The meteoric rise of Barack Obama from relative obscurity to the United States Presidency in a brief four years is a political phenomenon unlikely to be repeated in our time. We can attribute Obama's success to his oratorical skills, a seasoned team of Chicago political operatives, and a generally masterful campaign that never faltered in controlling what would and would not be the subject matter in the election. Yet, Obama would not have been successful in this or other races were it not for some incredible good fortune.
His first foray into national politics was a disaster; a 61 to 30 percent thrashing by incumbent Congressman and African-American community icon Bobby Rush in 2000. Obama learned from that experience and started building a base with the two constituencies that would turn failure into success; Chicago pols, including political operative David Axelrod; and Black voters who had dismissed Obama, so say locals, as "the Professor." Obama's political story was so far nothing out of the ordinary. Even his breakout address to the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston was not supposed to have the significance that it did. With the mainstream media and flawed pollsters assuring President George W. Bush's defeat, Democrats went into that convention convinced of a John Kerry victory. Obama was to be one of several faces for a more distant time. But, and here's Obama's first bit of luck, it did not work out that way, and someone new would have to fill the gap in 2008.
It took more luck for Obama to capitalize on his success in the midst of Democratic failure by winning the open US Senate seat from Illinois. The incumbent Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald decided not to run, resulting in a crowded field of candidates in both parties' primaries. On the Democratic side, Obama consistently ran third behind businessman Blair Hull and former state Comptroller Daniel Hynes. Hull was in command of the race and destined to capture his party's nomination until, as the New York Times (NYT) reported, his "campaign suddenly imploded" with scandal. "Under pressure, his campaign released details of an order of protection [Hull's ex-wife Brenda] Sexton took out against him. It accused him of striking her and threatening her life."
With Hull gone, Obama captured the nomination with the backing of Chicago's legendary Democratic machine. Going into the general election, the NYT observed that most people predicted the Illinois election to be "one of the most hard-fought Senate races in the nation." But scandal also derailed Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan, just as it had Hull. Ryan had married and divorced former Star Trek Voyager actress, Jeri Ryan, and both parties had insisted that the records of their divorce and custody battle be sealed "in the best interests of the child." But rumors of embarrassing content in the records persisted in the media; and The Chicago Tribune sued to have them unsealed.
We should note here that The Chicago Tribune is owned by the same company that owns The Los Angeles Times, which refused to release a tape in the recent Presidential election that would have embarrassed the Democratic nominee-Barack Obama. The media storm caused Ryan's poll numbers to plummet even before a Los Angeles judge ruled the records unsealed. In them, the former Mrs. Ryan alleged that her husband "had taken her to sex clubs in several cities, intending for them to have sex in public." As Ryan's former primary opponent Jim Oberweis commented, "we all know people tend to say things that aren't necessarily true in divorce proceedings when there is money involved and custody of children involved." Nevertheless, Ryan resigned his candidacy three days later with just four months to go in the race. It took Illinois Republicans a month to find replacement, eventually convincing former Ambassador Alan Keyes to establish Illinois residency and run for the Senate. To no one's surprise, with only 86 days to go in the race, it was a Republican disaster. Obama won easily, 70 to 27 percent.
Two-thousand and eight brought more good fortune to any Democrat running for President. Regardless of party, ideology, or anything else, experts domestically and worldwide marshaled volumes of information to support their belief that it was almost impossible for a Republican to win the White House. Anyone could run and win, so the expert opinion went. Even so, by the middle of September, Republican John McCain held a small lead in most authoritative polls. Then, on September 15, the American economy went into a crisis. The papers were filled with dire news about the stock market crashing and the credit market drying. Home foreclosures were at an all-time high, and many homeowners owned more on their houses than the new market value. Businesses started folding; there were layoffs. All sorts of experts and officials were warning of an impending deep recession-if not a depression.
That was when Obama started pulling away in the polls. His campaign's identification of John McCain and all Republicans with George W. Bush and by connection (whether justified or not) the economic collapse sounded the death knell for many Republicans. More Democratic votes would be cast in a desperate attempt to fix the economy before it was too late; a vote against the current occupant of the White House much more than a vote for the next one. At that point, the Democrats could have run the least qualified, least experienced Presidential candidate in history and still have won. Oh wait, that is what they did. Still, people were not all that thrilled with Obama. While he won the Electoral College by a sizeable margin (365-173), the popular vote was much closer: 52.7 to 46 percent, only two percent more than George W. Bush in 2004.
So before Democrats continue to delude themselves that Barack Obama will be entering office with some sort of popular mandate-a groundswell of support for his agenda of "change," they would do best to remember that were it not for a solid helping of fortuitous events most candidates never see in even one election, he would not be entering office at all.