21 Jan 2008

Obama’s journey to the White House

Channel 4 News investigates Obama’s roots in early Chicago politics and looks at the role race played in his presidential campaign.

President Barack Obama. (Getty)

Barack Obama’s life and background came under intense scrutiny during the presidential race, in particular his dramatic rise through the politics of Chicago.

The week before August 2008’s Democratic convention, a new and hostile biography about Obama hit number one on the New York Times bestseller list.

Channel 4 News went to Chicago to trace Obama’s story, meeting friends and adversaries, as well as gaining an exclusive peak inside his campaign headquarters.

“He had all the attributes of a rising star and he was tremendously comfortable in his own skin.” Marilyn Katz

Chicago democratic powerbroker Marilyn Katz, who organised Obama’s first fundraiser, remembered her first meeting with the man who would go on to lead America. “Did I say, oh my God, this guy’s going to president? No,” she told Channel 4 News.

“I did think he would be mayor or senator or governor one day because he had all the attributes of a rising star and he was tremendously comfortable in his own skin, which was probably the most striking thing about he and about Michelle.”

But Alan Dobry, Barack Obama’s former agent, was disappointed to see Obama moving away from some of his early campaign positions: “I feel that in some cases he’s just given up everything and I’m not sure what he gets for it,” he said. “When he gets to the White House, if he’s adopted a large part of the Republicans’ agenda that fences him in a bit.”

Race and the deep south

“I stand here today, grateful for the diversity of my heritage, I stand here knowing that my story is part of a larger American story,” the then-unknown senatorial candidate said in a landmark speech to the 2004 Democrat conference. “I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, in no other country on earth is my story even possible.”

Obama’s campaign transcended racial politics – but how did he go down with black voters? In January 2008, South Carolina became the first state where Afro-Americans are the majority of voters in the Democratic primary. The week before, a nasty spat broke out between the two candidates over race – with Senator Clinton accused of disparaging Dr Martin Luther King.

“At first I wasn’t going to vote for Barack – I didn’t think he would make it, I thought they would assassinate him.” South Carolina voter

Channel 4 News visited Charleston, South Carolina – a community divided about where their loyalties should lie.

The picturesque streets of Charleston were built with profits from the slave trade.

Owners could never have imagined that one day black voters here would have a chance to help a black candidate get to the White House.

But despite the history, Barack Obama can’t take black votes for granted here.

Voters were excited about the first African-American with a real chance to win but for many it was not about race, but rather a generation thing.

“Most people my age are voting for Barack, and the older generation is voting for Hillary,” one young women told Sarah Smith.

“At first I wasn’t going to vote for Barack – I didn’t think he would make it, I thought they would assassinate him and I didn’t want him to get hurt. I was thinking all these things, but after I started listening to the issues and listening to him speak and listening to Hillary, I started swaying more and more to Barack.”

Obama: the start of the race
Channel 4 News first profiled Obama in November 2006, shortly before America went to the polls for its mid-term elections.

Senator Obama, who spoke out against the Iraq war, was fast becoming the Democrats' latest superstar.

"The folks in power right now are in trouble," he told a rally in the battleground state of Virginia. "The approach that this president has taken has played itself out foreign policy-wise and domestically in ways that aren't serving the American people. So they want to try something new."

Watch Jonathan Rugman's reports on the week Obama emerged as his party's favourite vote-winner below.

Channel 4 News correspondent Sarah Smith met Obama in October 2007, shortly after his wife Michelle had said he had to win Iowa to have a chance of success. Just two months before Democrats in Iowa voted on their preferred presidential nominee, Obama was behind in the national polls and trailing rival Hillary Clinton in the fundraising stakes.

“I love doing this,” the White House hopeful said as canvassed from doorstep to doorstep in Iowa. “This is what politics is all about.”

Obama told Channel 4 News there were a “range of issues” on which he differed from Clinton.

“On foreign policy I think she tends to think more conventionally at a time when we’re facing a series of unconventional threats,” he said of the woman he has since put in charge of foreign affairs.

“This is what politics is all about.” Barack Obama

“And so how aggressive we are in direct diplomacy, what kind of messages we’re sending to the world with respect to how we deal with an issue like Iran, the degree to which she may be willing to go along with Bush policies that give a rationale for keeping troops in Iraq longer or to engaging in aggression to Iran,” he continued. “Those are all areas where we’ve got some specific differences.”