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Making Obama

Obama 3: You Don’t Say No To Barack

In 1997, former President Barack Obama was in his first elected office as an Illinois state senator. But he had a lot to learn about being a politician before he got there.

Obama returned to Chicago after graduating from Harvard Law School. He met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, and was working on his first book. During all of this, an opportunity to enter the political stage appeared on the horizon.

In episode three of Making Obama, hear the about the conflicts Obama faced, the difficult decisions he made, and the lessons he learned on his path to the Illinois State Senate.  

Subscribe to Making Obama on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

This podcast, from the producers of Making Oprah, tells the story of Obama’s rise from Chicago politics to the national stage.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Obama and Chicago politics

Emanuel: Politics in Chicago ain’t beanbag. If you get elected in Chicago — and I mean get elected, not made — there’s a steel inside of you. And I always used to say when I was in Congress, my colleagues would ask me who is this guy Senator Obama, etc. I said he has an unbelievable warm, enticing, capturing smile. It covers a very tough, steel spine.

I have a rule about politics, which is you have to be principled enough to know why you’re doing what you’re doing and then ruthless enough to want to get it done. And you cannot be successful without the combination of those two.  

Carol Anne Harwell on agreeing to become Obama’s campaign manager for his state Senate run

Harwell: He said, “I’m thinking about running for state Senate.” And I was like, “Really? On top of everything else that you’re doing?” He was like, “Yeah.” And he said, “You know what I need you to do, Harwell? I need you to come over here and I need you to run this thing for me. I don’t know a lot about politics and I don’t know a lot of people that I trust to run this except for you.”

Jenn White: So what made you say yes?

Harwell: You don’t say no to Barack.

Early supporter Newton Minow on Obama’s first political campaign

Minow: We had a fundraiser for him, here in this apartment. And I must say he was terrible. ... He stood before the fireplace and people would ask him questions and he’d give a long academic, “on the one hand, on the other hand,” answer. He was not crisp or precise. And he was just beginning. He was not up to it at that point.

Harwell on Obama learning to become an effective and efficient politician

Harwell: We had to literally drag him away from people because once he got in the door, he was so engaging. “My name is Barack Obama, and I know that’s a funny name.” And he would start talking and telling people what his vision was for the 13th District, and I literally had to say, “OK, let’s move to the next house.” And we had to kind of, like, pull him along ‘cause if it was left up to him, he would have got three signatures a night ‘cause he would have stood there and kept talking.

Journalist Laura Washington on Obama kicking Alice Palmer off the ballot

Washington: It turned some heads. People noticed. It was telling the political world, “Don’t mess with me. I’m tough enough to do this. I’m tough enough to beat an elected official. And I may be a new kid on the block and I may not be from Chicago, but I understand the Chicago way, and I know how to work it.”

Former President Barack Obama being an outsider in Chicago

Obama: There was also a running thread in all of this: “Barack’s from Hyde Park. He went to Harvard. Is he street enough? Is he down enough?” I think some of the people who were mobilizing around Alice felt suspicious that I was not somebody who had come up from the neighborhood.

Full list of people heard in this episode:

  • Former President Barack Obama
  • Loretta Augustine-Herron, community activist
  • Timuel Black, historian and community activist
  • Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
  • Jacky Grimshaw, community activist
  • Carol Anne Harwell, former campaign manager for Obama  
  • Valerie Jarrett, close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama
  • Marilyn Katz, public relations consultant
  • Judson Miner, civil rights lawyer
  • Newton Minow, lawyer, former FCC chairman, and Obama supporter
  • Marty Nesbitt, close friend of Obama
  • Laura Washington, journalist

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

Join the conversation at #MakingObama.

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