- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 26, 2005

PEKIN, Ill. (AP) — The line forms the moment Sen. Barack Obama is finished speaking, a procession of admirers clutching copies of his book, magazines, scraps of paper, disposable cameras and one homemade American flag. It doesn’t take long before someone pops the question.

An elderly woman, dressed in bubble-gum pink, looks up with wide eyes. The lanky senator leans in to hear her amid the din in the stuffy library meeting room. “In 2008 or some other time,” she says, “will we get a chance to work for you for president?”

Mr. Obama grins but demurs. He is not running for president. Not in 2008, at least. His Senate career is just six months old. Six months before that, few people in America had even heard of this man who was just introducing himself to voters in Illinois.

But one year has passed since Mr. Obama’s star-making turn at the Democratic National Convention, and the senator is now a player in two worlds: He is a deliberately low-key newcomer to Capitol Hill, careful to avoid upstaging the powerful old bulls on their home turf. He also is an A-list celebrity, courted by everyone from Oprah Winfrey to Mikhail Gorbachev.

On a scorching July day, Mr. Obama has come to this blue-collar community just south of Peoria, seat of a county he and President Bush carried by equally lopsided margins. He is recognized everywhere. As he wraps an arm around a woman celebrating her retirement at C.J.’s Cafe to pose for a photo, a half-dozen friends at her table lift their cell-phone cameras and click.

“It’s been sort of a whirlwind,” Mr. Obama says, sipping an iced tea. “Deserved or undeserved, I’ve received a lot of attention and that can translate into political influence. … I think my colleagues legitimately see me as somebody who has potential but has just arrived.”

That is the Washington way. In the Senate, the seniority system is still a reality and powerful committee chairmen and party leaders jealously guard the perks and prerogatives that come only with time. Mr. Obama knows he has to wait.

So he has taken on the age-old role prescribed for Senate freshmen: He is the diligent, shirt-sleeves-rolled-up, state-oriented lawmaker, devoted to the unglamorous issues that often matter most to folks back home.

He has pushed to spend money to modernize locks and dams along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, squeeze out more dollars for Illinois highways and create tax credits for ethanol fueling stations — a plan dear to the hearts of corn and soybean growers.

He also has focused on reported inequities in disability compensation for veterans in Illinois. With Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, he successfully proposed providing free meals for soldiers and Marines in military hospitals for extended stays while recovering from injuries received in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, Mr. Obama has ventured out a bit. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he recently visited the United Nations to press for an end to the slaughter in the Darfur region of Sudan. He will travel to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan next month.

Mr. Obama, the only black member of the U.S. Senate, knows that no matter what he does, the expectations in some circles are in the stratosphere. “In some circumstances, there probably are people who expect me to have solved the world’s problems already …,” he says, “but I think most voters are satisfied if they know I’m thinking about them.”

Mr. Obama has conducted 26 town meetings, including this one, and returns to Chicago every weekend to be with his family. He and his wife, Michelle, prefer to raise their two young daughters there rather than in Washington because of “the lack of pretense.”

The message is clear: There is no danger of Potomac fever. Mr. Obama, who receives about 250 invitations a week, says yes to the American Legion in Springfield and no to Mr. Gorbachev’s request to attend the fifth World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Rome.

But Mr. Obama, who turns 44 next month, can’t escape the cameras. Nor has he tried. He graced the cover of Newsweek and posed for celebrity photographers Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon before he even took office. He popped up in People magazine (in white tie) with Barbra Streisand when both were guests at Miss Winfrey’s lavish tribute to pioneering black women.

He has been mentioned on TV’s “Will & Grace” and lampooned at the annual Gridiron Club dinner, where a Washington journalist playing him wore a halo and gold lame and sang a tune called “Be Bop Messiah.” Mr. Obama even made his way onto the 100 Greatest Americans nominees list compiled by the Discovery Channel and edged out a few colleagues to rank No. 1 among senators in popularity among their constituents in a recent poll.

Not everyone has been enamored. Former Reagan speechwriter and sometime Republican adviser Peggy Noonan replied caustically to an essay Mr. Obama wrote for Time about Abraham Lincoln, in which he compared his humble roots to those of the 16th president. His father was a Kenyan he barely knew, his mother was from Kansas. Their son, raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, would become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

“There is nothing wrong with Barack Obama’s resume, but it is a log-cabin-free-zone,” Mrs. Noonan wrote in an online column for the Wall Street Journal. “So far it is also a greatness-free zone. If he keeps talking about himself like this, it will always be.”

Mr. Obama also angered some liberals for supporting Condoleezza Rice’s nomination for secretary of state and refusing to join a group of Democrats who protested the certification of the Electoral College votes from Ohio, claiming numerous irregularities.

But the town meeting in Pekin draws a standing-room-only crowd of about 200. They hear Mr. Obama soft-pedal his own power, repeating his standard line that he is 99th in seniority. The audience doesn’t mind, posing a series of soft, friendly questions about the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy, veterans’ benefits and the environment.

Mr. Obama is confident in his answers, measured with his words. He offers no Howard Dean-like jabs, only gentle gibes. The president’s tax cuts? Billionaire Warren Buffet, he says, is the real winner. Mr. Bush’s education program? “You can’t have No Child Left Behind if you leave the money behind,” he says.

Slash-and-burn politics are not his style. “I’m just not big on demonizing people,” he says.



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