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Before Midterms, a Chat with Sen. Barack Obama

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're hoping that Senator Barack Obama will be joining us momentarily. He's at an airport in Richmond, Virginia, as he's on the campaign trail working for various Democratic candidates in the days leading up the midterm elections. It's been almost two weeks since Senator Obama grabbed a larger than usual share of the headlines with his announcement on NBC's Meet the Press that he was considering a run for president of the United States in 2008.

He hasn't been far from the media spotlight since then, and that of course can be a good thing and a bad thing. This week's story about John Kerry's botched joke tells us what we already know - that constant attention on everything a politician says or does requires an unusual level of discipline and skill to avoid disaster.

Barack Obama will be joining us as soon as we can contact him. We arranged this a few days ago. His new book is The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. This from the author earlier of Dreams from my Father, which told the story of his search for his father - a Kenyan goatherd at one point who came to this country and married his mother but left when Barack Obama was just two years old to first go to school in New York City and then return to Kenya.

It tells the story of Barack Obama's return to Africa. Sort of a Roots-like effort to find out more about his family and his father, who was dead by then, and his coming to terms with a lot of things that were different about him and about Kenya, and some things that he learned about his father that were also disturbing. That, Dreams From my Father.

The Audacity of Hope has been described by some as a campaign book. Barack Obama denies that it was written on those terms. But nevertheless it is hardly unusual for candidates for president of the United States to issue books in the years running up to the Election Day to talk about the possibility, to talk about their hopes and their ambitions and about what they might do as president of the United States.

The Audacity of Hope doesn't seem to be quite in those terms as it's, again, a quite revealing interior look at the man who's serving now as junior senator of Illinois. Of course, the major questions being asked is, well, his relative youth and his relative inexperience. He had previously served as a state senator in Illinois and then ran two years ago and won a seat to the United States Senate and was elected and would not even serve out one full term in the United States Senate before perhaps running for the highest office in the land.

I do understand that Senator Obama now is on the phone with us. And, Senator, nice to have you again on TALK OF THE NATION.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Neal, it's great to talk to you. Sorry we came in a little late. There was phone problems.

CONAN: Well, stuff happens, Senator, as I'm sure you know. We just mentioned John Kerry in the intro - I'm not sure you got to hear that part of it. But he has apologized for what he says was a botched joke about the president getting us stuck into Iraq. He apparently, in misconstruing his own words, inadvertently offended many U.S. forces and has caused a political firestorm here in Washington, D.C. in the days running up to the election. Was an apology the right thing to do, do you think?

Sen. OBAMA: You know, I think it was in the sense that, you know, John misspoke. And, you know, I think it's important. You know, I misspeak, and all of us do, and I think when you do then you want to make sure that you get that cleared up.

I do think that we've got some more important issues to deal with between now and Election Day. You know, I've been traveling all across the country, and everywhere I go people are concerned about, obviously, Iraq and what our plan is for bringing our troops home. People are concerned about healthcare and education and energy and jobs.

And, you know, this is a not unusual distraction during election season. You know, it seems like we always have these little flare-ups right before Election Day. But, ultimately, I think the American people are paying a lot of attention to the substance of these races, and I think that's where it's going to be determined.

CONAN: At some level, this kind of thing can happen to any politician who's under constant scrutiny. And I wonder, do you find yourself relying more and more on scripts, or do you still trust yourself to speak off the cuff?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I speak off the cuff, but I'm not immune to mistakes. And I think all of us end up going through stuff like this when we're in the public eye constantly, as you said.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Sen. OBAMA: And I think the American people, you know, hopefully understand that, you know, unless we want just robotons who are reading from a script all the time, that people who are on the road and making speeches day in, day out are going to make some mistakes.

CONAN: Yeah, and I think there could also be a cost of being too careful. I mean, for example, it's difficult to talk honestly and openly about issues like race without the possibility of offending somebody.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, that's exactly right. And, you know, one of the things that I'm always battling - and I've only been on the national stage for a couple of years now - is that tendency to edit yourself so much that, at a certain point, you stop sounding like a regular person and you start taking on, you know, the persona of, you know, those bad politicians in TV movies...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: ...with the blow-dried hair and the, you know, the phony smile. And that, I think, is probably a bigger danger because at that point, when you're so afraid to make mistakes and you're so fearful, then it really drains from you any sense of purpose or passion as to why you wanted to serve in the first place, and you become much more concerned with just, you know, being in office than you are about making a difference.

CONAN: Robert Redford played one of those characters in one of those movies, and I think people wanted him to run anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. OBAMA: Actually, The Candidate is a great movie, and probably gives one of - as good of an insight into sort of that process as just about any film out there. It's a danger that we all face. And, you know, I think the one thing that, you know, I find is helpful is just to keep a sense of humor about yourself and not take yourself too seriously and understand that when you're in this process, you know, there're going to be some days where, you know, you get knocked around a little bit.

CONAN: I wanted to read an excerpt from your book, The Audacity of Hope. From what I've observed, there are countless politicians who have crossed these hurdles, kept their integrity intact, men and women who raise campaign contributions without being corrupted, garnered support without being held captive by special interests and managed the media without losing their sense of self. But there's one final hurdle that once you've settled in Washington you cannot entirely avoid, one that is certain to make at least a sizable portion of your constituency think ill of you, and that is the thoroughly unsatisfactory nature of the legislative process. What did you mean by that?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, yeah, as I go on to explain, typically - particularly at the national level - when you're voting on a bill, half the time the bill is a hodgepodge - maybe more than half the time - the bill is a hodgepodge of different things, some good and some bad. And oftentimes, particularly when you're in the minority party, you're voting on legislation that you had no input in that strikes compromises that you yourself would not want to strike.

When you get the budget bills, there is, you know, billions of dollars of spending that you have no assurance is going in the right direction. And, you know, you can't vote none of the above. You have to vote yea or nay. And if you vote nay, it may turn out that some of the good things that were in the legislation that deserve support are things that people are angry that you voted against. And if you vote aye, then there are probably some bad things in there that you didn't intend to support.

CONAN: Either that you voted for a bridge to nowhere, or you voted against armor for troops.

Sen. OBAMA: There's a classic case in point. Sometimes you may not even know it's in there...

CONAN: Yeah.

Sen. OBAMA: ...when you get these big omnibus bills. And what you're aware of throughout the process is that after having taken 1,000 votes or so, no matter how well-intentioned you are and how seriously you take the issues and, you know, hew to principle - there's going to be something in there that, come election time, somebody's going to be able to run a TV spot on. And I think that intimidates a lot of elected officials and is the reason why sometimes we end up having such unsatisfactory outcomes.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Joshua Drexler in Columbus, Ohio.

No person running for president can avoid compromising somewhat on his or her principles. That's the reality of life in general, and running for public office in the U.S.A. today more particularly. Have you gone about figuring how you will draw your own line, how you'll decide at what point ambition for office must give way to principle? How will you know when you've crossed the line and allowed ambition to go too far?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, it's something that I think that all of us have to wrestle with individually, and, you know, as I indicated last week when I was asked this question, I have thought about running for president, but I'm not a declared candidate. It is something I have to struggle with as a U.S. senator, and, you know, there are a couple of principles, I guess, that guide me. Number one is making sure that, you know, I'm operating in a way that is consistent with my core values: honesty, empathy, compassion. You know, there are certain things that are gut to you that you can't betray just because of short-term political interests.

Now there are other things where you're going to make compromises. You know, if I've got a healthcare proposal that intends to provide healthcare coverage for all 46 million uninsured Americans, and the best deal that you end up getting is something that's going to cover 23 million Americans and that's the best you're going to be able to do, then taking half a loaf probably makes sense.

So a lot of times the way I approach it, at least, is if I look at an issue or if I look at how I approach campaigning, if it's something that is consistent with my broader values and is just a matter of, you know, tactics - having to take half a loaf - then that's something I'm comfortable with, and that's sort of the nature of the process. If it's something that violates my core beliefs, then it's not worth it.

CONAN: We're speaking with Senator Barack Obama. His new book is The Audacity of Hope. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get a caller on the line, and this is Brian - Brian with us from Elks Grove in California.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Brian, go ahead, please.

Sen. OBAMA: Hi, Brian.

BRIAN: Hi. I'm a 32-year-old African-American male, and I was listening to the, you know, the possibilities of your being there first African-American president, and what I really began to think about it, like, all of a sudden I had this very emotional reaction to it, and I began to actually cry. And it was very strange for me, because I'm like, why am I crying? But then I just realized, you know, as an African-American, you know, our struggle it's, you know, really close to my heart.

And I'm thinking, like, I'm wondering if other African-Americans would have this reaction. And also on the other side, if there's going to be, you know, other people - namely you know, white Americans or Caucasian Americans - who are going to have a negative emotional reaction. And so my question to you, Senator, would be is that kind of factoring into your reasons for either running or not running because of that reaction and kind of being, you know, really a target for that emotional - either love or hate.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, it's a wonderful question, and I'm glad, you know, you're feeling passionate about politics generally. I - look, race is a powerful force in our society. You know, I devote an entire chapter in the book to race, and my basic take on it is that we've made enormous progress since I was a child. You know, I was born in 1961, and at the time that I was born, I think for me to do many of the things that I've done in my life would've been an impossibility, and certainly for a 22-year-old. You know, he's benefited from the enormous struggles that were engaged in by grandparents and parents of ours.

The problem is not that things haven't gotten better. The problem is that they're not good enough, and we still have a lot of work to do. How it plays out politically is complicated. I think that there is no doubt whether if you're a African-American or a woman or a Latino or an Asian, that you go into a political race with people making some assumptions about you or stereotypes about you that provide additional hurdles that you've got to overcome.

What I've discovered - in my own experience, at least - is that I think we've come to the point in this nation where if people get to know you, then they are willing to make good decisions about you and judge you on the basis of individual character rather than on the basis of stereotype.

Now the question, I think, for any candidate for public office - but especially the presidency - is can people get to know you well enough in the midst of just negative campaigning and, you know, the intense media scrutiny and so forth so that people have a well-rounded view of you and are able to go ahead and make those choices on that basis.

And that's something that is not clear. I think that's something that hasn't truly been tested yet, and I think we will probably see the results of that over the next several years, whether I end up running or not.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much.

BRIAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And I think we have time for an e-mail, this from Dia Anna(ph) in Myrtle Creek, Oregon.

I recently read an article about you, which included in an excerpt from your book, The Audacity of Hope. In this excerpt, you frame religion and faith in uncompromising Christian terms. How do you expect to help a pluralistic society where large groups of Americans do not frame their religion, faith or belief on the Christian religion?

Sen. OBAMA: Oh, you know, but what I argue is not that the Democratic Party or elected officials should pretend that they base their political agenda or policies on faith when they don't. You know, nothing's worse than inauthentic faith. And I argue that it's critical for those who are religiously motivated in some way to be able to describe their motivations in universal terms that are accessible to other people and amenable to argument.

You know, there's a reason that we have separation of church and state in this country and that we've been spared a lot of the religious and sectarian strife of many other countries. And I think a lot of it has to do with the wisdom of our founders.

But, you know, I think what I was trying to describe in the book was the tendency for those of us who believe in religious tolerance to then believe that any mention of religious faith is somehow suspect.

CONAN: Senator...

Sen. OBAMA: And I think that for the Democratic Party in particular, that has led, I think, to large swaths of the electorate that I think would be amenable to a progressive message shutting us off because the perspective is somehow that we don't get their faith, and I think it's that kind of...

CONAN: Senator Obama, I hate to cut you off, but I'm afraid we're out of time. Thanks very much for being with us. We appreciate it.

Sen. OBAMA: It was great to talk to you, Neal.

CONAN: We've posted an excerpt from Senator Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, at our Web page at npr.org/talk. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.