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The Radical Roots of Barack Obama

No candidate since Robert F. Kennedy has sparked as much campaign-trail heat as Barack Obama. But can the one-term senator craft a platform to match his charisma?

Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. speaks at the Democratic National Committee Winter meetings in Washington, Friday, Feb. 2, 2007.   (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. speaks at the Democratic National Committee Winter meetings in Washington, Friday, Feb. 2, 2007.   (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Democratic Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. speaks at the Democratic National Committee Winter meetings in Washington, Friday, Feb. 2, 2007.

Evan Vucci/AP

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected to the United States Senate in 2004, he began residing, Monday through Thursday, in a one-bedroom apartment a few blocks from the Capitol. For a 43-year-old man who had been married for thirteen years and who had two young daughters, it was an isolating experience. The building has a yoga studio and a running track and a decidedly own-and-urban view of some ratty rooftops in the city’s tiny Chinatown district; its decor, glass and brick, is less U.S. senator than junior management consultant. In his return to bachelor life, Obama found himself “soft and helpless. My first morning in Washington, I realized I’d forgotten to buy a shower curtain and had to scrunch up against the shower wall in order to avoid flooding the bathroom floor.” The other new Democrat elected to the Senate that year, Ken Salazar of Colorado, took an apartment in the same building with his brother John, who is himself a congressman; they spent their time watching documentaries about leathery old cowboys on the Western Channel. Obama spent most of his time reading briefing books.

When Obama first got to Washington, he wanted to be a wonk, to keep his head down and concentrate on small issues. “The plan was: Put Illinois first,” one of his aides tells me. Obama himself admits that his initial agenda had a “self-conscious” modesty. His early legislative accomplishments have been useful and bipartisan — he has even sponsored bills with ultraconservative Sen. Tom Coburn, who believes that high school bathrooms breed lesbianism — but they have been small-scale and off the headlines: a plan to make it easier for citizens to find out about government spending, increased research into ethanol, more job training and tax credits for “responsible fathers.” This is the kind of head-down diligence that plays well in the Senate. “I am amazed by his sheer stamina,” says Sen. Dick Lugar, a Republican from Indiana who has become something of a mentor to Obama.

But Washington has plenty of wonks, and Obama wasn’t going to distinguish himself through diligence alone. He came to the Capitol equipped with his own, swelling celebrity; the Senate was not a perfect fit. Beyond his considerable charm, Obama can be righteous and cocky. He came to Washington pushing the hope that politics could be better — but now he can give the impression that he’d rather be just about anywhere other than in Washington. “It can be incredibly frustrating,” he tells me. “The maneuverings, the chicanery, the smallness of politics here.” Listening to a bloviating colleague at his first meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama slipped a three-word note to a member of his staff: “Shoot. Me. Now.” On a recent day, as Obama made his way through the Capitol’s corridors, his fellow senators seemed like good-natured sportscasters, jolly and easy with their power, bantering about the fortunes of baseball teams in their home states. . Obama is aloof and quiet. He prefers to listen, attentive as a rector, not quite of this world, silently measuring it. “The typical politician pushes himself on people to get them to pay attention,” says Frank Luntz, the Republican campaign strategist. “Obama is quieter. He doesn’t push — he has a laid-back feel that pulls you in. That is so rare.”

Obama’s ascent from rookie senator to presidential contender is one of the more startling and sudden acts in recent political history. Those around him aren’t quite sure what has happened, and neither, for that matter, is the senator himself. Obama says he experienced the change as a call from the crowds that always stalk him, a summoning to a new role. First there was Hurricane Katrina, when the talk shows called him, assuming he had something to say. Then there were the throngs that lined the roads on his trip to Africa last summer, and the same excitement from domestic audiences on his book tour last fall. “I realized I didn’t feel comfortable standing on the sidelines when so much was at stake,” he tells me. “It was hard to maintain the notion that I was a backbencher.” The early, wonkish humility was gone, replaced by a man who began to speak of himself in sprawling, historic terms. “Just being the president is not a good way of thinking about it,” Obama says now. “You want to be a great president.”

It is early January, a few weeks before Obama is set to announce his campaign for the presidency. He is sitting in his Senate office, dangling one leg over the other knee and speaking very, very slowly. It’s not just that Obama searches for the right word; it’s that the search seems to take him to distant worlds. When I first interviewed him last summer, his office was quiet and offbeat, a warren of tiny corridors and desks, the atmosphere of a faculty lounge. Now the place is intense, the faces drawn, the harried feel of a war room.

Most politicians come to national prominence at the head of a movement: Bill Clinton had neoliberalism, George W. Bush had compassionate conservatism, Reagan had supply-side economics. Even Obama’s rivals have political calling cards: John Edwards has devoted himself to a poverty-fighting populism, Hillary Clinton is defined by a hawkish centrism. These identities give them infrastructures, ideologies, natural bases of support. Obama is trying to pull a less-conventional trick: to turn his own person into a movement. “I’m not surprised you’re having trouble categorizing him,” one of his aides says. “I don’t think he’s wedded to any ideological frame.” With Obama, there is only the man himself — his youth, his ease, his race, his claim on the new century. His candidacy is essentially a plea for voters to put their trust in his innate capacity for clarity and judgment. There is no Obama-ism, only Obama.

“People don’t come to Obama for what he’s done in the Senate,” says Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “They come because of what they hope he could be.” What Obama stands for, if anything, is not yet clear. Everywhere he goes he is greeted by thrilled crowds, trailed constantly by a reporter from The Chicago Tribune who is writing a book about the senator with a preliminary title so immodest that it embarrassed even Obama’s staff: The Savior. The danger here is that the public has committed the cardinal sin of political love, forcing Obama onto the national stage before knowing him well enough to gauge whether he’s ready for it. The candidate they see before them is their own creation — or, rather, it is the scrambling of a skinny, serious, self-reflective man trying to mold his public’s conflicted yearnings into something greater. “Barack has become a kind of human Rorschach test,” says Cassandra Butts, a friend of the senator’s from law school and now a leader at the Center for American Progress. “People see in him what they want to see.”

The Trinity United Church of Christ, the church that Barack Obama attends in Chicago, is at once vast and unprepossessing, a big structure a couple of blocks from the projects, in the long open sore of a ghetto on the city’s far South Side. The church is a leftover vision from the Sixties of what a black nationalist future might look like. There’s the testifying fervor of the black church, the Afrocentric Bible readings, even the odd dashiki. And there is the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a sprawling, profane bear of a preacher, a kind of black ministerial institution, with his own radio shows and guest preaching gigs across the country. Wright takes the pulpit here one Sunday and solemnly, sonorously declares that he will recite ten essential facts about the United States. “Fact number one: We’ve got more black men in prison than there are in college,” he intones. “Fact number two: Racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run!” There is thumping applause; Wright has a cadence and power that make Obama sound like John Kerry. Now the reverend begins to preach. “We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns and the training of professional KILLERS. . . . We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God. . . . We conducted radiation experiments on our own people. . . . We care nothing about human life if the ends justify the means!” The crowd whoops and amens as Wright builds to his climax: “And. And. And! GAWD! Has GOT! To be SICK! OF THIS SHIT!”

This is as openly radical a background as any significant American political figure has ever emerged from, as much Malcolm X as Martin Luther King Jr. Wright is not an incidental figure in Obama’s life, or his politics. The senator “affirmed” his Christian faith in this church; he uses Wright as a “sounding board” to “make sure I’m not losing myself in the hype and hoopla.” Both the title of Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope, and the theme for his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 come from Wright’s sermons. “If you want to understand where Barack gets his feeling and rhetoric from,” says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a leader of the religious left, “just look at Jeremiah Wright.”

Obama wasn’t born into Wright’s world. His parents were atheists, an African bureaucrat and a white grad student, Jerry Falwell’s nightmare vision of secular liberals come to life. Obama could have picked any church — the spare, spiritual places in Hyde Park, the awesome pomp and procession of the cathedrals downtown. He could have picked a mosque, for that matter, or even a synagogue. Obama chose Trinity United. He picked Jeremiah Wright. Obama writes in his autobiography that on the day he chose this church, he felt the spirit of black memory and history moving through Wright, and “felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.”

Obama has now spent two years in the Senate and written two books about himself, both remarkably frank: There is a desire to own his story, to be both his own Boswell and his own investigative reporter. When you read his autobiography, the surprising thing — for such a measured politician — is the depth of radical feeling that seeps through, the amount of Jeremiah Wright that’s packed in there. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. Obama’s life story is a splicing of two different roles, and two different ways of thinking about America’s. One is that of the consummate insider, someone who has been raised believing that he will help to lead America, who believes in this country’s capacity for acts of outstanding virtue. The other is that of a black man who feels very deeply that this country’s exercise of its great inherited wealth and power has been grossly unjust. This tension runs through his life; Obama is at once an insider and an outsider, a bomb thrower and the class president. “I’m somebody who believes in this country and its institutions,” he tells me. “But I often think they’re broken.”

Obama was born in Honolulu in 1961, back when the Hawaiian islands were still a wary and weird part of America, half military base, half pan-Pacific outpost. His own background was even more singular and chancy: Obama’s father was a Muslim from Kenya, the son of a farmer, who grew up tending his father’s goats and who, through an almost impossible succession of luck, won a scholarship to the University of Hawaii. At the time, Barack’s mother, Ann Dunham, was eighteen, a student at the university, the daughter of a blue-collar couple from Kansas. When Barack was two, his father left the family and returned to Kenya. Barack’s mother remarried, moving with her son to her new husband’s home in Indonesia.

To Barack, the country seemed exotic (he briefly owned a pet monkey named Tata) but also “unpredictable and often cruel.” He recalls watching floods swamp the countryside and seeing the “desperation” of poor farm families who “scrambled to rescue their goats and their hens even as chunks of their huts washed away.” (In January, the conservative online magazine Insight alleged that Obama had attended a hyper-religious Islamic madrassah as a child in Indonesia — a charge that the senator has denied.)

Obama spent four years in Jakarta before moving back to Honolulu, where he lived with his grandparents and won a scholarship to the private Punahou Academy, the place in Hawaii where all the Ivy League-bound kids go. (In his autobiography, he notes that when he hung out with a black friend, they together comprised “almost half” of the African-American population of Punahou.) He cops to “experimentation” as a teen, saying he smoked weed and even did “a little blow.” He played basketball — “with a consuming passion that would always exceed my limited talent.” Even today, his friends say, Obama talks a mean game. “He’s a bit of a trash-talker,” says Butts. “You see that competitive side of him come out when he’s playing Scrabble or basketball.”

After graduating from Columbia University, Obama spent four years as a street-level organizer in Chicago, where he met and worked with Wright, before attending Harvard Law School, where he was made the first black president of the law review. Winning the position required political savvy: “He was able to work with conservatives as well as liberals,” recalls his friend Michael Froman, now an executive at Citigroup. Laurence Tribe, the renowned constitutional scholar, considers Obama one of his two best students ever: “He had a very powerful ability to synthesize diverse sources of information.” When Obama returned to Chicago, he turned down big-money firms to take a job with a small civil rights practice, filing housing discrimination suits on behalf of low-income residents and teaching constitutional law on the side. He had thought he might enter politics since before he left for law school, and eventually he did, winning a seat in the state Senate at the age of thirty-seven.

“He was a little off-putting at first — that whole Harvard thing,” says Rich Miller, a veteran observer of Illinois politics. “But the bottom line is pretty much everybody I know had a high opinion of him, Republican or Democrat. In this state it’s hard for anyone to get along, and even though he was very liberal, he was able to pass a hell of a lot of bills.”

Many of the stands Obama took were pretty radical for a candidate who would end up aiming for national office. He led an ambitious but failed effort to provide health care for every citizen of Illinois, fought against predatory lending practices and wrote a bill making Illinois the first state to require police to tape their interrogations of murder suspects. But in 2003, when Obama began to run for the U.S. Senate, his legislative track record wasn’t enough to get him elected. He was one of seven Democrats in the field, third or fourth on name recognition and even farther behind in funds. He barely stood a chance.

Then, running preliminary polls, his advisers noticed something remarkable: Women responded more intensely and warmly to Obama than did men. In a seven-candidate field, you don’t need to win every vote. His advisers, assuming they would pick up a healthy chunk of black votes, honed in on a different target: Every focus group they ran was composed exclusively of women, nearly all of them white.

There is an amazingly candid moment in Obama’s autobiography when he writes of his childhood discomfort at the way his mother would sexualize African-American men. “More than once,” he recalls, “my mother would point out: ‘Harry Belafonte is the best-looking man on the planet.’ ” What the focus groups his advisers conducted revealed was that Obama’s political career now depends, in some measure, upon a tamer version of this same feeling, on the complicated dynamics of how white women respond to a charismatic black man. “I remember when we realized something magical was happening,” says Obama’s pollster on the campaign, an earnest Iowan named Paul Harstad. “We were doing a focus group in suburban Chicago, and this woman, seventy years old, looks seventy-five, hears Obama’s life story, and she clasps her hand to her chest and says, ‘Be still, my heart.’ Be still, my heart — I’ve been doing this for a quarter century and I’ve never seen that.” The most remarkable thing, for Harstad, was that the woman hadn’t even seen the videos he had brought along of Obama speaking, had no idea what the young politician looked like. “All we’d done,” he says, “is tell them the Story.”

From that moment on, the Story became Obama’s calling card, his political rationale and his basic sale. Every American politician has this wrangle he has to pull off, reshaping his life story to fit into Abe Lincoln’s log cabin. Some pols (John Edwards, Bill Clinton) have an easier time of it than others (George Bush, Al Gore). Obama’s material is simply the best of all. What he has to offer, at the most fundamental level, is not ideology or even inspiration — it is the Story, the feeling that he embodies, in his own, uniquely American history, a longed-for break from the past. “With Obama, it’s all about his difference,” says Joe Trippi, the Democratic consultant who masterminded Howard Dean’s candidacy. “We see in him this hope that the country might be different, too.”

It has become fashionable, given Obama’s charisma and compassion, to compare him to Robert F. Kennedy, whose 1968 campaign for the presidency achieved near-rock-star status. But Obama is not Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy grew up studying how to use America’s power, and in his forties he began to venture out and notice its imperfections. Barack Obama came up in a study of those flaws, and now, thrust into a position of power in his forties, is trying to figure out what to do with it.

It is in his ambitious, halting attempts to put together a coherent foreign policy that you can most clearly see Obama trying to figure out the algorithm of American power. When he took his seat in the Senate, aides say, he was coming to foreign-policy questions “relatively cold.” The imbalance between his near-zero experience and the expectations that accompanied his arrival was absurd: Obama says he “laughed out loud” when he was asked, at his very first press conference in Washington, “Senator, what’s your place in history?”

But Obama had something that most first-time senators lack: the clout of celebrity. You could almost see the wheels turning in the minds of Washington’s best and brightest: Go to work for Obama, they were thinking, and you might end up running the world. “You spend your life preparing for Bobby Kennedy to walk in the door,” says one D.C. pollster, “and then one day he walks in your door.”

One of the biggest names to work with Obama is Samantha Power, the scholar and journalist who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. “In 2004, I came out of election night just completely depressed,” Power says. “We thought Kerry would win and we’d all get a chance to change the world. But then it was like, ‘Nah, same old thing.’ ” Obama gave her a place to channel her energy. She advised him on the genocide in Darfur, an issue that most politicians at the time were studiously avoiding. “He’s a sponge,” Power says. “He pushes so hard on policy ideas that fifteen minutes after you’ve started talking, he’s sent you back to the drawing board. He doesn’t get weighted down by the limits of American power, but he sees you have to grasp those limits in order to transcend them.”

Power is part of a generation of thinkers who, like Obama, came of age after the Cold War. They worry about the problems created by globalization and believe that the most important issues America will confront in the future (terrorism, avian flu, global warming, bioweapons, the disease and nihilism that grow from concentrated poverty) will emanate from neglected and failed states (Afghanistan, the Congo, Sierra Leone). According to Susan Rice, a Brookings Institution scholar who serves as an informal adviser to Obama, their ideas come from the “profound conviction that we are interconnected, that poverty and conflict and health problems and autocracy and environmental degradation in faraway places have the potential to come back and bite us in the behind, and that we ignore such places and such people at our peril.”

Over the past two years, Obama has come to adopt this worldview as his own. He came back fascinated from a quick trip to a U.S. project in Ethiopia, where American soldiers had parachuted in to help the victims of a flood: “By investing now,” he said, “we avoid an Iraq or Afghanistan later.” The foreign-policy initiatives he has fought for and passed have followed this model: He has secured money to fight avian flu, improve security in the Congo and safeguard Russian nuclear weapons. “My comment is not meant to be unkind to mainstream Democrats,” says Lugar, “but it seems to me that Barack is studying issues that are very important for the country and for the world.”

When I meet with Obama in his office, it becomes clear that his study of foreign policy has only deepened his belief in the potential of American power. “In Africa, you often see that the difference between a village where everybody eats and a village where people starve is government,” he tells me. “One has a functioning government, and the other does not. Which is why it bothers me when I hear Grover Norquist or someone say that government is the enemy. They don’t understand the fundamental role that government plays.”

There are limitations to this view of the world, of course, and there are those who believe that for all his study, Obama has been too cautious on the big issues. When he was running for the Senate, Obama was an early and vocal opponent of the war in Iraq. “I think our foreign policy has been all bluster and saber-rattling and continued mistakes over the last several years,” he says. But since he arrived in the Senate, many of those who hoped Obama would become a great liberal champion have been disappointed. He has voted with conservatives on tort reform and industry-friendly provisions in the bankruptcy bill, and the troop-pullout bill he introduced in January was a late and unremarkable entry in the debate over Iraq. “Those of us in the Chicago progressive community still believe in Barack Obama,” says Joel Bleifuss, editor of the left-wing magazine In These Times. “But at the moment we’re pretty much taking it on faith.”

“Obama has set himself a very high bar,” says Michael Franc, a conservative scholar at the Heritage Foundation. “People like him for being a fresh face, an out-of-the-box thinker. But on the matrix of issues that will decide this election — Iraq, Iran, the war on terrorism — I haven’t seen anything from him that strays very far from conventional liberal thinking. To the extent that he sounds like just another Democrat, he’s needlessly ceding an advantage he might otherwise create for himself.”

Obama seems to recognize that he is caught between the public’s eagerness for a fresh approach and its desire for a John Wayne figure who will stand tall against the terrorists. “What we’ve seen from the Bush administration is a lot of tough talk and poor decisions,” he says, as if acknowledging a painful political truth. “But people do want tough.”

Over the past six months, as Obama has drawn closer to declaring his candidacy, there have been the beginnings of the first real backlash against him. In early November, the Chicago papers ran a series of stories detailing his relationship with a crooked developer, Tony Rezko. In a complicated but legal deal with Rezko, who bought a vacant lot next door to Obama’s in Chicago, the senator was able to secure his own house at $300,000 below the asking price. The Chicago Sun-Times gleefully headlined its account from media darling to media-hounded. The report uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing, but its emergence serves as a reminder that Obama cannot remain above the fray forever. The more successful he is at positioning himself as a political outsider, the more he will inevitably be subjected to the same forces that hobble political insiders. This is the unavoidable truth about falling in love with politicians: The time comes when you have to give them up.

With obama, there are crowds — always the crowds. In December, in what marked the true beginning of his presidential campaign, he traveled to Manchester, New Hampshire, to test the political waters. The crowd begins with the retirees: Three hours before Obama is due to arrive, hobbling eighty-year-olds show up and badger the staff like teeny-boppers, trying to figure out which entrance the senator will use so they can catch a glimpse of him up close. The creaky old political operatives on hand debate whether this crowd was larger than the one they had seen when John F. Kennedy came to town. One woman compares Obama to Jesus.

In other politicians, charisma often seems like compensation for some deeper, irreducible need: Bill Clinton comes so close, and listens so closely, because he wants to be hugged; George Bush slaps backs and gives his best friends nicknames because he, the draft-dodging son of a fighter pilot, needs to be the manliest creature in the room. With Obama, the charisma seems to stem from a remarkable ease with himself. When Frank Luntz, the conservative political consultant, walked into the young senator’s office for the first time, Obama sat on the couch and gestured for Luntz to take the big, formal chair behind the desk. “I’ve been in many, many senators’ offices, and never once have I been offered the senator’s chair,” Luntz says. “I asked him what he was doing, and he said, ‘If I knew you any better, I’d be lying down.’ What he was saying was that he was so comfortable with who he was, there was no need for any pretense or power trips.”

Now, as Obama takes the stage, his charisma is almost palpable. He speaks about a young soldier he met, returned from Iraq: “An explosion had shattered his face. He had been blinded in both eyes. . . . His arm was no longer functioning. He had two young daughters, just like I do.” Meeting the soldier, Obama recalls, “I looked not at him but at his wife, who loved him so much. You thought about their lives going forward.” The lesson the senator took from the meeting, he says, was this: “Politics is not a sport. The debates we have in Washington are not about tactical advantages. They are about who we are as people, what we believe in and what we are willing to do to make sure we have a country that our children deserve.” Afterward, he signs autographs in the crowd for what seems like hours: He can’t, he won’t, get away.

This kind of thing has its own effect, a ratcheting-up of the natural tendency of politicians to love themselves as much as the crowds do. In every politician, himself included, Obama says, there is “that ego-driven ambition that I want to be somebody. I want to be in front of the microphone, I want to be in front of the TV, I want to be the most important guy on the committee, I want it to be my bill.” You can see this cockiness seeping through. Asked at fund-raisers whether the new role he’s assumed is taking a toll on him, Obama waves it off: “Nah, I’m a thoroughbred.”

“Look, there’s no real preparation for a presidential race,” says David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political adviser. “Hillary Clinton, there’s no question, she’s played the course, she knows the sand traps and the lie of the greens. McCain’s been through it once before, too. My feeling about this is, we don’t know exactly how Barack will respond. I’ll be really frank with you: Barack doesn’t know exactly how he’ll respond.”

Throughout the fall, as Obama explored the idea of running for president, he often seemed to hesitate, almost fearful in the face of the exultation that greeted him wherever he went. In late August, for the third time in his life, he traveled to Kogelo, the tiny, grassless village in western Kenya where his father had grown up the son of a Muslim goat herder and where the senator’s grandmother still lives. There is something absurd about the collision of Obama’s worlds, right now, dozens of microphones thrust in the face of this eighty-five-year-old woman who has spent her life in this amazingly obscure place and barely knows her grandson. But this is part of the Obama legend, the globalized Abe Lincoln: This is his log cabin, a generation removed. When his caravan pulls into the village, thousands of people are waiting for him, a vast and disciplined crowd standing in long, silent lines, like those old photos of British colonials reviewing the Zulus. They are rooting for him to say something big, something feeling, about Africa, about the relation between America and Kenya, about the way history is beginning to shift. Obama, instead, backs away. “I don’t come here as a grandson but as a U.S. senator,” he tells them. “My time is not my own. Don’t expect me to come back here very often.” And then again: “I’m not going to be here all the time.” He goes on in this vein: He wants to help Kenyans, but he also wants them to help themselves. He begins to sound like any other politician, a deputy to the trade commissioner. The crowd, full of hope, almost visibly deflates.

But on the same trip, it also began to become clear what it might mean if Barack Obama were somehow, despite it all, to become president of the United States — the resonance it might have not just within the United States but beyond. On a bright morning, the senator’s convoy pulled into the Kibera district of Nairobi, which is called, perhaps unscientifically, the largest slum in all of Africa. It is undoubtedly the most compact: There are up to 750,000 people living in less than two square miles of malign-looking shacks, with no electricity and no running water. The whole place stinks of human waste. Kibera has become a common stopping point for American notables touring Africa’s stricken zones — congressmen, Chris Rock, Madeleine Albright — and the place has assumed a kind of indifference to visiting celebrity. This is not the case with Obama. The senator has no speech planned today — he is here for a meeting on microfinance — but thousands of people have choked the dirt paths through the ghettos. Obama biro, yawne yo! they shout — “Obama’s coming, clear the way!” His name, in its local rhythms, sounds almost like a religious chant. Kenyan police on horses, thin and jumpy animals, try to beat back the surging crowd.

When Obama is finished with his meeting, he comes out of a hut: a skinny American dude, looking more like 35 than 45, his face treadmilled-thin, all teeth and cheekbones, holding a megaphone at his side. The roar is deafening. For a second, Obama looks stunned. He lifts the megaphone to his lips, but he can’t make himself heard. When he lowers it, he’s grinning. For the first time, it seems as if some resistance has broken in Obama: His reluctance has been replaced by something deeper and more spontaneous. He raises the megaphone again. “Hello!” he calls out in the local dialect. The wave of sound that greets him is awesome. He half-loses it, just starts yelling into the megaphone: “Everyone here is my brother! Everyone here is my sister! I love Kibera!” The crowd is so loud that he can’t be heard more than twenty feet from where he is standing, and so he begins to wade into the crowd, shouting into the megaphone again and again: “You are all my brothers and sisters!” The look on his face is one of pure joy. Months later, his eyes still glitter when he recalls the sheer spectacle of it all. “It was a remarkable experience,” he says.

The residents in Kibera know little about Obama besides his race, the fact that his father is from this country and what the Kenyan papers have told them: that he represents a younger and more empathetic vision of America. It’s enough. Here, at last, is what it would mean to have a black president of the United States, one with a feel for what it means to suffer the rough edge of American power. In Kibera, something raw and basic about global politics began to stir, to make itself heard. These people, among the poorest in the world, are hoping for something more. And in the shouting crowds and the ecstasy of the moment, it has begun to seem, for the first time, as if Obama wants it all, too.

Editor’s Note: The original, published version of this article incorrectly stated that the “Washington Times” alleged that Obama had attended a madrassah in Indonesia. The allegation was actually published by Insight, a conservative online magazine owned by the same parent company as the “Times.” “Rolling Stone” regrets the error.


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