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Barack Obama was determined to get to the White House, if someone could just show him the way.
It was his first day in Washington, the afternoon before he would swear an oath to become the junior U.S. senator from Illinois, which would make him the icon so many Democrats were craving. But already, he was in a quandary that even his celebrity could not fix.
As fast as his long legs could carry him, Obama walked from his basement office to the Capitol, trying to make up time eaten away by strangers asking for an autograph, a picture or, if he didn't mind, just a moment of his time. Along the way, he had gotten lost in a staircase and taken the wrong exit out of the building, but the bus ferrying new members of Congress to see President Bush would surely wait for the star of the freshman class, wouldn't it?
This was an early lesson that the clock, at least in Washington, would no longer revolve solely around Obama.
His aides, perhaps not so enamored by an invitation to the Republican White House, tried to gently convince him he would likely miss the appointment. They told reporters in Obama's cramped office not to bother trooping to the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue, where the president would be speaking in the East Room.
But even for someone supremely anointed before winning election, for someone who was on the cover of Newsweek before being sworn into office, for someone who had already achieved a fame that not even decades in Washington could guarantee, an audience with the president is a big deal. Especially if you're trying to create a reputation that emphasizes ideas and solutions over the name of your political party.
"I've got to figure out how to get to the White House," Obama said, speaking sternly into his cell phone. "Should I be driving on my own? I don't want Bush thinking I'm blowing him off."
So leaving his staff behind, he scanned the parking lot for the black SUV that had been driving him around that day, climbed in the back seat and told the driver to step on it. Then, he lit a cigarette, rolled down the tinted window of the Cadillac Escalade and watched the blur of monuments to history and power pass before him. He arrived just in time to catch the president's eye.
In Washington, at the dawn of the new 109th Congress, a smell of fresh ambition hung in the air. Republicans wielded the power. But a charismatic, young state senator named Obama had months earlier captured the imagination of the capital, and the nation, with a single moment in the spotlight--a stirring, hopeful speech at the Democratic National Convention.
The Tribune is chronicling his first year in the U.S. Senate. In the first three months of his time here, Obama finds himself trying to meet almost implausible expectations and balance competing interests of race, politics and celebrity to shape his image and become an effective senator. He will not have the luxury of learning in obscurity.
Obama came to Washington emboldened by confidence and fame. His autobiography, on the best-seller list for 30 weeks, had already made him wealthy and generated a signing bonus of nearly $2 million for three more books. At the start of a national political career, he could hardly be better positioned.
But in a capital that can carry its own special cruelties, could Obama be just as easily poised for a fall as rapid as his rise?
One doesn't build a political brand, he knows, simply by trading jokes with David Letterman or sitting in an easy chair across from Oprah Winfrey.
No, if his appeal is to outlast the politics of the moment, he concluded he must do one thing above all: learn how to become a diligent senator. That was the advice, boiled down and simplified, that he has gleaned from conversations with more than a dozen senators and an ever-expanding circle of advisers.
"Given all the hype surrounding my election, I hope people have gotten a sense that I am here to do work and not just chase cameras," said Obama, 43, reflecting on his transition to the Senate. "The collateral benefit is that people really like me. I'm not some prima donna."
In New York late last year, between stops on a tour to promote his book, "Dreams From My Father," Obama busily worked his cell phone. On a different day, there may have been time to trade small talk with actress Angelina Jolie as they crossed paths stepping out of an elevator, but Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid had called. And Obama wanted to make a pitch for a seat on the Commerce Committee, a brazen request for a newcomer.
Still, despite his goal to be an industrious senator, it is the celebrity glow that stokes his popularity.
The senator and his wife, Michelle, appeared in a two-page spread in January's Vanity Fair and on the cover of Savoy magazine a month later beneath the headline "Camelot Rising." On Saturday evening, he shared the stage with Prince as he accepted an NAACP Image Award in downtown Los Angeles at a gala with far more movie stars than politicians.
After Obama was on the cover of Newsweek as the rising star of 2005, sharing a prime spot on newsstands with Time magazine's Person of the Year, George W. Bush, his advisers feared they had done their boss a disservice by allowing him to sit for such a high-profile photo shoot. If Democratic senators wondered whether Obama would sail into town as a showboat, this hastened their suspicions.
"It's flattering and gratifying," argued one Obama confidant. "But is it debilitating?"
Michelle Obama couldn't control what others thought of her husband. But she could inject a dose of reality into this phenomenon, just as she did during his campaign. On the day he was sworn into office, as she watched people fawn over him, she rolled her eyes and smiled.
"Maybe one day," she said, "he will do something to warrant all this attention."
The opening of Obama's U.S. Senate career unfolded like the debut of a product, complete with a disciplined marketing strategy. Requests to appear on Sunday talk shows were declined. Two months passed without his holding a news conference in Washington.
His public schedule is carefully scrutinized: Yes, he will deliver a civil rights speech in Atlanta. No, he will not headline a motivational seminar in Dallas or give a commencement address in Tallahassee, Fla.
So many requests arrive in his office that Obama could give speeches and make appearances from morning until night, seven days a week. He has made a concerted effort to limit the attention showered upon him in public. But at the same time Obama invited New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a chief sounding board on world views, over to his Senate office for a private lunch last month.
"I don't think humility is contradictory with ambition," Obama said. "I feel very humble about what I don't know. But I'm plain ambitious in terms of wanting to actually deliver some benefit for the people of Illinois."
It is too early, of course, to know if the dreams that legions of admirers hold for Obama's future will come true. It is impossible to know if his name will be thought of in the same way as that of a Kennedy or a Clinton.
Crafting the political brand of a senator whose roots span from Kenya, where his father was born, to Kansas, the birthplace of his mother, presents a unique opportunity filled with open questions.
He must, for certain, be responsive to the black political leadership, but if he is aligned too closely, will he be thought of as simply the lone black U.S. senator? How much can he deviate from the liberal core principles that have framed his political life, starting with his time as a neighborhood activist to the last eight years in the Illinois Senate? How much attention can be devoted to nuclear proliferation or AIDS in Africa before he is accused of straying too far from local concerns?
"Over the next six years, there will be occasions where people will be surprised by my positions," Obama said in an interview on a winter afternoon as he rode through central Illinois. "I won't be as easy to categorize as many people expect."
That's not to say he anticipated or had much experience with criticism. When he supported Condoleezza Rice's nomination for secretary of state, his office telephones, still without voice mail, rang and rang.
For the first time, Obama's motives were questioned on Democratic Web sites and in letters to the editor: How could such a critic of the Iraq invasion who had taken time to call family members of fallen servicemen and women side with one of the administration's leading architects of the war?
If not Rice, Obama replied, who would Bush nominate? The president must be given some latitude to make his appointment.
For someone with as liberal a record and reputation as Obama, it's hardly detrimental to be occasionally at odds with by-the-book Democrats. But when he supported one of Bush's top priorities, reducing big lawsuit payoffs, criticism intensified.
On the Senate floor, several Democrats circled Obama as time ticked away for votes to be cast on legislation designed to limit class-action lawsuits. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the man who elevated Obama's profile by tapping him as the convention's marquee speaker, engaged the new senator in an animated conversation.
A few minutes later, when asked what the two senators had been talking about, Obama replied with a smile: "He was curious about my vote and trying to make a persuasive argument against it."
As Kerry left the chamber, he said: "I wasn't trying to change his mind. I promise you!"
Indeed, the voting record Obama assembled during his first 11 weeks in the Senate shows a glimmer of independence. When he decided to oppose the president's Clear Skies Act, which the struggling Illinois coal industry said would offer a lifeline, he was stung by accusations that he had chosen the party's interests over the economic needs of southern Illinois.
Like most every politician, he insists his skin is thick enough to endure "folks whacking on you." But he laments that the nuance is often lost in the vote-by-vote record.
"It's more fun being a governor or a president," Obama said during a broadcast of the liberal Air America Radio. He had called the network after some Democrats questioned a couple of his votes. "When you're in the Senate, one of the difficulties is that you're constantly confronted with these votes that may not reflect your views."
Reflective or not, each vote cast in Washington, he knows, becomes part of his political brand.
Despite his intense efforts to gain a seat on the Commerce Committee--he reminded Senate Democratic leaders that he raised more money for their races last year than any newcomer and most veterans--there was no room for Obama.
Instead, he was posted to the Environment and Public Works, Veterans Affairs, and Foreign Relations Committees. When tourists walk into one of the Capitol Hill hearing rooms to catch a glimpse of their government at work, they often whisper and point to Obama. But seniority trumps celebrity, and he cannot ask a question until all other 17 members on each committee are finished.
As one session seemed to drag on, Obama, seated at the end of a long, horseshoe-shaped table, looked up and found that all but one other senator had left the room.
"Now let the record show that Sen. Obama has been here from the beginning of the hearing," said Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which he had asked Obama to join. "I appreciate your patience."
Obama has worked to navigate the complicated channel of etiquette in the Senate, a place that can be hidebound by its fusty conventions, protocol and feigned gentility. He has already had face-to-face meetings with 14 senators to seek their thoughts or offer his help. His political touch is nimble, his smile works overtime.
He was among the first to call Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) after she fainted while delivering a speech in late January. He reacted with humor when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) butchered his name during a speech at the National Press Club, saying: "Osama bin . . . uh, Osama" before finally settling on "Obama."
And on a recent afternoon, Obama paid a visit to Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat first elected to the Senate in 1958 and the chamber's resident keeper of the institutional flame. Sitting in Byrd's library, Obama listened as his elder talked about protocol, history and regret.
There was Byrd, a former Ku Klux Klan member, sitting with Obama, only the third African-American elected to the Senate. The meeting was private. But as Obama walked back to his office later that day, he said Byrd had talked about a mistake he made in his younger years "that is now the cross around my neck."
"I said if we were supposed to be perfect, we'd all be in trouble," Obama recalled, "so we rely on God's mercy and grace to get us through."
That he is even serving in the Senate with Byrd is no small feat of history.
To study the exclusive club to which he now belongs, Obama read Robert Caro's "Master of the Senate." He said he was captivated by the passages about Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia, a segregationist who in nearly four decades in the Senate was a chief opponent of civil rights legislation.
"All of us are a mixture of noble and ignoble impulses, and I guess that's part of what I mean when I say I don't go into meetings with people presuming bad faith," Obama said. "Had I been around at all in the early '60s and had the opportunity to meet with Richard Russell, it would have been fascinating to talk to somebody like that. Even if you understood that this enormous talent would prevent me from ever being sworn into the Senate."
The chopped salad had just been served when Obama excused himself from the senators-only lunch in the Capitol. Every Tuesday afternoon, Democrats gather behind the closed doors of the Lyndon B. Johnson Room on the second floor to discuss policy and politics.
Obama held a small, silver cell phone in one hand and a yellow notepad in the other. He paced around for a moment, passing a grand marble column and the gold-plated doors of the Senate anteroom before finding a spot to return his telephone call.
Not three minutes later, as Obama began to walk back into the lunch, the phone rang again.
"Hello. This is Barack," he said, growing impatient. "You need something, man?"
Gone are the days, aides try to convince him, that he should be so tethered to his cell phone. It's the same number he has carried for years, including during his primary campaign last year, back when he was his own receptionist and delighted that people were calling.
"I've gotten some calls from people who you didn't think had your cell phone number," Obama said during a conversation that was interrupted by a ringing cell phone. "Usually, those are the people who want something."
In his new life, that category is too long to list.
At a retreat with his top advisers, Obama bemoaned the lack of time to think and to write, read and study the intellectual issues of the Senate amid all the celebrity clatter.
"I'm a self-confessed policy wonk," said Obama, a former Harvard Law Review president whose name now is mentioned in rap lyrics and on shows such as "Will & Grace," where the character Grace dreamed she was in the shower with Obama, who was "Baracking my world!"
It's not always clear whether Obama enjoys the prominence that now consumes his life.
He is the latest entry in Washington Life Magazine's "A-list," but he returns to Chicago each weekend to see his wife and two young daughters. He is generous with his time, but when he is asked to sign one book too many or pose for one more photo, his exasperation occasionally shows and his smile tightens and his eyes wander.
"Next time, don't grab me when you want a picture," Obama snapped to Eddie Boquilla, a graduate student who approached him after a committee hearing. "You just ask me."
Managing his potential--not to mention personal space--when so many people are clamoring for a piece of him is among his greatest challenges. Expectations are so oversized that many admirers worry if they truly are within reach.
On the street or in an airport, people often rush over and explain they were drawn to Obama because he didn't sound like a voice from Washington. His brand of politics seemed fresh, they say, particularly the passage from his keynote speech at the convention, where he declared: "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America. There is the United States of America."
But in a Senate ingrained with a deep partisan divide, Obama has come to see a different reality. Democrats and Republicans share the blame, he said, which became clear during a recent debate over a bankruptcy law change, when Republicans gave thumbs down to nearly every amendment.
"You get a sense that some of my colleagues just feel trapped by the rigidity and the lockstep nature of party politics in Washington," he said in an interview, sitting on the sofa in his office. "A couple senators have joked about how their wrists are getting stiff because they were having to vote `no' on everything."
As he travels across Illinois to hold town meetings almost every week, Obama takes time to explain such votes. One morning in Rock Falls, Ill., repeating a scene from other cities, he downplayed his perceived power, saying: "I'm so junior that when I arrived in Washington, they handed me a toothbrush and said, `Go clean the latrines!'"
But Obama the celebrity, as opposed to Obama the mere senator, has his own constituency.
On a recent night in Atlanta, he found himself sitting between Ethel Kennedy and Coretta Scott King. Harry Belafonte was across the table.
Obama had gone to Georgia to deliver a tribute to John Lewis, the congressman who led a pivotal civil rights march 40 years ago on a day that infamously became known as "Bloody Sunday." It was the first out-of-state trip Obama had taken as a senator, a fitting time to honor those who helped pave the way for his success a generation ago.
But it was also his chance to take a first step into Southern politics, often a launching pad for national ambitions.
And learning how to become a good senator also entails raising millions of dollars. So over scrambled eggs, bacon and fried potatoes, nearly two dozen donors listened to Obama and wrote checks for $5,000 to his new political action committee and $2,000 to his campaign fund.
Like many fundraisers, this breakfast was absent from his public schedule, perhaps for fear it might reveal aspirations beyond being a junior senator from Illinois. As he walked through a downtown hotel lobby, Obama flashed that bright smile, waved to a waiting reporter and declared simply: "We are setting up some long-term relationships."
With that, he walked beneath the portico and climbed into a waiting black Lincoln Town Car to begin his trip back to Chicago. For now, it was time to tend to the business of Obama the senator.
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Key Obama votes
In his first three months on Capitol Hill, Sen. Barack Obama has voted with the majority twice on five significant issues.
Issue: Confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state
Jan. 26 (Senate approved, 85-13)
Issue: Confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general
Feb. 3 (Senate approved, 60-36)
Issue: Lawsuit reform
Feb. 10 (Senate passed, 72-26)
Measure reducing big-dollar court judgments by changing the rules for class-action suits
Issue: Bankruptcy reform
March 10 (Senate passed, 74-25)
Legislation making it more difficult for consumers to avoid repaying debts
Issue: Oil drilling
March 16 (Senate passed, 51-49)
Proposal to allow oil drilling in an Alaskan wildlife refuge
Source: U.S. Senate bill clerk
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