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From the Archives: What Makes Obama Run? (Dec 7, 1995)

Barack Obama, Chicago, 1995 – Photo: Marc PoKempner

On This Day: December 7, 1995 -

Hank De Zutter (Chicago Reader): 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

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…..”

Reading to young kids during 1995 IL State Senate campaign – Photo: Marc PoKempner

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 ….. 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.”

“Now all of this may be good political advice,” Obama said, “but it’s all so superficial …. 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.”

Barack Obama in 1995 in his office at the University of Chicago Law School. On the wall is a portrait of the late Mayor Harold Washington. Photo: Marc PoKempner

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.

 ….. While no political opposition to Obama has arisen yet, many have expressed doubts about the practicality of his ambitions …. “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?….

…. 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.

Campaigning for the Illinois State Senate in 1995, a race he easily won – Photo: Marc PoKempner

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.”….

Read the full article here

Barack Obama collects signatures on his nominating petition for his first run for political office in 1995


151 Responses to “From the Archives: What Makes Obama Run? (Dec 7, 1995)”


  1. 5 Allison
    December 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm

    What did the Bushes and other previous presidents do before they became POTUS? PBO was with the people before and during his presidency.

    • 6 globalcitizenlinda
      December 7, 2013 at 8:29 pm

      they owned baseball teams, oil companies & spent their family wealth – these are “extremely hard and meaningful jobs” so I don’t know how they could have survived all that “hardship/suffering”;

      remember Governor Richards’ famous speech ( to paraphrase): “Poor George …. he was born with a silver spoon”

  2. 9 Dudette
    December 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm

  3. December 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm

    Goooooood morning/afternoon/evening everyone!

  4. 14 hopefruit2
    December 7, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    WOW, some of these pics I’m seeing for the first time!

    • December 7, 2013 at 8:04 pm

      Me too Hopefruit, and I thought I’d seen them all!!

      • 16 hopefruit2
        December 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm

        :) :) Never a dull moment with this President. Always something new and delightful to discover every day. Sigh…

      • 22 jacquelineoboomer
        December 7, 2013 at 8:11 pm

        Great finds, Chips!

        • December 7, 2013 at 8:15 pm

          Thank you Jacqueliiiiiiine! I’d read the article before and loved it, somehow came upon it again today and smiled when I saw the date – re-post time! I love this line soooooo much:

          “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.”

          • December 7, 2013 at 8:21 pm

            Thanks so much for posting this, Chips. Once again – CONSISTENCY – of both his values and his methods are evident.

            #FORWARD

            • December 7, 2013 at 8:28 pm

              Exactly Bob, that’s what struck me most:

              “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.”

              No change!

          • 28 jacquelineoboomer
            December 7, 2013 at 8:44 pm

            It’s still amazing to me – and I think of it often – that all these years later, still no scandals from the President’s “past” to haunt him – or us.

            It’s almost a first for a politician, especially one who manages to make it to the White House … TWICE.

  5. 31 globalcitizenlinda
    December 7, 2013 at 8:21 pm

    Chips,

    Thanks a lot for these memories!

    thought I had seen all photos of PBO in the public record but obviously a few here remind me that I have not.

  6. 32 Nena20409
    December 7, 2013 at 8:22 pm

    Wow. Wow. Wow.

    The minute I thought that Chips could not out done herself, she made a believer of Me. A tip of the hat. Lady Chips, I am speechless. Thank You. Thank YOU.

  7. 34 globalcitizenlinda
    December 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    taking into account, FLOTUS’ repeated explanation & teasing related to the fact that her husband PBO does not like to buy new clothing/shoes – will wear each until it has been thoroughly used – I am very suspicious that the overcoat PBO is wearing in these photos is the very same one he wore during his 2007/2008 campaign & up to just before inauguration.

    After all, FLOTUS also said that the PBO had 1 tux until the inauguration balls.

    I will never forget the famous 2007/2008 campaign photo of his shoes – with big holes in each – popped on his desk for all to see (without being self-conscious at all).

      • 36 Judith Fardig
        December 8, 2013 at 12:34 am

        I have an Adlai Stevenson lapel pin – another Illinoisan who was known as the man with the hole in his shoe during that earlier campaign for the Presidency. Stevenson would have been so proud of Barack Obama’s success – twice!!

  8. 37 amk for obama
    December 7, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    From the piece

    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.

    Guess these progs were ok if he striked deals with them but if he does it with anyone else, then it’s a cave.

  9. 38 Nena20409
    December 7, 2013 at 8:33 pm

    The 60 Minutes Interview on Dec 16 or so 2008 is where Michelle Obama said that her husband is consistent and steady. Not hot, even always.

    This is what drives the naysayers totally bonkers. So they project all kinds of wicked obsessive assertions on pres Obama.

    Rock Steady Baby is a title of a song that would apply here. Solid as A Rock is another title that is on point here too.

  10. 40 carolyn
    December 7, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    …..and as my husband keeps saying…..what he is saying now is what he said back in 2007 when he came to OKC and we went to see him. He was concerned about inequality THEN………
    I am convinced that the people who are “opinion makers” do NOT listen to him. They close their ears, and pretend he says something he doesn’t, just make up what they think he might say. His consistency is almost frightening……yes, his methods and goals are the same as in 1995. He’s been through a crucible and come out on the other side, strong and determined.
    Another line from Shakespeare describes him: “And more and more the wonder grew, that one small head could carry al he knew.” What people said about today’s conference and his speech brought that to mind.
    Has anyone else felt a new freedom in him….released from the necessity of running again, and determined to bring about real change, however he can? Now, I believe he is enjoying the presidency. He knows its power and limitations and is working within those for maximum effect.

    • 41 jackiegrumbacher
      December 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm

      I agree with you on the new confidence, Carolyn. He has said several times with true glee that he has run his last election and Michelle has echoed her own relief at this. He was decisively re-elected and now he’s free to do what he set out to do–leave the middle class stronger and give the disadvantaged a chance to climb the ladder of opportunity. He is going to carefully expand what’s possible for a president to do in the face of an oppositional Congress. Future presidents would be very wise to study his actions.

  11. December 7, 2013 at 8:37 pm

  12. 44 utaustinliberal
    December 7, 2013 at 8:37 pm

    What a fascinating piece. It’s always comforting when I read articles about President Obama’s life and public work and I see his values, beliefs, and principles are the same now as they were then. Consistency and Barack Obama go hand in hand.

    His long term view approach will have this country prospering in so many ways five, ten, twenty, and thirty years from now.

    It is an honor and a privilege to live in a time where I am proud to call Barack Obama, humanitarian, community activist, world activist, visionary, graceful spirit, man of the people and of course, the 44th President of the United States.

    Thanks so much for sharing this, Chips.

  13. 47 globalcitizenlinda
    December 7, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    this PBO statement in the article:

    “Now all of this may be good political advice,” Obama said, “but it’s all so superficial …. 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.”

    reminded me of something PBO has said on previous occasions (such as in the video documentary of The President’s Photographer narrated by Mr. Pete Souza”:

    “You run and hopefully win elections to DO something, not to BE something”

  14. 48 amk for obama
    December 7, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    “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.”

  15. 50 forus50
    December 7, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Chips, I remember when you were having some consideration as to whether or not to continue this blog once POTUS won reelection and I was thinking myself at the time that I would be less interested/involved in the daily politics – just let him do his job – and that I wouldn’t be that interested in TOD once he was relected. How wrong I was and am so glad you decided to continue. There might be a slow day or two but because of who he is and how he continues to engage us all in our democracy there is rarely a day that goes by where there I don’t have the same level of interest I did from 2008-2012.

    I’ve read this Chicago Reader story too so many times before but it’s always interesting to read it again. Truth is always beautiful to see and POTUS has always been true to his passion of community organizing for the disinfranchised. How crazy is it that the trending Twitter hashtag today from the haters is trying to create a different narrative. Like everything else they’ve tried against him, it will fail and fail spectacularly.

    Thanks again for the journey back and looking forward to the next 3 years in your parlor here.

  16. 52 globalcitizenlinda
    December 7, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    another thing that those who have known PBO the longest and even more closely (including his sister Dr. Maya Ng) always say is that PBO has always been “wise beyond his years”

  17. 53 amk for obama
    December 7, 2013 at 8:50 pm

    His stay-the-course is how different from shrub’s.

  18. 55 jacquelineoboomer
    December 7, 2013 at 8:51 pm

    You hold him (wearing sterilized gloves, of course) and I’ll hit him:

    • 56 Layla
      December 7, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      The face of evil

      • 57 jacquelineoboomer
        December 7, 2013 at 8:55 pm

        Ugh. Eek. And more of that.

      • 58 amk for obama
        December 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm

        I thought 2008 rethug presidential field was the most awful line-up until I saw their 2012 line-up. From Lincoln to Teddy to Ike, how did they get to this?

        • 59 MightyPamela
          December 7, 2013 at 9:16 pm

          Quite simple, amk, it appears they are rotting away from within! It’s so over for them.

          • 60 amk for obama
            December 7, 2013 at 9:37 pm

            The trajectory of a national party towards extreme extremism within a sort span is quite shocking.

            • 61 Nena20409
              December 7, 2013 at 9:48 pm

              The right wing mega media echo chamber made their extremism possible. The 4th Estate abdicating their Duties made their extremism mainstream.

              • 62 amk for obama
                December 7, 2013 at 10:02 pm

                while it’s true that corrupt complicit corporate media amplified it, the starting point of extremism came from within the party and none squelched it. They did the exact opposite and started encouraging it or were coward enough not to fight it.

              • December 7, 2013 at 11:50 pm

                Had to tweet that….Profound!

    • 65 MightyPamela
      December 7, 2013 at 9:03 pm

      Not sure I know who this fool is, have seen the ugly smirk before, but easily passed by the so-called identity. Not really askin’, just sayin’!

      • 66 jacquelineoboomer
        December 7, 2013 at 9:27 pm

        Better not to remember him!

      • 67 jackiegrumbacher
        December 7, 2013 at 9:46 pm

        Pamela, you are lucky not to know Rick Santorum. We had to suffer him as PA’s US Senator for two terms until Bob Casey replaced him. Sometimes PA goes through periods of insanity and elects totally right wing incompetent idiots to office..witness our current governor.

    • 68 anniebella
      December 7, 2013 at 9:23 pm

      Another one of those racists ass Republicans. Rick Santorum.

  19. 69 Dudette
    December 7, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Part 2 of the Dreams of My Father interview
    Note: Ms. Martinson gets him to autograph the book on camera at the end. Imagine the value of that book now! Lucky thing! :-)

  20. 75 Dudette
    December 7, 2013 at 9:06 pm

    I was trying to post this…

  21. 76 hopefruit2
    December 7, 2013 at 9:10 pm

    I LOVE this! :)

  22. December 7, 2013 at 9:16 pm

  23. 84 Eveingeorgia
    December 7, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    Chips, thanks for THES photographs and the article. Just delightful!
    Just finished watching our president at the Saban a forum. All I can say is we elected one hell of a fabulous guy!!!

    • 85 hopefruit2
      December 7, 2013 at 9:25 pm

      Prouder than ever to have cast my vote, not once, but twice for this man, and trust me, if I could, would do it a third time with no reservation! :)

      • 86 nathkatun7
        December 7, 2013 at 10:53 pm

        I am with you, Hopefruit2! At 68, the votes that I am most proud of in my life are the four votes (primary and general election) I cast for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. And, if it were possible for him to run again, I would proudly cast my vote for him.

    • December 7, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      A pleasure Eve, he’s a bit awesome!

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      What is particularly wonderful about this lovely tribute is that it was launched in June of this year and we can all hope that President Mandela was able to see it, at least once ….

      Thank you for posting the tweet, Chips!!

  24. 90 Dudette
    December 7, 2013 at 9:33 pm

    Interesting. This an excerpt from a Frontline documentary on PBO during the 2008 campaign

    Obama’s Campaign for President of the Harvard Law Review

  25. 91 globalcitizenlinda
    December 7, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    as I spent my 10 hours of work today, physically I was sitting at the desk & adding some blah, blah, …blah to the whatever I had to accomplish on the computer screen;

    but my mind was far, far, far away wondering what needs to happen to make many millions loudly, publicly, stand up together and mobilize around socio-economic justice and equity;

    the restlessness and anger are there in the hearts of so many but what needs to happen NOW to trigger the persistent demands to tear down the structural barriers down?

    something tells me that the people around the world are ready but many are looking around for the opportunity to answer the call – hope they listened to PBO’s call in his historical speech on income inequality and barriers to upward mobility;

    no doubt about it, one of the main things we have to do in the next few months is to do put all our efforts in sending PBO a congress and senate that values public service & also clean the state offices of the gop political cockroaches – we owe it to PBO, the country, the world and our fellow ordinary people

    • 92 jacquelineoboomer
      December 7, 2013 at 10:24 pm

      There’s kinda nothing “ordinary” about where your mind wanders, Linda! Glad you’re a big part of TOD and beyond, and a major PBO supporter!

  26. 93 Nena20409
    December 7, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    Maya’s thoughts on big brother, Barack

  27. December 7, 2013 at 9:47 pm

  28. 100 Nena20409
    December 7, 2013 at 9:52 pm

    Auburn did it again. They beat MO.

    59 to 42

    One TODer is overly on cloud nine tonite ;)

    You Know who you are :lol:

  29. 102 hopefruit2
    December 7, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    God needs a naughty mat tonight…and so do many folks…but by Monday morning it will be a different story!

  30. 106 globalcitizenlinda
    December 7, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    has anyone else paused to consider the logistical and security challenges that the leaders of South Africa are undertaking as they prepare for all the ordinary people of South Africa, world leaders, dignitaries, loyalties etc?

    I guess that since PBO is going to be in South Africa, some events are going to be designated US Secret Service events – lots to do!!!!!

    my family and friends were already taking bets about the first celebrity/head-of-state who will embarrass him/her self by publicly complaining that they were either not invited, sat among the back-benchers/periphery or was not given a chance to talk

    • 107 jacquelineoboomer
      December 7, 2013 at 10:08 pm

      Good points. All I know is that we only have one President at a time, and he’ll be there – sincerely participating – with any others he brings or who show up of their own accord or by invitation. I’m looking forward to seeing President Obama at this profoundly sad, and yet inspiring, world event – fitting for South Africa’s leader “of the people.”

      Nelson Mandela continues to inspire, although he won’t be physically present, and Barack Obama will represent all of us with his good and kind heart. Everything else is, as you wrote, on the periphery, where it should be.

  31. 110 amk for obama
    December 7, 2013 at 9:57 pm

  32. 111 amk for obama
    December 7, 2013 at 9:58 pm

  33. 112 Nena20409
    December 7, 2013 at 10:02 pm

    Then in 2008, part of the closing Vid. I must say, one of my Favorites.

  34. 114 amk for obama
    December 7, 2013 at 10:03 pm

  35. 115 Nena20409
    December 7, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    It has been a Beautiful Day. TOD made a good part of it worthwhile.
    So very appreciative of this wonderful Oasis.

    Until we meet again, Love and Peace.

    Tomorrow ;)

  36. 117 hopefruit2
    December 7, 2013 at 10:09 pm

    Nice! Channeling PBO’s love of sports and sportswear :)

    • 118 jacquelineoboomer
      December 7, 2013 at 10:39 pm

      LP brought us a photo of this “look” last evening, and even added a trivia game to guess who it was. I failed it, but I’m trying to be a “good sport” (whatever that means!).

  37. December 7, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    New post in 8 minutes, 16 seconds ish

  38. December 7, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    When I miss a day of news, it is always wonderful to come and catch up here.

  39. 128 LDS
    December 7, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    Loving this!
    You go, Ms. Chips!

  40. 129 LDS
    December 7, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    The only place to be on a cold Sat. night……..very chilly outside.

  41. 133 Dudette
    December 7, 2013 at 10:44 pm

    8 minutes, 16 seconds, huh?

    What was that about techy excellence? :-)


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