Published January 14, 2015
For a man whose first name means blessed, Barack Obama (search) has truly had a blessed year. The newly elected Democratic senator has risen so far so fast — spiraling to superstar status — that even before he steps foot in Washington, he's being talked about as presidential material.
"By every stretch of the imagination, he would be qualified — he's got the charisma, the background and the reach," says Ron Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland.
Obama's landslide win Tuesday over Republican Alan Keyes (search) caps a fairy-tale campaign that began with a little-known state lawmaker driving around Illinois, trying to raise money and his profile. It ended with him a hot political commodity, flush with cash, jetting across the country on behalf of other candidates.
"Many people in elected office are asking me the question, 'What is Obama doing that I'm not?' " Cummings adds.
Obama, the son of a black father from Kenya and a white mother from Kansas, has blended political savvy and personal charm to take him from the streets of Harlem and Chicago to the floor of the U.S. Senate.
The third black senator since Reconstruction, he exploded onto the national scene July 27, with a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention that brought down the house.
"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there's the UNITED States of America," Obama told cheering delegates.
In the months that followed, the Obama craze took off: He was dubbed the Tiger Woods of American politics, the future of the Democratic Party. He was besieged by autograph seekers, photographed for The New Yorker by Richard Avedon, feted by Robin Williams and Stevie Wonder. His autobiography — "Dreams from My Father," written in 1995 — rocketed onto the best-seller lists.
His fame even spread to Kenya, where relatives found themselves doing interviews and patrons ordering a local beer called Senator began asking for an "Obama."
Obama, a self-described skinny guy with a funny name, insists all the attention hasn't gone to his head.
"I don't take the hype too seriously," he says. "I worked in almost complete obscurity for the last 20 years as a community organizer and as a civil rights attorney and as a state legislator and you don't stay with the work if you're worried about press clippings or fame."
Obama, 43, was born in Hawaii, where his parents met in college. He barely knew his father, also named Barack, who left to attend Harvard when his son was 2. Obama's parents divorced and his father returned to Africa, where he died in a car accident.
When his mother remarried, they moved to her new husband's home in Indonesia, where Obama was exposed to an impoverished, exotic world of street beggars and snake meat. At about age 10, he returned to Hawaii, where his grandparents helped raise him.
In his memoir, Obama describes rootless days as a teen experimenting with drugs. But with help from others, he eventually took a path that led to Columbia University and work as a community organizer in Harlem and Chicago (one task was registering new voters).
He became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, a lawyer and politician. His wife, Michelle, is also a Harvard Law graduate, and they have two young daughters.
Obama's only political setback came four years ago when he was trounced in a primary bid for Congress.
A confident man with an easygoing manner, he says his diverse background probably contributes to his appeal, which crosses racial and geographic lines.
"I feel a deep sense of empathy and connection with a lot of different kinds of people," he says. "It's very hard for me to divide the world into us and them because I feel like that I've got a little piece of everybody in me."
Obama's campaign was so successful — he raised more than $14 million — that he peeled off a $150,000 contribution to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and donated $245,000 to Democrats in states where the fight was closer.
He also helped raise more money stumping for candidates in Wisconsin, Colorado, South Carolina and elsewhere, piling up chits that could pay off in influence among colleagues in the Senate cloakroom.
"I don't know when a freshman has come into the Senate with this kind of momentum," says David Wilhelm, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Obama realizes, too, his efforts could reap dividends.
"People have long memories in politics and if they feel like you care about them," he says, "then they're more likely to care about your issues."
While Obama has been skillful, he also has been fortunate in his bid to replace GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, who didn't seek re-election.
One of Obama's primary opponent's campaign collapsed after public disclosure of his messy divorce. Then, Republican nominee Jack Ryan dropped out after embarrassing revelations in unsealed divorce papers.
Republicans recruited Keyes from Maryland as a replacement but the former diplomat and talk-show host's conservative — and sometimes quirky — views turned off many voters.
But luck is only a tiny ingredient in Obama's success, says Abner Mikva, a former federal appeals judge.
"I have never seen anybody with that much political talent," says Mikva, who became friends with Obama at the University of Chicago Law School, where the senator-elect lectures on constitutional law. "He's a person of strong views, not some namby-pamby. ... He doesn't beat up on people on the other side."
As a state lawmaker, Obama worked to overhaul Illinois' death penalty laws, require that police videotape interrogations in murder cases, create a tax credit for poor families and expand health care for children.
He made friends — and poker buddies — on both sides of the aisle and is seen as pragmatic.
"While he will fight for whatever he believes in, he's realistic in lawmaking to know what can and cannot pass," says Kirk Dillard, a Republican state senator who worked with Obama on many issues.
Obama is prepared for the growing spotlight, but shies away from speculation about higher office.
"I know how hard it is to build coalitions to get things done," he says. "Ultimately, I want to be seen as a workhorse and not a show horse. And I think if I'm doing good work ... then the future takes care of itself."