Springfield State Journal Register

November 8, 2004

Obama must work his way up in Senate


WASHINGTON - When Hillary Clinton joined the elite club known as the U.S. Senate four years ago, she made a point of offering to bring coffee to her Democratic colleagues during meetings.

She spurned national media interviews for several months and made sure she never missed a subcommittee meeting while focusing on the needs of New York.

They were steps she took to make clear to senior senators that, despite her celebrity status as former first lady, she intended to be "a workhorse, not a show horse."

Her deft handling of her celebrity status is a lesson that Illinois' senator-elect and Democratic superstar Barack Obama should follow, several longtime congressional observers and political analysts suggest.

Catapulted to stardom with his speech at the Democratic National Convention this past summer and speculation swirling about a White House bid in his future, Obama's first task will be proving to his Senate colleagues that he's taking the job seriously and not just using it as a steppingstone.

"Hillary Clinton had the same problem," said Ronald Walters, a politics professor at the University of Maryland. "She decided, 'I'm going to go in, learn my job, keep my mouth shut for a while,' and it's done her very well. She's a well-respected senator."

After a flurry of national media attention, Obama plans a victory lap around the state this week. He's scheduled to stop in Springfield today, Peoria on Tuesday, Rockford on Wednesday, Quad Cities on Thursday and Metro East and Carbondale on Friday.

"He understands that the job that the people of Illinois bestowed on him Tuesday is to be the very best senator for Illinois that he can be," Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

The senator-elect heads Nov. 14 to Washington for Senate orientation and a collision with reality. There, he is likely to encounter frustration as a freshman Democrat in a Senate controlled by Republicans and at least the vestiges of a once-rigid seniority system.

He does have the benefit of coming from the same state as Sen. Dick Durbin, the Springfield Democrat who on Friday said he's got the votes to become minority whip, the party's No. 2 spot in the Senate.

"I don't know how many opportunities he's going to have to do very much," Walters said of Obama. "He's going to have to focus, rather than on grand legislative things, on constituent service. I think that is probably where he's going to be working the hardest in his first term out."

Obama may find it difficult to get choice committee assignments. With more Republican senators, GOP leaders want a greater ratio of seats on committees, which could mean more senior Democrats will get bumped.

As the only African-American in the Senate, Obama's symbolic value may be a greater contribution than his legislative value.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he used his bully pulpit outside the Senate to do some things rather than in the Senate," said Walters, who specializes in African-American politics.

After Democrats' losses at the polls Tuesday, party leaders also will be looking to Obama to be the new face of the party.

One sign of both the national interest in Obama and his willingness to play to an audience broader than Illinois is that the senator-elect already has accepted an invitation to address the Dec. 4 dinner of Washington's Gridiron Club, an annual black-tie event that will put him on display in front of some of the most influential political journalists in the country. The Gridiron Club is considered the most prestigious of the Washington journalism groups.

Former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris cautioned Obama against the pitfalls of popularity.

"He is so grounded," Burris said. "But the temptation will definitely be there. Because, in addition to being a public figure, he now has an extraordinary celebrity status and the demands that will be put on him from across the country are going to be unbelievable."

For this lesson, Obama only has to look to former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who was the first black woman to be elected to the Senate in 1992, Burris said. But she lost re-election in 1998, in part because of scandals surrounding her tenure and also because of the perception that she had lost touch with her Illinois constituency.

Obama, the 43-year-old father of two young girls, has acknowledged the competing demands on his time and his need to prioritize.

"It's going to be important for me to say no when it just comes to appearances (such as) wanting to be the keynote speaker at every NAACP Freedom Fund dinner across the country," he told reporters last week.

Obama, who at the same news conference called questions about a possible presidential run in 2008 "silly," is a long way from being in a position to eye the White House, political analysts say.

"Right now, he's still a state senator, and as such, he has limited experience. You don't get elected president based on your experience as a state senator," said David Bositis, senior research analyst for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

For one thing, Obama does not have strong national name recognition yet outside political circles, Bositis said.

About 70 percent of the country doesn't know who Obama is, according to a survey conducted by the center in early October. Even among blacks, Obama remains largely unknown, with 63 percent of the 1,642 adults surveyed reporting they knew nothing about him, Bositis said.

Despite the Republican dominance on Capitol Hill, the Senate is the only place in Washington where Democrats can assert themselves. Because the GOP still needs 60 votes to stop a filibuster, Democrats have some leverage, Bositis and others noted.

If the right issue comes up, Obama could grab on to it and boost his Senate credentials and his national reputation, some say.

And the precedent is there for a rapid ascent. Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out that Sen. John Edwards was in his first six-year term before being tapped by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as his Democratic running mate.

Edwards came in as a novice without any legislative experience. But his trial-lawyer skills gained him recognition during the Clinton impeachment, Ornstein said.

Obama, a state senator from Chicago since 1997, has an advantage in that he has legislative experience, Ornstein said, adding that the party is "going to have to find a way to give him that kind of a showcase."