Barack Obama: From kid senator to two-term president

Obama 2004 Copyright Rockford Register Star

In August 2004, before his U.S. Senate election, Barack and Michelle Obama campaigned in Boone County, Illinois. Copyright Rockford Register Star.

Obama can “do the right thing” if he chooses.

I met Barack Obama shortly after his 2004 landslide election to Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat.

He was standing in the parking lot of the Rockford (IL) Register Star’s News Tower, alone. He’d just come down — likely to sneak a smoke — from his meeting with the newspaper’s Editorial Board. I was rushing back from some meeting, hoping to make at least the end of the board’s conversation with Obama.

Obama spent a lot of time with newspaper editorial boards back then, ours included. He’d met with our 10-member board half a dozen times in previous years and I’d missed each of them.

And, there he was. Clearly, I was too late for the editorial board, and embarrassed though I was, I began to introduce myself and offer an apology. He stopped me. “I know who you are, and no apologies are needed,” he said calling me by name and extending his hand.

A politician’s magical powers of connection. I get that. One doesn’t spend 40 years as a journalist without knowing first hand — and developing a certain immunity to — the blandishments second nature to successful public figures. Still.

We talked. About his assessment of the election bid he’d just won with 72 percent of the vote. About his hopes for his Senate roles. About Illinois. About his pragmatic, centrist approach. About being a leader of the next generation.

And about resisting the national and Beltway media as it roared into a full-on “let’s get hold of the new guy” seduction.
You see, we’d watched Carol Mosley Braun self-destruct under the national spotlight as she was feted unceasingly as the first black woman senator. And while she brought her own baggage to the table, that attention ensured there was little opportunity for Braun to learn the complexities of the morass that is Washington power.

Obama was young, charismatic, destined even then for more than a Senate seat. He needed years outside the spotlight to learn without his failures making their ways to the lead headlines. “Don’t let them co-opt you,” I said. “Take the time, years, not months, to get it right, to make the connections.”

It didn’t happen that way. Four years later, Obama, the lanky, barely-not-a-kid in the Register Star visitor’s lot was president of the United States and I’d not be chatting him up alone in a parking lot again.

Four years wasn’t enough to learn, to fail, in private. He did it in a brilliant fishbowl, every move, thought, personal habit analyzed, like so many tea leaves. And four years after that — yesterday — he was re-elected to a second term.

Eight years now in the international arena. Eight years of success and failure in front page headlines, Facebook posts and trending tweets. Eight years grayer.
When we said our good-byes that day in the parking lot, I left him with this: “Do the right thing. That’s all we can ever ask of our leaders. Do the right thing.”

Makes sense today, too.

Linda Grist Cunningham was executive editor of the Rockford (IL) Register Star from 1991-2011.

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