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For Obama, bipartisan aims, party-line votes

A desire to build cross-party consensus in Senate rubs up against political perils of compromise.

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But even as he moves closer to the Democratic nomination, surveys show that voters remain concerned about his experience. Obama has countered that while he may lack a conventional political résumé, he has "the right kind of experience," rooted in his multicultural upbringing, his grass-roots organizing, and a record of consensus-building.

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"Occasionally, I would partner up with even my most conservative colleagues to work on a piece of legislation, and over a poker game or a beer we might conclude that we had more in common than we publicly cared to admit," Obama writes, in his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," of his days as a state senator. "Which perhaps explains why, through my years in Springfield, I had clung to the notion that politics could be different."

"If enough of us took that risk," he writes, "I thought, not only the country's politics but the country's policies would change for the better."

A review of his record reveals that Obama sometimes – but not always – took such a risk himself.

Early on, a collaborative approach

Twenty-three-year-old Obama arrived in Chicago in 1985 with no easy task: enlisting fiercely independent churches on the city's South Side to work together to improve neighborhoods ravaged by steel plant closings.

The nonprofit Developing Communities Project hired him in part because his life abroad and lack of local ties – to the African-American community, to churches – gave him a "sense of being an outsider," says Gerald Kellman, DCP director at the time. "It helped him identify with other people who might be outsiders, people who faced discrimination and poverty," he recalls.

Mr. Kellman had been schooled in the teachings of Saul Alinsky, a Chicago radical who preached confrontation and pressed organizers to appeal to authority figures' self-interest. But Obama believed in a more collaborative approach that borrowed from the civil rights movement and drew on long-nurtured relationships and a rhetoric of ideals, Kellman says.

When Obama learned that housing officials had removed asbestos from the manager's office but not the apartments at the Altgeld Gardens projects, he roused residents with an appeal to justice rather than a lecture on the health effects of toxins.

"If he came in and said, 'Your kids are affected by the environment,' he wouldn't have gotten anywhere," Kellman says. "So he framed the issue out of their own broader story of struggling against discrimination."

Another neighborhood cause was summer jobs, and Yvonne Lloyd, a mother of 11 who lived across from the projects, remembers that on a bus trip to the mayor's office Obama counseled civility. "He would say, 'You have to go in and be dignified,' " she recalls in a phone interview. " 'Don't raise your voice because you antagonize people that way.' " Before long, she says, a job intake center opened in the neighborhood.

Obama has called his three years on the South Side "the transformative experience of my career." "It allowed me," he wrote in an e-mail this month to campaign supporters, "to see that real change comes not from the top-down, but from the bottom-up, when ordinary people come together around a common purpose."

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