Is he tough enough? That’s the question being asked of Barack Obama. To those who have known the candidate since boyhood, it’s not just those “dreams from my father” that make Obama a contender, but also his mother’s daring, his grandmother’s grit, and his own
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By the fall of 2002, Barack Obama had been in the Illinois state senate for not quite six years. He was a member of the Democratic minority, representing a swath of Chicago’s South Side. He had done what he could in a state capital where Republicans ruled, and he was ready for a change. As it happened, so were voters in Illinois, who that November put the Democrats back in power in Springfield.
A few months later Obama went to see Emil Jones Jr., the newly chosen state-senate president and the man who loomed as perhaps the most powerful black politician in Illinois. He went to see Jones with a big idea. By that point the two men had known each other for the better part of 20 years, but theirs had not always been an easy relationship. They had first met in the mid-1980s, when Obama, as a community organizer on the far South Side, had seen Jones as an “old ward heeler” who backed the wrong horse in Harold Washington’s successful quest to become the city’s first black mayor. Jones had had to jockey for a place on the stage near the new mayor at a public event that Obama had helped plan.
Jones, a chain-smoking, gravelly voiced, unvarnished throwback to the era of the old Daley machine, was wary of Obama, a freshly minted agitator from Columbia University. Obama and other community activists were the sort who used politicians as foils, “shunned them, more or less, I guess,” Jones told me on a winter morning, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray in his office high above the city that Carl Sandburg famously called “coarse and strong and cunning.” Jones went on: “They were in-your-face types. I happened to see them out there one day. And I told them, I said, ‘You don’t gotta be outside. Come on in the office.’â€Š”
A friendship was born. A decade later, after returning to Chicago with a law degree and the mantle of first black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama won his own state-senate seat, taking the place of an incumbent who had decided to run for Congress, placed a distant third in the Democratic primary, changed her mind, and—with Jones’s help—tried to run for her old seat after all. Obama’s team, in a move as bold as it was adroit, challenged her nominating petitions and managed to keep her name off the ballot. Obama arrived in Springfield and told Jones, then the minority leader, that he wanted to “work hard.” He promptly became Jones’s point person on a number of tricky issues, including ethics reform. Now, with Jones elevated to the senate presidency, Obama was approaching him with a cold-eyed proposal.
“After I was elected president, in 2003, he came to see me, a couple months later,” Jones recalled, relishing the tale. “And he said to me, he said, ‘You’re the senate president now, and with that, you have a lot of pow-er.’â€Š” Jones stretched out the word, as if savoring the pleasure of it, and his voice became very quiet as he continued: “And I told Barack, ‘You think I got a lot of pow-er now?,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, you got a lot of pow-er.’ And I said, ‘What kind of pow-er do I have?’ He said, ‘You have the pow-er to make a United States sen-a-tor!’â€Š” Jones let out a soft, smoky laugh. “I said to Barack, I said, ‘That sounds good!’ I said, ‘I haven’t even thought of that.’ I said, ‘Do you have someone in mind you think I could make?,’ and he said, ‘Yeah. Me.’â€Š”
Jones let the words hang for a moment, and then went on. “The most interesting conversation. And so I said to him, ‘Let me think about this.’â€Š” Obama knew that Jones’s support could single-handedly freeze the discretion of other powerful politicians in the state, and put endorsements of possible rivals on ice. “We met a little later that day, and I said, ‘That sounds good. Let’s go for it.’â€Š”
This is not a story about the presidential horse race. It’s not about the policy positions of a freshman senator and candidate for national office. It’s about the enduring character of a boy and a young man, and how that character has emerged in adulthood. The Barack Obama who wrote so poignantly of adolescent alienation and the search for racial identity is the same Barack Obama who learned, the hard way, how to deal with the likes of Emil Jones Jr., a man whose cell-phone ring tone is the theme from The Godfather. Obama’s good looks and soft-spoken willingness to ponder aloud some of the inanities of modern politics have masked the hard inner core and unyielding ambition that have long burned beneath the surface shimmer. He is not, and never has been, soft. He’s not laid-back. He’s not an accidental man. His friends and family may be surprised by the rapidity of his rise, but they’re not surprised by the fact of it.
In The Audacity of Hope, whose publication in the fall of 2006 effectively turned what was first billed as a book tour into a march toward the New Hampshire primary, Obama cops a plea to the quintessential qualification for any presidential candidate: “a chronic restlessness, an inability to appreciate, no matter how well things were going, those blessings that were right there in front of me.” He has tried to turn this to his advantage. “I know I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington,” he said in announcing that he would run for president. “But I’ve been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change.” Obama’s restlessness is a quality that would lead him to conclude, again and again, that the time had come to make a move—to take a chance, to aim higher—when others told him to wait his turn. Far more often than not, his timing has been right.
As the presidential campaign whirls through the front-loaded primary season, Obama’s character has been under high magnification. The main point of attack is that he is not “tough enough” or experienced enough; New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd titled a column about him “The 46-Year-Old Virgin.” Hillary Clinton has openly encouraged this derisive assessment for many months. At the same time, coming across as too tough and gritty—too skilled at the sharp-elbowed arts of politics—will undermine the very qualities that make Obama attractive in the first place. The trap is obvious