Todd Spivak has known Obama for a long time and knows a different Obama from the one you see now. Obama is not the nice guy he seems. Some excerpts below:
It's not quite eight in the morning and Barack Obama is on the phone screaming at me. He liked the story I wrote about him a couple weeks ago, but not this garbage. Months earlier, a reporter friend told me she overheard Obama call me an asshole at a political fund-raiser. Now here he is blasting me from hundreds of miles away for a story that just went online but hasn't yet hit local newsstands. It's the first time I ever heard him yell, and I'm trembling as I set down the phone. I sit frozen at my desk for several minutes, stunned.
This is before Obama Girl, before the secret service detail, before he becomes a best-selling author. His book Dreams From My Father has been out of print for years. I often see Obama smoking cigarettes on brisk Chicago mornings in front of his condominium high-rise along Lake Michigan, or getting his hair buzzed at the corner barbershop on 53rd and Harper in his Hyde Park neighborhood. This is before he becomes a U.S. senator, before Oprah starts stumping for him, before he positions himself to become the country's first black president. He is just a rank-and-file state senator in Illinois and I work for a string of small, scrappy newspapers there.
The other day, while stuck in traffic on Houston's Southwest Freeway, I was flipping through right-wing rants on AM radio. Dennis Praeger was railing against Michelle Obama for her clumsy comment on being proud of her country for the first time. Praeger went on to call her husband a blank slate. There's no record to look at, he complained, unless you lived in Barack Obama's old state Senate district.
Well, I lived and worked in that district for three years - nearly half Obama's tenure in the Illinois Legislature. D-13, the district was called, and it spanned a large swath of the city's poor, black, crime--ridden South Side. It was 2000 and I was a young, hungry reporter at the Hyde Park Herald and Lakefront Outlook community newspapers earning $19,000 a year covering politics and crime. I talked with Obama on a regular basis - a couple times a month, at least. I'd ask him about his campaign-finance reports, legislation he was sponsoring and various local issues. He wrote an occasional column published in our papers. It ran with a headshot that made him look about 14 years old.
My view of Obama then wasn't all that different from the image he projects now. He was smart, confident, charismatic and liberal. One thing I can say is, I never heard him launch into the preacher-man voice he now employs during speeches. He sounded vanilla, and activists in his mostly black district often chided him for it.
I was 25 and had no problem interviewing big-wig politicians. But I always had to steel my nerves when calling Obama. His intelligence was intimidating, and my hands inevitably shook with sweat.
Obama, who then earned about $50,000 a year as a rookie state senator, lived in a small condo just two blocks away. I had never met or even seen his wife Michelle, though I'd heard she was employed at University of Chicago Hospitals. Their second daughter Natasha had not yet been born.
When asked about his legislative record, Obama rattles off several bills he sponsored as an Illinois lawmaker. He expanded children's health insurance; made the state Earned Income Tax Credit refundable for low-income families; required public bodies to tape closed-door meetings to make government more transparent; and required police to videotape interrogations of homicide suspects. And the list goes on.
It's a lengthy record filled with core liberal issues. But what's interesting, and almost never discussed, is that he built his entire legislative record in Illinois in a single year. Republicans controlled the Illinois General Assembly for six years of Obama's seven-year tenure. Each session, Obama backed legislation that went nowhere; bill after bill died in committee. During those six years, Obama, too, would have had difficulty naming any legislative -achievements.
Then, in 2002, dissatisfaction with President Bush and Republicans on the national and local levels led to a Democratic sweep of nearly every lever of Illinois state government. For the first time in 26 years, Illinois Democrats controlled the governor's office as well as both legislative chambers....
Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation, angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills. "I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen," State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. "Barack didn't have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit. "I don't consider it bill jacking," Hendon told me. "But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the halfback who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book."
During his seventh and final year in the state Senate, Obama's stats soared. He sponsored a whopping 26 bills passed into law - including many he now cites in his presidential campaign when attacked as inexperienced. It was a stunning achievement that started him on the path of national politics - and he couldn't have done it without Jones.
Before Obama ran for U.S. Senate in 2004, he was virtually unknown even in his own state. Polls showed fewer than 20 percent of Illinois voters had ever heard of Barack Obama. Jones further helped raise Obama's profile by having him craft legislation addressing the day-to-day tragedies that dominated local news -headlines. For instance. Obama sponsored a bill banning the use of the diet supplement ephedra, which killed a Northwestern University football player, and another one preventing the use of pepper spray or pyrotechnics in nightclubs in the wake of the deaths of 21 people during a stampede at a Chicago nightclub. Both stories had received national attention and extensive local coverage.
I spoke to Jones earlier this week and he confirmed his conversation with Kelley, adding that he gave Obama the legislation because he believed in Obama's ability to negotiate with Democrats and Republicans on divisive issues.
So how has Obama repaid Jones? Last June, to prove his commitment to government transparency, Obama released a comprehensive list of his earmark requests for fiscal year 2008. It comprised more than $300 million in pet projects for Illinois, including tens of millions for Jones's Senate district. Shortly after Jones became Senate president, I remember asking his view on pork-barrel spending. I'll never forget what he said: "Some call it pork; I call it steak."
On the stump, Obama has frequently invoked his experiences as a community organizer on the Chicago South Side in the early 1990s, when he passed on six-figure salary offers at corporate law firms after graduating from Harvard Law School to direct a massive voter-registration drive. But, as a state senator, Obama evaded leadership on a host of critical community issues, from historic preservation to the rapid demolition of nearby public-housing projects, according to many South Siders.
Harold Lucas, a veteran South Side community organizer who remembers when Obama was "just a big-eared kid fresh out of school," says he didn't finally decide to support Obama's presidential bid until he was actually inside the voting booth on Super Tuesday. "I'm not happy about the quality of life in my community," says Lucas, who now heads a black-heritage tourism business in Chicago. "As a local elected official, he had a primary role in that."
In addition to Hyde Park, Obama also represented segments of several South Side neighborhoods home to the nation's richest African-American cultural history outside of Harlem. Before World War II, the adjacent Bronzeville community was known as the "Black Metropolis," attracting African-American migrants seeking racial equality and economic opportunity from states to the south such as Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Storied jazz clubs such as Gerri's Palm Tavern regularly hosted Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker and many others. In the postwar era, blues legends Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King all regularly gigged in cramped juke joints such as the Checkerboard Lounge.
When the City of Chicago seized the 70-year-old Gerri's Palm Tavern by eminent domain in 2001, sparking citywide protests, Obama was silent. And he offered no public comments when the 30-year owner of the Checkerboard Lounge was forced to relocate a couple years later. Even in Hyde Park, Obama declined to take a position on a years-long battle waged by hundreds of local community activists fighting against the city's plan to replace the historic limestone seawall along Lake Michigan - a popular spot to sunbathe and swim - with concrete steps. It would be comparable to representing Barton Creek in Austin, and sidestepping any discussion about conservation.
Obama's aloofness on key community issues for years frustrated Lucas and many other South Siders. Now they believe he was just afraid of making political enemies or being pigeonholed as a black candidate. Lucas says he has since become an ardent Obama supporter. "His campaign has built a momentum of somebody being born to the moment," Lucas says. "He truly gives the perception that he could possibly pull us all together around being American again. And the hope of that is worth the risk when you look at the other candidates. I mean, you can't get away from old school when you look at Hillary."
Lucas even believes Obama made the right choice by declining PBS talk-show host Tavis Smiley's invitation to speak at this week's State of the Black Union 2008 conference in New Orleans. "Obama can't bring those issues up if he wants to be elected," Lucas says. "And that's the travesty of the situation that we find ourselves in as African-Americans."
Though it didn't make national news, Obama inflamed many residents in his old state Senate district last March when he endorsed controversial Chicago alderman Dorothy Tillman in a runoff election. Flamboyant and unpredictable, Tillman is perhaps best known for once pulling a pistol from her purse and brandishing it around at a city council meeting. The ward she represented for 22 years, which included historic Bronzeville, comprised the city's largest concentration of vacant lots.
Just three months before Obama made his endorsement, the Lakefront Outlook community newspaper ran a three-part investigative series exposing flagrant crony-ism and possible tax-law violations that centered on Tillman and her biggest pet project, a taxpayer-funded cultural center built across the street from her ward office that had been hemorrhaging money since its inception. The series won a national George Polk Award, among the most coveted prizes in journalism. Not bad for a 12-page rag with a circulation of 12,000 and no Web site. I had already left the Outlook and had nothing to do with the project.
In the end, Tillman lost the election despite Obama's endorsement, which critics said countered his calls for clean government. Obama told the Chicago Tribune that he had backed Tillman because she was an early supporter of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. Many speculate Obama only bothered to weigh in on a paltry city council election during his presidential campaign as a gesture to Chicago's powerful Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Tillman supporter. Even so, Obama should have remained neutral, says Timuel Black, a historian and City Colleges of Chicago professor emeritus who lived in Obama's state Senate district. "That was not a wise decision," Black says. "It was poor judgment on his part. He was operating like a politician trying to win the next step up."
Obama has spent his entire political career trying to win the next step up. Every three years, he has aspired to a more powerful political position. He was just 35 when in 1996 he won his first bid for political office. Even many of his staunchest supporters, such as Black, still resent the strong-arm tactics Obama employed to win his seat in the Illinois Legislature. Obama hired fellow Harvard Law alum and election law expert Thomas Johnson to challenge the nominating petitions of four other candidates, including the popular incumbent, Alice Palmer, a liberal activist who had held the seat for several years, according to an April 2007 Chicago Tribune report. Obama found enough flaws in the petition sheets - to appear on the ballot, candidates needed 757 signatures from registered voters living within the district - to knock off all the other Democratic contenders. He won the seat unopposed.
"A close examination of Obama's first campaign clouds the image he has cultivated throughout his political career," wrote Tribune political reporters David Jackson and Ray Long. "The man now running for president on a message of giving a voice to the voiceless first entered public office not by leveling the playing field, but by clearing it." .....
"He's been given a pass," says Harold Lucas, the community organizer in Chicago. "His career has been such a meteoric rise that he has not had the time to set a record." A week after my profile of Obama was published, I called some of my contacts in the Illinois Legislature. I ran through a list of black Chicago lawmakers who had worked with Obama, and was surprised to learn that many resented him and had supported other candidates in the U.S. Senate election. "Anybody but Obama," the late state Representative Lovana Jones told me at the time.
State Representative Monique Davis, who attended the same church as Obama and co-sponsored several bills with him, also did not support his candidacy. She complained of feeling overshadowed by Obama. "I was snubbed," Davis told me. "I felt he was shutting me out of history."
In a follow-up report published a couple weeks later, I wrote about these disgruntled black legislators and the central role Senate President Emil Jones played in Obama's revived political life. The morning after the story was posted online, I arrived early at my new offices. I hadn't taken my coat off when the phone rang. It was Obama. The article began, "It can be painful to hear Ivy League-bred Barack Obama talk jive."
Obama told me he doesn't speak jive, that he doesn't say the words "homeboy" or "peeps." It seemed so silly; I thought for sure he was joking. He wasn't. He said the black legislators I cited in the story were off-base, and that they couldn't have gotten the bills passed without him. I started to speak, and he shouted me down.
Today I no longer have Obama's cell phone number. I submitted two formal requests to interview Obama for this story through his Web site, but have not heard back. I also e-mailed interview requests to three of his top staffers, but none responded.
Team Obama thinks ticket with Hil could work with her as the No. 2
They are probably right but I am inclined to think that the Hildabeest would die first
Team Obama agreed with Team Clinton Sunday that a "dream ticket" would be great - especially because they believe Hillary would make a terrific No. 2 as vice president.
Obama supporter Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader, said that Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) running as vice president with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) at the top of the ticket would "turn the page" in their increasingly bitter battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. Daschle said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Obama was looking for "the person who can serve in the capacity of President should he not be around. She's certainly in that category, but probably a lot of others as well." A tongue-in-cheek Obama camp was responding to jabs from Clinton's side that he wasn't qualified to be commander in chief and should settle for being her running mate.
Clinton said last week, "I've had people say, 'I wish I could vote for both of you.' Well, that might be possible someday." Former President Bill Clinton was nearly giddy at the prospect of his wife heading up a Clinton-Obama ticket. "He would win the urban areas and the upscale voters and she wins the traditional rural areas," Clinton said. "If you put those two things together, you would have an almost unstoppable force."
Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), another Obama supporter, said it was premature to discuss running mates with more primaries ahead. "Once that issue is settled, I think it's appropriate then to have a discussion about who the participants on the ticket should be," Jackson said on CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer," adding, "Obviously, I have a preference for Sen. Obama."
Obama as a luxury brand
Watching Obamamania unfold over the last few days, I have gradually come to the realization that we are living through the first Presidential campaign that is being marketed like a high-end consumer brand.
The logo itself is a good jumping off point. The typical Presidential campaign logo usually features some variant of the stars and stripes. Beyond patriotism, they have no message. They are pretty much interchangeable between Republicans and Democrats.
Obama's logo rearranges these patriotic elements into an emblem that distills his message to the core: the hope of the sun rising [or, Republicans, is it setting?] over amber waves of grain, with the novelty of the candidate's unusual last name reinforced in an "O". Unlike virtually every political logo in history, this one doesn't shy away from the glows and gradients meant to give modern corporate logos realism and depth. And like good corporate logos, this logomark can be disaggregated from the candidate's name, in the same way that the swoosh instantly screams "Nike" or the circular logos of BMW and Mercedes spark instant associations with affluence and prestige.
This is not only the theory. It's the gameplan. Lately, most of Obama's signage doesn't say Obama. The Obama campaign is not selling Obama. It is not selling a public figure with progressive political beliefs. It is selling Hope - and Change. This is why distant historical references aside, it is deliberately difficult to find the politics in the Will.i.am video:
Most campaigns never get beyond talking issues. The sophisticated ones run on attributes in the foreground (cares about people like me) tied to issues in the background (a health care plan). The Obama effort seems to be something wholly different. The campaign and its marketing seems designed to evoke aspirational feelings that have virtually no political meaning whatsoever. This is what great brands do. They evoke feelings that have virtually zero connection to product attributes and specifications. As Alan M. Webber recently wrote in Fast Company:
Some categories may lend themselves to branding better than others, but anything is brandable. Nike, for example, is leveraging the deep emotional connection that people have with sports and fitness. With Starbucks, we see how coffee has woven itself into the fabric of people's lives, and that's our opportunity for emotional leverage. Almost any product offers an opportunity to create a frame of mind that's unique. Almost any product can transcend the boundaries of its narrow category.
Intel is a case study in branding. I doubt that most people who own a computer know what Intel processors do, how they work, or why they are superior to their competition in any substantive way. All they know is that they want to own a computer with "Intel inside." As a result, Andy Grove and his team sit today with a great product and a powerful brand.
The common ground among companies that have built great brands is not just performance. They recognize that consumers live in an emotional world. Emotions drive most, if not all, of our decisions. Not many people sit around and discuss the benefits of encapsulated gas in the mid-sole of a basketball shoe or the advantages of the dynamic-fit system. They will talk about Michael Jordan's winning shot against Utah the other night - and they'll experience the dreams and the aspirations and the awe that go with that last-second, game-winning shot.
A brand reaches out with that kind of powerful connecting experience. It's an emotional connection point that transcends the product. And transcending the product is the brand.
The end result is that great brands are fungible. They can be all things to all people. The branding approach liberates Obama to be the candidate of the MoveOn wing and of national unity. That's not a criticism. It is a compliment. Now we'll see if it stands up in the land beyond the energized core, in the land of 50% plus one nationally, where evangelism alone is not enough.
Obama literalists may read back chapter and verse on his policy initiatives, but let's be real here. Those aren't the reasons for his success. Morover, they were never intended to be the underpinnings of the Obama candidacy. Millions of "HOPE" and "CHANGE" placards later, I think that's fairly clear.
Obama Pastors' Sermons May Violate Tax Laws
On Christmas morning, Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. compared presidential candidate Barack Obama's impoverished childhood to Jesus Christ's. "Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people," he then trumpeted. "Hillary [Clinton] can never know that." Mr. Wright wasn't at a convention or a campaign stop. He was standing at the pulpit before the mostly African-American congregation of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, where Sen. Obama has worshiped for more than 20 years.
Mr. Wright, who will be ending his 36-year tenure as the church's senior pastor in June, has previously been criticized for comments deriding President George Bush and lauding Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam. Now Mr. Wright's and his successor's repeated enthusiastic promotion of their famous parishioner may be running afoul of federal tax law, which says churches can endanger their tax-exempt status by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Sen. Obama's campaign issued a statement saying that he has repeatedly stressed that personal attacks "have no place in this campaign or our politics, whether they're offered from a platform at a rally or the pulpit of a church." The statement also said he "does not think of the pastor of his church in political terms. Like a member of his family, there are things he says with which Senator Obama deeply disagrees.'' Mr. Wright declined to comment.
Trinity's national parent, the United Church of Christ, recently disclosed that it's being investigated by the Internal Revenue Service for a speech Sen. Obama gave to 10,000 people at a church conference in June in Hartford, Conn., in which he mentioned his candidacy and parts of his platform, namely health-care reform.
Scholars and attorneys say that a growing number of congregations are delving into issue advocacy and partisan politics, a trend dating back to the 1980s, when the religious right enlisted churches to fight abortion. An increasing number of complaints to the IRS over church politicking have triggered agency probes into both liberal and conservative religious groups. A Baptist church in California has acknowledged it's under IRS scrutiny after a watchdog group complained that the church backed Republican Mike Huckabee in his recently ended bid for the White House.
"There have never been more audits than in the last three or four years" involving churches, says Marcus Owens, an attorney who represents some congregations and is a former director of the IRS's exempt-organizations division. But while the agency has issued dozens of warning letters aimed at halting advocacy for political candidates, it has only twice revoked a church's tax-exempt status since the tax law was amended in 1954, a spokeswoman said.
Under the law that governs tax-exempt organizations, churches are allowed to support causes or ballot initiatives such as laws to ban same-sex marriage. They also can hold a candidates' night for all office-seekers in a race. But according to guidance provided on the IRS's Web site, churches are "absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office."
The prohibition is aimed at preventing government subsidies -- in the form of tax breaks -- from going to organizations that support political parties. Other types of nonprofits are permitted to engage in partisan political activity but have more limited tax protections. For instance, their financial supporters aren't allowed to claim tax deductions for their donations.
With 6,000 members, Trinity is the largest United Church of Christ congregation. The church is centered in a poor Chicago neighborhood, near public housing and down the road from Cut Rate Food & Liquors, which posts a sign reading "No drug dealing." A review by The Wall Street Journal of 13 sermons at Trinity seen live or through church-recorded DVDs since late December found nine instances of ministers at Trinity appearing to promote Sen. Obama's candidacy.
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