At 45, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is the youngest major-party candidate running for president. But his decade of elective service and the broad experiences he's gained living and working outside Washington and even outside the country have prepared him well for the job, he said.
"I don't think the measure of leadership right now in the eyes of the American public is how long you've been in Washington," he said Monday in a meeting with the Register's editorial board.
Before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, he worked in the Illinois Senate for eight years on such difficult issues as fixing a "broken" death-penalty system and providing more health insurance to children.
"I've been able to bring together Democrats and Republicans and make progress and get things done," he said. "I think what people are looking for is actually who's got the judgment for the job, who's got the capacity to bring people together to actually move forward on the promises that are made during the campaign."
National polls show Obama close on the heels of Hillary Clinton for front-runner status among Democrats. His rallying call to change the pettiness of politics and change America, his charismatic speaking style and his boyish good looks have filled venues around the country.
Yet in his meeting with the Register, he displayed no celebrity-candidate swagger. He shook the hand of every person in the room, before and after the meeting, and made a point to introduce himself (as if he needed to do so) and shake the hands of other staffers in the hallway. He casually made small talk, mentioning that his young daughters had made him what they called a "fabulous buffet" for Father's Day. "I couldn't identify everything," he said, laughing. "But I ate every bit of it. I cleaned my plate."
And when he settled in to talk about issues, he shunned rhetorical firepower for thoughtful responses, often pausing to choose his words carefully. He appeared absorbed in the give and take, leaning back in his chair or resting his chin on his hand.
Son of a Kenyan-born father and a mother from Kansas, Obama lived in Hawaii and a few years in Indonesia while growing up. After college, he worked as a community organizer in poor Chicago neighborhoods. By "growing up in different places with people who had differing ideas," as his campaign bio puts it, he gained a different outlook toward people and issues.
A prominent example: his opposition to the Iraq war, dating to before the invasion. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that I lived overseas for a number of years... I was never persuaded that we could create a Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq. That was based on specific experiences of living in Indonesia or knowing my family in Kenya, and understanding how powerful tribal and ethnic sentiments are when it comes to many of these countries."
Experiences abroad also inform his views on immigration. He's troubled about setting up a guest-worker system with no avenue toward citizenship, after seeing instances in the Middle East where guest workers outnumber citizens and are "terribly abused."
And he's convinced that spending "a few pennies" of our diplomatic and military budgets to fight poverty, disease and the breakdown of law in the world's hot spots could avert spending billions on military action later.
On the domestic front, he discussed remaking education to produce "the best-educated work force in the world," providing affordable health-care coverage for all and enacting workable immigration laws — all issues where strident partisanship and warring ideologies have stalled progress, he said.
Although the Iowa caucuses are seven months away, Obama has aimed his campaign beyond even the general election toward government by consensus to tackle the major challenges facing the nation and world.
When deciding to run, "I wasn't simply a young man in a hurry," he emphasized.
"I think there's this particular window right now where the country is hungry for change, and is also hungry to be brought together, as opposed to being driven apart. And I thought that the particular skills that I have, of bringing people from diverse backgrounds across lines of race or party or region or faith to focus on solving problems, was a particularly useful and needed skill right now."