- The Washington Times - Monday, January 17, 2005

In November, Sen. Barack Obama became the first black man elected to the Senate as a Democrat, but doesn’t intend that historical first to be his only achievement.

“I haven’t done anything yet, and I didn’t get elected to just sit there and say I did it,” said Mr. Obama, of Illinois.

The “skinny kid with a funny name,” as he calls himself, said history is made by deeds.

“When you talk about history, I want to be measured by the standards of senators like [Lyndon B.] Johnson and [John F.] Kennedy — you know, I want to get something done,” Mr. Obama said in an interview with The Washington Times.

A state senator who had never held a statewide office, Mr. Obama proved a surprisingly tough opponent for Illinois Republicans, who were trying to hold the seat vacated by one-term Republican Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald.

Republicans picked former Goldman Sachs partner-turned-schoolteacher Jack Ryan as their candidate. But Mr. Ryan was forced to quit the race after press accounts highlighted charges, made during his 1999 divorce from TV actress Jeri Ryan, that he had frequented sex clubs.

The party’s choice to replace Mr. Ryan in the Senate race was conservative radio talk-show host Alan Keyes, a Maryland resident who ended up with just 27 percent of the vote to Mr. Obama’s 70 percent.

As a Senate freshman, Mr. Obama says learning how best to do his job and opening “first-rate” constituent services offices is his first order of business.

Serving on the Environment and Public Works Committee, the Foreign Relations Committee and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, he said he is in the right spot to work on major legislation. He says he expects he will have to cross the aisle a great deal of the time.

“I’m used to being in the minority; I was in the minority in Illinois when I first got to the Senate and you have to [work with the Republicans] in order to get anything done.”

Republicans say they aren’t sure what to expect from the new, high-profile Illinois senator. After his prime-time speech at the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Obama was hailed as a centrist problem-solver with broad appeal.

That perception, however, “is something people pulled from the speech or the number of [Republican] votes we got in the election,” Mr. Obama said. “I am a Democrat, I believe in Democratic values and I disagree with a lot of the policies of the Republicans.”

In Illinois, Mr. Obama helped convince former Republican Gov. George Ryan to put a moratorium on the death penalty, arguing that it was unjustly applied to predominantly minority defendants.

Mr. Obama’s voting record in Illinois was mixed. On abortion, for example, while an outspoken supporter of abortion rights, he voted “present” — essentially taking a pass — on two key bills backed by pro-life groups, one to protect infants who survive a failed abortion attempt and another requiring parental notification for abortions involving minors.

He has spoken out against President Bush’s tax cuts, and against the war in Iraq. However, he said he is open to tackling Social Security reforms, and praised Mr. Bush for seeking such reforms.

“I think we all have to acknowledge that Social Security is not on the firm footing we would like it to be,” he said. “But the numbers [Mr. Bush] has given do not add up. Still, I haven’t foreclosed on the idea that we can get a bipartisan agreement.”

He said Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees should have a fair review and opposed the filibuster to deny them an up-or-down vote.

“My general theory is that the filibuster should not be used lightly,” he said, but added that a nominee “who is ideologically outside of the mainstream and normal established constitutional thought” should not be presented to the Senate.

“There are dozens of conservative nominees who can be supported by the Democrats,” Mr. Obama said. “The question will be, will President Bush pick someone from that pool or someone who satisfies the more extreme ideological conservatives of his base?”

On lawsuit reform, expected to be the first issue the Senate will tackle in February, Mr. Obama said, “I think it’s time for all of us to sit down and get to some real negotiation. The trial lawyers will have to give something up, the insurance companies too and, as for the doctors, we have to cut down these mistakes and continuous malpractice by the small group who are hurting the others.”

The son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii and raised in Kansas and Indonesia. He graduated from Columbia University and received a law degree from Harvard, becoming the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

“With such great achievements he could have gone anywhere, done anything,” said Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat.

Instead, he moved to Chicago’s predominantly black Southside and became a community activist. Now, after reaching the Senate, he said he will try to make a “modest difference” and “do some good.”

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