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Making Obama

Obama 6: Yes We Can!

With a combination of skill, ambition, connections, and luck, Barack Obama emerged onto the national stage during his 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate. The implosion of two opponents’ campaigns, along with Obama’s powerful keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, helped put him on the path to stardom.

Episode six, the final installment of Making Obama, tells the story of Obama’s successful run for the U.S. Senate, which launched him from an Illinois politician to a national leader.  

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This podcast, from the producers of Making Oprah, tells the story of Obama’s early political days in Chicago and his meteoric rise to the national stage.

Former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones on campaigning in Southern Illinois with Barack Obama during the 2004 U.S. Senate race

Jones: I’m sitting across the table ... and this little elderly white lady — she began talking. And she said something that was so profound. She said, “I’m 84 years old.” She said, “I certainly hope I live long enough. … This young man is going to be president one day and I wanna be around to vote for him.” And it was so startling to me. I didn’t tell Barack that because I didn’t want his head to get big.

David Axelrod on developing Obama’s campaign slogan

Axelrod: He finished the first take and he got to “yes we can.” And he said, “Yes we can,” and he said, “Is that too corny?” My heart is sinking because I was so invested in that. It was optimistic and it was not about him — it was about what we could do together.

He turned to Michelle and he said, “[Michelle], what do you think?” I remember she had her chin in her hand and she just slowly shook her head and said, “Not corny.”  

Obama on his 2004 Democratic National Convention speech

Obama: Really, what it was, more than anything, was a distillation of themes — themes that I had been developing and thinking about since I had first come to Chicago and started organizing.

The notion that regardless of our differences, that there’s more we have in common. The belief that when ordinary people are empowered when their voices are heard, that our democracy works.

Oprah Winfrey on watching Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech

Winfrey: I was watching Barack Obama. I remember the exact moment, watching alone, feeling this man will be president of the United States. I felt ... I just felt it. There was a knowingness inside myself. I could feel that he was the one. I could feel that. And I started telling everybody.

Marty Nesbitt on the notion that Obama won the Senate race based on luck

Nesbitt: People took extraordinary risks because they knew it was going to be hard to beat him. The Republicans replaced their candidate because he was getting smoked! They picked Alan Keyes because it was an act of desperation. … People always want to translate this into luck. He was also a brilliant politician.

Obama on how Chicago made him into the person he is today

Obama: Whatever happy coincidences or serendipity or fate or whatever it was, Chicago provided me with what I needed. It provided me a big, robust, confident, complicated, contentious African-American community that I could call my own, that over time enveloped me and taught me who I was and what was important to me. And obviously, gave me my wife, my kids, and everything that is most precious to me. That’s one thing that no place else could have given me.

Full list of people heard in this episode:

  • Former President Barack Obama
  • David Axelrod, political strategist  
  • Jim Cauley, former campaign manager for Obama
  • Delmarie Cobb, political consultant
  • Jon Favreau, speechwriter   
  • Pete Giangreco, political consultant
  • Hermene Hartman, editor and founder of N’DIGO
  • Carol Anne Harwell, first campaign manager for Obama
  • Former Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes
  • Valerie Jarrett, close friend of Barack and Michelle Obama
  • Former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones
  • Al Kindle, political operator  
  • Marty Nesbitt, close friend of Obama
  • Dan Shomon, former legislative aide and campaign manager for Obama
  • Oprah Winfrey, media proprietor

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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