Aired Tuesday January 20th, 2009 at 9:00 pm on KUED HD Ch. 7.1
On the evening of his inauguration, FRONTLINE examines Barack Obama's life story and political biography. Drawing from the critically acclaimed "The Choice 2008," a dual biography of then-candidates Obama and John McCain, FRONTLINE adds fresh interviews with insiders to illuminate the key moments that shaped the next president and formed his political vision. "Dreams of Obama," airing Tuesday, January 20, at 9 p.m. on KUED-Channel 7, begins with Obama's first appearance on the national stage at the 2004 Democratic convention and follows his carefully choreographed, meteoric rise to prominence within the Democratic Party.
"All around were people with tears in their eyes," Obama's chief political adviser David Axelrod says of Obama's 2004 speech. "And I realized at that moment that his life would never be the same."
FRONTLINE reviews the critical experiences that made Obama uniquely suited to launch his successful campaign to become the country's first African-American president. His closest friends and advisers reveal how Obama's time as a community organizer in Chicago, his election to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review and his rise to the top of Illinois politics taught him how to navigate America's complicated racial and political divides.
"Barack has had to deal with dueling identities all of his life," his longtime friend and current adviser Cassandra Butts tells FRONTLINE. "He [was] nurtured by a white family, identifying with that family, but at the same time ... when he goes out he's identified as something else. And he has had to make sense of that duality his entire life."
As a young man, Obama traveled to Chicago, a city some call the "capital of black America," to work as a community organizer and to try to sort out his identity. Colleagues say that after a few years, he had found peace with who he was but had become frustrated by his inability to change the larger structural problems behind the poverty he saw in Chicago's South Side.
That frustration led him first to Harvard Law School and then back into Chicago politics. The once-idealistic Obama quickly found himself in the middle of the rough-and-tumble world of Illinois politics.
"I think the soaring rhetoric, the sort of icon-like image that Obama has attained in this country, sometimes blinds us to the fact that he wasn't born onstage in 2004, but he had to rise through the ranks of machine politics in Chicago to get where he is," New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza tells FRONTLINE.
During those early years in Chicago, Obama put down roots in the black community: He joined Trinity Church and was influenced by its minister, Jeremiah Wright; he took on civil rights cases, led a voter registration drive, won a bitter battle for the state Senate; and, perhaps most important, he married a young woman from the predominantly black South Side, Michelle Robinson.
"Her roots in Chicago went deeper than his roots in Chicago," says the Rev. Jesse Jackson. "She went to public school, and she and my daughter were classmates; they were friends. And so she has roots there, and so she would know people he did not know in places he would not know."
Obama modeled his earliest political efforts after those of Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington. "Washington had to be mayor for all the people of Chicago and had to be perceived as somebody who was prepared to be mayor of all of the people of Chicago and not just a mayor for the black community," Alderman Toni Preckwinkle tells FRONTLINE.
Obama would follow Washington's design and build his own coalition of progressive whites, African Americans and Latinos - a coalition that would eventually carry him to the United States Senate. "Obama comes along with a message that says: 'We're going to look beyond red and blue. I am going to transcend many of these traditional divisions, not only ideological and partisan, but also racial,'" says author Ron Brownstein. "And he embodies his message in a unique way, and I think that, to me, is the core of his political strength."
"Dreams of Obama" details how, after his election to the U.S. Senate, Obama and his advisers implemented a carefully crafted two-year plan that built the freshman senator's reputation and led to his announcement of his candidacy. "Now, as he takes office facing the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, illuminating the central experiences that formed Barack Obama and led to his meteoric rise to the presidency can help us understand the man the country has chosen to lead it through these perilous times," says producer Michael Kirk.
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