"We're having a lull," one of the event organizers patiently explained to a table of people who inquired when their beef and lobster tail would arrive. "He hasn't landed yet."
"It's the holiday recital," his wife, Michelle Obama, warned. "You don't miss it."
But the senator found a way to do both. After watching the performance, he hustled to Midway Airport to board a private plane furnished by the Florida Democratic Party. As he flew here, two members of his staff pacified nervous party officials who had raised their ticket price to $175 per plate simply because Obama's name was on the marquee.
"I guess he negotiated with his wife and we figured out how to get him here," said Florida Democratic Chairwoman Karen Thurman, waiting for Obama to arrive. "The plane was an issue and all of those things, but he worked it all out for us!"
And it worked for him, too, personally and politically.
As his first year in the Senate draws to a close, the conflicting demands between the ballet and politics, ambition and family, celebrity and substance set the parameters for how Obama balances his new life.
After he was sworn into office, he shunned the limelight to present himself as a humble freshman. By fall, those self-imposed restraints had vanished. And his strategic plan calls for raising his profile even more in 2006.
The phenomenon phase of his journey as a public figure may well be over, yet vast expectations remain for the 44-year-old senator. Even without accomplishing major legislation, he avoided significant missteps. His brand name carries more luster than a year ago.
Going forward, how does he navigate the tension between ambition and humility? How will he handle the erosion of privacy that inevitably comes with a higher profile? Does more attention lead to questions about his political future that he has difficulty answering?
"One sort of measure of my own wisdom is the degree to which I can clear my mind of ego and focus on what's useful, and I'm not always successful at that," Obama said. "I'm subject like everyone else to vanity and what Dr. [Martin Luther] King called `the drum major instinct' of wanting to lead the parade."
As Democrats search for their next leader, Obama's is among the dozen or so names frequently mentioned, a rapid trajectory that has continued since his speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last year. Though his advisers say he is mindful of the perils of outsize ambitions, they also wonder whether he can put the temptation entirely out of his mind.
Indeed, now he does not give a definitive answer of "no" when asked if he would run for president in 2008. Instead he said, "I'm really not trying to be coy here," and added: "I'm not going to speculate."
"I'm not somebody who at the age of 5 or 6 dreamed about being president," Obama said, sitting back on a yellow sofa in his Senate office during a year-end interview. "It's not something that I'm focused on right now, but it's not something that I would foreclose in the future."
IN A UNIQUE POSITION
When Obama arrived in Washington in January, he was featured on the cover of Newsweek magazine as the Democrat to watch in 2005. His advisers feared the billboard treatment could sour senators on their new colleague, so Obama jokingly reminded audiences his seniority--99 out of 100--required him to sharpen pencils and clean the Capitol latrines.
The reality, though, was different.
For most of the year, Obama would skip the "Power Hour" at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the designated time for senators to call donors, arguing that he brought in more money than almost anyone because he was a popular draw at fundraisers across the country.
But in the hierarchical world of the Senate, his absence created an impression that he felt he was above such routine political chores. So he grudgingly accepted the advice of aides and began attending party rallies and news conferences, even though he quietly noted he was being "used as a prop" at one event staged to criticize Republican policies.
Privately, Obama seemed to have little genuine interest in simply doing the bidding of the Democratic leadership. He would prefer to frame criticism in his own voice, and not that of sharply partisan talking points.
He often sounded frustrated by the limitations his lack of seniority placed on him. In his early months in Washington, a handful of friends and close advisers wondered whether Obama actually enjoyed being a senator.
Senior congressional Democrats urged him to take advantage of his visibility and use his megaphone before his popularity waned. But he declined invitations to appear on national talk shows and downplayed his prominence at most public events, a strategy that by year's end placed him in even greater demand.
While he quietly traveled around the country raising $1.8 million for his Hopefund political committee, he devoted his public schedule to making sure Illinois voters knew he was focusing on their concerns. He held 39 town meetings, most of them strategically located Downstate, where his support is not as strong as it is in Chicago.
"If I can look back over the first year and say, `I had a set of concrete accomplishments, even though they are not generating a lot of headlines,'
"Obama said in January, "then I'll feel good."
He was the first senator to speak out on the threat of avian flu, proposing in March to devote $25 million to a Foreign Relations Committee fund to prevent a global pandemic. At home he advanced a measure to increase ethanol production by expanding the number of gas stations that offer fuel with an 85 percent ethanol blend.
He pressed administration officials for additional pay for Illinois veterans. He pushed a $2.5 billion locks and dams project for the state's rivers. And he threatened to block nominees to the Environmental Protection Agency until new regulations were issued for lead paint, which he said was a particular worry in Chicago homes.
But his sights were not limited to Illinois' borders.
To burnish his international experience, Obama found a Republican partner, inspecting nuclear weapons stockpiles in Russia with Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. He demonstrated political deftness--eager to show he could work with Republicans--as he proposed immigration reform with Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida and scrutinized government contracts for Hurricane Katrina with Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.
More often he was cautious, whether the issue was Iraq or education or energy independence.
"Our office sometimes got so bogged down in thinking things through and vetting things that we moved slower on some issues than I would have liked," Obama said when asked to name one area he believed needed improvement.
In his campaign, Obama forcefully opposed the war, yet it wasn't until late November that he delivered his first major Iraq policy address. And by the time he reached the lectern at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, other Democrats already had articulated many of the same ideas about not immediately withdrawing troops from Iraq.
Still, his go-slow approach to most issues seemed a hit with voters. A recent Tribune poll found that he had a 72 percent approval rating in Illinois.
So why didn't Obama feel emboldened to spend more political capital, other admiring Democrats asked, considering he has five years of his Senate term remaining?
"I think we spent some on the Iraq speech because there's a portion of my base that is frustrated with me on that," Obama said. "But I'm not hoarding my capital and thinking about how do I spend it.
"My attitude is if I'm saying things and talking about the issues that I care about, then even if I'm losing some short-term political capital, I'm gaining some capital over the long term."
There are issues of personal capital as well.
For the last week, Obama and his family have been five time zones apart.
He had planned to be on his way to his childhood home of Hawaii, visiting his grandmother and other relatives for Christmas. He returns there most every December, but his travel schedule this year was contingent on the adjournment of the Senate.
With the senator stuck in Washington, Michelle Obama and Malia, 7, and Sasha, 4, stayed with their original flight, arriving in Honolulu on Dec. 16.
"We'd be over the Pacific now," the senator said in an interview at the hour he would have been jetting toward Hawaii. "It's a congenital defect of any legislature that everything gets loaded up toward the end."
But the Obamas were not strangers to being away from each other because they had decided not to move their family from Chicago to Washington.
For much of the year, Obama has seen the family only over long weekends, and even those were compromised in the days before the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey. The time away did not come without some strife in the Obama house, particularly when he went to campaign for Sen. Jon Corzine in New Jersey.
"It's a tough choice between, `Do you stay for Malia's basketball game on Sunday or do you go to New Jersey and campaign for Corzine?'" Michelle Obama said in an interview, a gentle dose of sarcasm in her voice. "Corzine got it this time around, but it's a constant pull to say: `Hey guys, you have a family here.'
"Sundays once were sacred in the Obama house, the day for school activities and reading, movies and catching up on writing in the family journal. But in the final months of the year, Obama's political schedule began filling up, much to the chagrin of his wife.
"The hope is that that is going to change and we're going to go back to our normal schedule of keeping Sundays pretty sacred," she said, turning away from her interviewer and directly toward Robert Gibbs, the senator's communications director, who helps dictate Obama's schedule.
For all the time away, Obama did make it home in time for Halloween. He walked his girls--dressed as glamorous witches--through their South Side Kenwood neighborhood.
"I think I've done a very good job meeting my responsibilities as a senator and helping the Democratic Party," Obama said when asked to assess how successful he had been balancing work and family. "I think I've done an adequate job with respect to being a husband and a father because you can always do more on those fronts."
One thing he has tried to do for his children--quit smoking--is among his biggest struggles. "The flesh is weak," he said. "It's an ongoing battle. I have my gum, my patches and all that stuff."
The Obamas moved into a $1.6 million house in June, trading their condo near Hyde Park for a historic home nearby. The royalties from his first book and an advance of nearly $2 million for future books allowed the family to pay off debts from law school and past political campaigns.
He gave a peek into the family's financial situation earlier this year at a town meeting in Rock Falls, Ill., when someone asked Obama about a Republican proposal to reduce taxes for those in the highest tax brackets. He used himself as an example, speaking facetiously about how he would benefit at the expense of other Americans.
It wasn't so long ago, he reminded another audience, when he had taken out loans for his failed 2000 congressional race against Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). He said he was nearly broke when he arrived in Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention that summer. His credit card was declined when he tried to rent a car.
"Before the book, we had gone through some pretty tough financial times. Part of it was getting us out of the hole that we've been in," Obama said. "None of that at all is to cry poor. It's just that we still worry about paying the bills."
Had his 1995 autobiography not been rereleased after his convention speech--more than 500,000 copies are in print--he said the family finances would remain precarious.
"The more interesting question is: How could I have managed this if I could not have written books?" Obama said. "I'm not independently wealthy and my children are much younger than most of my colleagues' [children]."
Whatever the state of his finances, the state of his ego suggests that he does not suffer a confidence deficit. And as he found his footing in Washington, that confidence has steadily become more apparent.
During a summer tour Downstate, he smiled as he was being introduced to a lunchtime crowd of voters at Goetten's Oasis in Carrollton. His most recent accolade had come from The Hill, a newspaper devoted to covering Capitol Hill, that delves into vanity once a year.
"Of the 50 most beautiful people in Washington," the local Democratic official said. "He was No. 5."
The senator quickly interjected.
"No, I was No. 2," Obama said, wagging his finger into the air for emphasis. "And the No. 1 was the former Miss Georgia, so I want you to know that among men I was No. 1! You all can verify that."
It may be difficult, after all, to mask an air of confidence after a year in which you've ridden aboard Air Force One, thrown out a pitch at a hometown postseason playoff game and been nominated for a Grammy Award for the reading of your book on tape.
Several admirers wonder whether his bold assurance could be combustible when mixed with his ambition. Could confidence override his own admonition to be patient in his political rise?
When a television reporter pulled Obama aside after interviewing Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, an Illinois native but a Democrat representing New York, Obama quipped: "I outpoll her in Illinois." After seeing that another reporter standing in the Senate hallway heard his remark, Obama declared: "That was a joke. You've gotten me paranoid."
In November, when he appeared on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," some of Obama's advisers bristled when he was asked to name the worst senator. Even on Comedy Central, answering such a question is perilous.
"They all have their qualities," Obama replied, hardly able to contain his own snickering. "There are a couple guys where you do sort of think: How did you get here exactly?"
He has little doubt about how he got there.
And there is little doubt that he has thought beyond the Senate, a place where he said it is possible to have a career "that is not particularly useful."
His options are many. They range from running for re-election to the Senate in 2010 to running for Illinois governor. Or, if he follows the advice of The New Republic, a respected liberal magazine, he will run for president in 2008.
When pressed on his ambitions, Obama sheds little light, but he doesn't suggest that he, like most senators, has not thought about being president.
"If you're involved in any profession, I think your goal is to be at the top of your profession and to do your best," he said. "I wouldn't be involved in politics if I didn't want to influence the debate significantly. And obviously the president has more influence than anyone over the direction of our country."
A poll of Democratic insiders, conducted by the National Journal, showed Obama was cited most as the political figure with the greatest potential to be president in 20 years. Democratic consultant Jim Jordan respectfully refers to Obama as the party's "Black Jesus."
Many Democrats believe it's not a matter of whether he will run for president, but when. Bill Clinton won the presidency at age 46, and in 2008 Obama will be 47. But among his closest advisers and confidants, one question predominates: Is he being pushed too fast?
His wife, Michelle, who often makes it her role to leaven the praise of her husband with pragmatism, suggests that the expectations may have been set too high.
"This has been a good year, but it's still overhyped, right?" she said.
"If we don't mature," she added, "Barack Obama is going to fall and fall hard because he's going to have to make some decisions that people will not agree with. That's the nature of politics."
Harry Belafonte, the entertainer and civil rights activist, corresponds with Obama by telephone and e-mail. It is far too early, he believes, for Obama to be thinking of higher office.
"Because I do see in him something so terribly precious and I see in him such a remarkable potential, I would rather think of him as a work in progress," Belafonte said in an interview. "We are prone to push people beyond their time. We are so eager to devour our young. I think Sen. Obama is a force, and I think he needs to see a lot about this nation and he needs to go a lot of places.
"We've seen so many others who have come to high places and have failed so miserably," he continued. "I think he could be our exception to the rule."
Obama's journey has been one of a string of exceptions. He managed at once to finish his first year without a signature achievement and still raise his stature. He has expanded his legion of followers even with such careful stewardship of his brand.
And as the phenomenon of his first year gives way to the reality of his second, other, more difficult exceptions remain to be proved.