U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., talks to his staff in his office on Capitol Hill. In the past year, the freshman senator has become a best-selling author, a millionaire, a Grammy Award winner and an important fundraiser for Democrats.
Obama's luster means money for Democrats
WASHINGTON » Barack Obama is showing a Midas touch in his first year in Congress. He's already a best-selling author, a Grammy Award winner and an important fundraiser for fellow Democrats.
Altogether, the freshman senator from Illinois has helped raise $6.5 million for his political action committee and other Democratic candidates, party committees and state parties from New Jersey to Virginia to Florida.
He brought in about $800,000 with an e-mail message sent out on MoveOn.org on behalf of Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., who at age 88 is seeking a ninth term in office.
"He said some nice things about me," Byrd recalled. "Anywhere he comes in West Virginia, we will give the man a great reception. He's a wonderful man."
Some of Obama's fundraising activities are part of his job as a vice chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"These are trips not initiated by me; these are trips that other people think will be helpful," Obama said, noting he has family and political obligations in Illinois. "For every invitation I've accepted, I've turned down 100."
Being the Senate's lone black member and only the fifth black senator in history, Obama has prompted many fellow Democrats and others to wonder if he will become the nation's first black president, or vice president.
"The party needs him, and for all I know the nation needs him," said George Washington University political analyst Stephen Hess. "There hasn't been an African-American Democrat who has had an appeal broadly beyond his ethnic group."
Senate Democrats and Republicans alike, who often use "gentleman," "humble" and "hard-working" to describe Obama, the 44-year-old married father of two daughters, say he is destined for bigger roles in the years ahead.
Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., a former Black Panther who trounced Obama in a 2000 primary, now praises Obama as a "regular guy" who does an outstanding job for Illinois.
"He represents the promise America is supposed to be, and somehow, despite all those obstacles, he somehow squeezed through the crack in the wall that separates him from other blacks," Rush said.
Obama trailed only the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in support among blacks asked to name the nation's "most important black leader," according to an AP-AOL poll released last week.
When asked if he feels burdened by others' expectations, Obama replied, "I remind them that's a pretty high-class problem to have. I remind them that the people who are burdened don't have health care and see their kid get sick."
He won a Grammy this year in the spoken word category for his readings from his autobiographical "Dreams From My Father," a memoir first published in 1995 that has become a best seller as his fame has grown.
In the trenches of the Senate, Obama has worked as a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee to improve disability pay for Illinois' military veterans.
He has traveled abroad with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and worked in bipartisan fashion to address the need of destroying surplus and unguarded conventional and nuclear weapons.
A couple of weeks ago, Obama and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. got in a dustup as they exchanged letters on how they should be moving toward lobbyist ethics reform. McCain accused Obama of turning partisan on an issue where he claimed he would be nonpartisan. The argument was apparently resolved with a smile and backslap from Obama at a congressional hearing.
"Barack had an edge when he ran against me," Rush said. "He's much more seasoned" now.