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The Hotbed That Produced Obama

Illustration for article titled The Hotbed That Produced Obama

Barack Obama took the oath of office as a United States senator on January 4, 2005, and promptly began running for president. Very quickly, he began using the peculiar kind of celebrity that comes with being a senator to introduce himself to Washington, to a new generation of political power brokers, and, more broadly, to the American people. ''He was running for president even as he was still getting lost in the Capitol's corridors,'' the New York Times noted.


Obama pointedly bypassed the Democratic Party power structure, in defiance of the norms of behavior for a junior senator. Obama did not worry about getting better committee assignments, and he did not defer to more senior members when trying to diagnose his party's problems or in offering prescriptions to fix them. By the fall of 2006, to the surprise of even the most dedicated admirers of his vast political gifts, he was admitting publicly that he was thinking about the White House.

''With an eye on his next goal, Obama treated the Senate as a bridge to be crossed—a place to learn the conventions of Washington, win powerful friends and shape what advisers referred to as his 'political brand,''' the Washington Post reported. ''Despite meager legislative accomplishments, Obama built a reputation among many Democrats as a hard worker, a reformer, an eager learner, a smart politician.'' He came to see the Senate not as a place to do things, but a place to be someone.


Four years, two weeks, and a day after that Senate oath, Barack Obama was standing on the West Front of the Capitol being sworn in as president. The brevity of his tenure in the Senate speaks to Obama's exquisite grasp [of] how the nation's political landscape and its institutions had changed over time. More precisely, his triumph flowed from a deft understanding of the incongruous role the Senate plays in our politics, our governance, and our national mythology. Maybe more than any American politician in the last hundred years, Obama saw the Senate for what it had become: not so much the great anchor of prudent self-government that the framers intended it to be but a platform, a vehicle, a point of leverage, and, for him, a launch pad to greater glory.

Still, Obama was not the first senator to have imagined the Senate in that way. It is an old joke in Washington that more than half the senators see a future president when they look in the mirror each morning. And since 1960, the last time a sitting senator won the presidency, fifty-two others have tried. Indeed, one of the ways the Senate is least representative of the nation is how thickly it is populated with aspiring presidents. . . .

The problem, of course, is that a presidential run from the Senate hardly ever succeeds. History and habit weigh heavily against it. Only [twice] before Obama—Warren Harding in 1921 and John Kennedy in 1961—have sitting senators become president. And here's why, in the words of Tom Daschle, who came within minutes of announcing a presidential bid in 2004, before deciding against it: ''Two things develop the more time you spend here: One is a mind-set that we did it this way before, we should do it this way again, and I think that's a real burden. More importantly—and Hillary and McCain are the perfect examples of this—the longer you are here, you take on enemies. And these enemies don't forget.'' But it is a measure of the kind of ambition that the Senate attracts in the first place that of the 44 men who have served as president, 16 of them had previously served in the Senate, not to mention the many others who kept trying—Henry Clay ran for president four times and lost each time. . . .

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter—who completely altered the political calculus in Washington in 2009 when he switched parties, abandoning the GOP for the Democrats—is one recent example of a compelling personal story. Specter, the son of a junkyard owner from Russell, Kansas, was single-handedly responsible for more than doubling the funding for cancer and other research to the National Institute of Health while he chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health. And in his time in the Senate, he has survived open-heart surgery, a brain tumor, and Hodgkin's disease. This, to me, is a classic example of senatorial ambition and determination. . . .


And the composition of the Senate—dependent as it is on multi-million-dollar campaigns—still manages, particularly with its newest members, to tell us something about what the country is thinking collectively at the time of any specific election. ''There are some thematic similarities running through each new class that tells you something about where the country was at the time,'' said Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, a freshman in the 2006 class. ''There is an unspoken commonality of viewpoint.'' . . . .

Periods of national crisis have manifested themselves in the results of recent senatorial elections. In 1958, Democrats netted 13 news seats that laid the groundwork for John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs of the 1960s. Domestically, the country was in the grip of what came to be known as the Eisenhower Recession. Unemployment was skyrocketing and the administration, through its support of right-to-work laws, seemed to be taking the side of business against the workers. On the international front, the intensifying Cold War left Americans feeling threatened by Moscow's ambitions. On Oct. 4, 1957, the Soviet Union sent Sputnik 1 into orbit around the Earth, beating the United States into space and severely undermining America's confidence in its technological and military superiority.


Out of that national sense of nervousness came a 65-to-35 Democratic majority, with Democrats, in 1959, picking up both seats in the new state of Alaska and splitting them in the new state of Hawaii. Johnson became the majority leader, and in that freshman class were future giants of the Senate—Edmund Muskie, Philip Hart, Robert C. Byrd, Eugene McCarthy, and Vance Hartke. Thomas Dodd, father of Sen. Christopher Dodd, was part of the Democrat sweep of 1958, which then led to a series of pivotal and defining events that helped make the '60s.

It was the class of 1958 that gave John F. Kennedy, and then Lyndon Johnson, the votes to pass Medicare, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, along with increasing the minimum wage, expanded federal aid to education, and Johnson's War on Poverty. The class of 1958 voted to establish the Peace Corps in 1961 and for the first nuclear test-ban treaty in 1963. In 1970, Time magazine noted that, ''They provided the votes that enabled Lyndon Johnson to say, with less hyperbole than he regularly employed, that the Congress of 1964 ''met more national needs… than any other session of this century or the last.''


Reagan's campaign theme of restored American dignity, or, rather, reversing the ''Vietnam Syndrome,'' won him 44 states and a crushing electoral college victory of 489-to-49, and gave Republicans 12 new Senate seats, the largest swing since the liberal class of 1958. For the first time in 26 years, since 1954, the Senate was back in Republican hands. It was the beginning of the Reagan Revolution, which would last for the next 29 years.

Terence Samuel is editor-at-large for The Root and author of The Upper House.

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