel that the over 350 years of slavery has no effect on the current state of African Americans and our country at large? If you do, than you've not been paying attention to our climate and how our actions of the past can destroy our future.

We are at a crossroads. Our current problems require unity. We no longer have the luxury of racism. Let this moment be the beginning where we allow our wisdom to catch up with our technological advances. Our Country is Great...doubtlessly. Let us go deeper...let us support each other...let us no longer be divided. Let the conversation begin. We can do this America!

obama '08

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Janine Lessig at 6:30 PM on 4/30/2008

Wow! I have to say, I am really impressed by the consistency of Obama's message. It's clear that even before he entered politics he was already developing some of the same values that he has now. I find that impressive.

All that said... I continue to think that in the general election Hillary would be the stronger candidate. I guess that isn't really going to happen now since she basically can't catch up to him any more. But I just don't think the "new politics" is going to work with the Republicans who are always so underhanded. It's going to be hard for Obama to hit back without being called a hypocrite. But I like them both and just wish this long primary would be over already.

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