Obama’s rapid rise to eminence

He’ll make his speech in Denver Thursday as the first African-American to win his party’s nod.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Retired banker Charles Lewis of Evanston, Ill., urged Obama to run for president, even though others said it was too early in Obama’s career.

Washington and Denver – Barack Obama has risen from obscurity to fame as fast as – maybe faster than – any major party presidential nominee in modern times.

Eight years ago he was nobody from nowhere, nationally speaking. Fresh off defeat in a congressional primary, Senator Obama wasn’t even a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. He drifted through L.A.’s Staples Center like an afterthought, watching most of the speeches on TV.

Now he can see history approaching. On Thursday, he’ll step in front of a roaring crowd at Denver’s Invesco Field as the first African-American to win his party’s nod. To his supporters, that will be a turning point in its own right – the kind of moment you make your children watch, so that in later years they can say they remember.

“Yes, he’s come up fast, but not fast enough for me,” says Sally Shaheen Joseph, a convention delegate from Flint, Mich., and retired mother of five.

But velocity of success does not necessarily equate to victory in November. Obama may be famous for his orations to large crowds, but in his acceptance speech he will still be introducing himself (via television) to the largest audience he’s ever talked to in his life.

That’s a tough order. To be successful, he may need to do more than prove he can deliver applause lines to 80,000 people primed and ready to cheer.

“The thing he needs to do is humanize himself, so voters see him as a person instead of a mythical figure,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

If they’d seen Obama eight years ago, those voters would not have confused him with, say, Zeus. He’d lost his 2000 bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush by a margin of 2 to 1.

As a junior state senator, Obama still had some electoral status. But according to the scenes he paints in his memoirs, he was an outsider on the national Democratic stage, someone who could barely get in the door at the convention venue – literally.

Charles Lewis met him a few years afterward. Lewis – an Illinois investment banker, now retired – says he’d heard good things about a little-known state senator who was thinking of running for the US Senate.

Mr. Lewis and his wife invited Obama to lunch. They were impressed.

“It was hard to imagine that five years from then he’d be running for president, but it was also immediately apparent that he was a very unusual guy in intellect, temperament, and worldview,” says Lewis, who is now on Obama’s finance committee.

By 2004, Obama was coming up. He’d won the Democratic primary to fill an open US Senate seat from Illinois, and his initial GOP opponent dropped out due to allegations of questionable personal behavior. A campaign appearance with Sen. John Kerry led to an invitation to deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic convention in Boston.

The rest is history. He did well on the national stage and won in November, while Kerry lost.

Since then “he’s risen incredibly fast,” says Mr. West of Brookings.

Like Ronald Reagan in 1980, Obama this year has benefited from a grass roots political revolt, says West. In 1980, Reagan surfed a wave of antigovernment feeling all the way to the White House. In 2008, Obama, as an outsider candidate, benefited from a similar wave of antiwar feeling among Democrats and a general desire for government change, says the Brookings analyst.

But prior to his election, Ronald Reagan had served as governor of California for eight years, and he’d traveled the country, speaking on politics, for decades. Perhaps the only recent president whose political ascent was as fast as Obama’s was Dwight Eisenhower, according to Kenneth Collier, an associate professor of political science at Stephen F. Austin State University, in Nacogdoches, Texas.

Of course, at the time he began his political career, Eisenhower was already world famous, having helped win World War II.

Jimmy Carter had served as a governor of a small state, but at the time of the 1976 Iowa caucuses he was still seen as “Jimmy who?”

“Some people travel a quick path from outside Washington to the White House,” says Mr. Collier. “Remember, part of George Bush’s original electoral appeal was his ‘outsider’ Texas status.”

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