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Obama BONUS: The Decision

Barack Obama gained national attention after he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In that moment, people immediately started talking — Obama for president.

Just two and a half years after that famous speech, Obama, a 45-year-old, African-American, first-term U.S. Senator, officially announced that he’d be running for president.

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While Making Obama, a six-part WBEZ series, focuses on Obama’s early political years, this bonus episode explores Obama’s decision to run for president. Host Jenn White talks to his friends and advisers about the months leading up to the big announcement.

This podcast, from the producers of Making Oprah, tells the story of one man’s meteoric rise to become the United States’ first African-American president.

Close friend Marty Nesbitt on first discussing if Obama should for president

Nesbitt: I remember our first conversation about it was in Hawaii one year. We were out jogging, and we stopped, grabbed a cup of coffee ... and he said, “What do you think the odds would be of me winning the presidency?”

I said an answer he probably didn’t expect. I said, “I think you have a .7 percent chance of becoming president. … But you know, look, I think Hillary Clinton has a 5 percent chance, so don’t take that the wrong way.” And I said, “I probably have a .00000001 percent chance of becoming president.” So I said, “Look, it might be a small probability but it’s infinitely higher than anybody else. And if I had a .7 percent  chance, I’d probably run.”

Billionaire businesswoman Penny Pritzker on agreeing to get involved in Obama’s campaign

Pritzker: Marty [Nesbitt] and Valerie [Jarrett] came to see me for lunch one day in 2006. They said that Barack wanted me to become his finance chair for his run for the presidency. And you could’ve knocked me over with a feather.  

I called my husband, Bryan, and I said, “There’s just no way I can do this.” And he said to me, “Come home.” And I walked into the kitchen, and he crossed the room and started knocking on the door. And I said, “What are you doing?” And he said, “This is destiny knocking on the door of our country, and you have got to find a way to help our friend.”

Early supporter Newton Minow on Obama’s concern about his family

Minow: In December of 2006, Barack came to my office and Barack said, “We’re leaving for Hawaii in a day or two to make a final decision about whether I’m going to run for president.”

And he said, “One thing that’s bothering me the most and bothering Michelle is that I want to be a good father. I never had a father of my own. I want to be a good father. That’s the most important thing for me. What do you think?”

So I remember I said, “I think a parent’s greatest influence on a child is not when they’re very small — your kids are very small — it’s when they’re teenagers. If you’re ever going to run, you better run when the kids are small. And if you got elected, which I doubt, you’ll be living above the store! You’ll be with your kids all day long.”

So he’s writing all this down. And I said, “Why are you writing this down?” And he said, “I’m going to tell this to Michelle.”

Valerie Jarrett on Michelle Obama’s concerns with a presidential campaign

Jarrett: Keep in mind, she’s got two young children, and she wants a husband and she wants a father present. I think she knew that this was really going to be tough. ... She was very committed to ensuring that the children's lives were not disrupted by this.

He spent a lot of time really thinking through not just was he ready to be president, but were both he and his family ready for what you had to go through in order to become president.

Ultimately, he decided the time was right.  

Full list of people heard in this episode:

  • Dan Hynes, former Illinois comptroller
  • Valerie Jarrett, close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama
  • Al Kindle, political operator
  • Rev. Alvin Love, Lilydale First Baptist Church
  • Newton Minow, lawyer, former FCC chairman, and Obama supporter
  • Marty Nesbitt, close friend of Obama
  • Penny Pritzker, billionaire businesswoman and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce

These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity by Bea Aldrich.

Join the conversation at #MakingObama. Don’t want to miss an episode? Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen

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Editor’s Note: WBEZ receives support from philanthropic foundations associated with the Pritzker family and Penny Pritzker’s husband Bryan Traubert serves on the Chicago Public Media board.

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