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National Public Radio "All Things Considered" Interview with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL)


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MS. NORRIS: Senator Barack Obama's official title, junior senator from Illinois, does not come close to capturing his stature at the moment.

Since arriving in Washington two years ago, the Democratic senator has catapulted to national celebrity. Now that's he's on a publicity blitz for his new book, his star is again on the rise, but so too is the scrutiny. What are his presidential ambitions and what exactly has he achieved to deserve all these attention?

Senator Obama's book is called, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream." It sketches his views on politics, faith, and social policies, among other things. And much like his first book, it reveals much about his personal life.

SEN. OBAMA: I got in the habit of when I write trying to be as honest as I could. Now, that's harder when you're in political life, because I think there's a strong impulse when you're in public life to try to control your image as much as possible.

I found that the best way for me to approach quote-unquote "image making" is to be myself and let everybody know what I'm thinking. And that way, I don't end up tripping myself up saying one thing and doing another.

MS. NORRIS: So no image polishing?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I'm sure that if you asked my wife whether I adequately listed my failings in the book she would say no, that she could supplement it substantially.

MS. NORRIS: We'll look forward to her book. (Laughs.)

SEN. OBAMA: Yeah, exactly. And you know, if you asked my political opponents whether I was entirely objective in terms of how I view the issues that I talk about the book, they'd say no. And I acknowledge that in the front of the book. I say, "Look, I'm a Democrat, and so, you know, my views are not going to be perfectly balanced." I try to describe both sides of the issue, because part of what the book is about is trying to figure out, how do we build common ground? Ironically, if I get criticized, usually it's because people feel that I take too much care to see all points of view.

MS. NORRIS: In your chapter on politics, you write about Washington and the Washington money machine with a certain amount of surprise and disdain. You talk about the need to win, but also the need not to lose.

How do you avoid becoming part of that system? I mean, some political observers say that you're already becoming part of a system that you've openly criticized.

SEN. OBAMA: Well, you know, the -- I think that so far I have hit the right balance, but it's difficult. Look, you have to raise money to be in politics. Raising money means that you are around people and spend a lot of time talking to people that are not representative of the country as a whole.

The people who contribute to campaigns, who can afford to write a $2,000 check, are typically the top 1 percent of the population. And so they're going to have different perspectives than, you know, the single mom who's trying to figure out how to pay the bills and struggling with a lack of health care.

MS. NORRIS: It's been pointed out that the Hope Fund, your PAC, has taken in more money than any other leadership PAC, except for those of John McCain, John Kerry and Bill Frist. This is according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which leaves some to ask, why are you raising all that money, particularly if you're so concerned about the money machine in Washington?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, because it helps me elect Democrats. You know, the whole issue of money and politics is one that, you know, I'm constantly struggling with, because my preference would be that we've got public financing of campaigns and nobody has to raise money whatsoever.

But I'm also somebody who believes in winning. And so the question, then, you constantly have to ask yourself is, are the means that you're using to make sure that you're competitive in elections in any way undermining those core values that brought you into politics in the first place? I feel confident so far that hasn't happened, but it's something you constantly have to monitor.

MS. NORRIS: Senator, not long ago when you were asked if you were considering a run for the presidency, your answer was emphatic -- I actually found a transcript where you said clearly: "I'm not running for president. I'm not running for president in four years. I'm not running for president in 2008."

When asked that question now, your answer seems to have evolved. You seem to be keeping your options open at this point. What changed?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, the -- look, I was I think first asked this question the day after I'd been elected to the Senate. So it was an 8:00 in the morning press conference. I had just come out of the election, and I remember laughing at the question, because presumably it would make sense for me to be sworn into my new office before I started thinking about the next one.

Now with respect to '08, the only question that I think is adequate is to say that if I ever decide that I'm running for president, I will have an announcement and everybody's going to be invited and I'll tell people, "I'm running for president." Because, you know, what's happened, I think, is that, you know, we create this parlor game where, you know, there's constant speculation -- is this person running and is this person not running -- and then candidates who do decide to run end up stretching out their announcement over the course of a year, and they have four different announcements and --

MS. NORRIS: I'm sorry to interrupt you, but you could end all this today, if you're talking about the speculation. You could say, "Enough of this," you know, "I'm going to run or I'm not going to run or let's not talk about this right now."

SEN. OBAMA: Well, let's not talk about this right now. I'm focused on '06. And if I decide to run for president, then I'll make an announcement and everybody'll be invited and that will end the speculation at that point.

MS. NORRIS: The speculation continues, though. As I travel around Washington I keep seeing these blue and white stickers that seem to be placed at eye level, so you catch them when you're driving around the city in your car, and they say: "He's ready. Why wait? Obama '08."

SEN. OBAMA: I haven't seen those yet.

MS. NORRIS: I've seen a lot of them. And so -- and the question people must have when they see these stickers is, are you ready to run for president, and are you ready to serve as president? Do you have the requisite experience?

SEN. OBAMA: Well, look, I think that's an important question that everybody has to ask.

Politics shouldn't be a game. And one of the things I write about in the book is there is always an element of ambition in politics. You know, people wouldn't put themselves through the rigors of campaigns if they weren't ambitious at some level.

But I think you ask a good question, which is, when you make a decision to run for president -- and I think this is true of any public service -- you're making a commitment to serve people. It can't be solely based on your belief of what you want to be or the title that you want to have. It's got to be based on you feeling that somehow you can be useful, that you can offer something that is unique and will help create a better life for the people you seek to represent. And those are questions that I'm constantly asking myself.

MS. NORRIS: Your picture was in sort of -- there were a half a dozen photos of you in a single edition of a newspaper recently. And I'm wondering if, you know, you're at serious risk of overexposure. And what would you say to constituents who see you on the cover of all these magazines at the drugstore and the grocery store and perhaps think, what about us?

SEN. OBAMA: You know, I think I've been at serious risk of overexposure for the last two years. (Laughs.) You know, it's part of the celebrity culture that I think we all are bombarded with all the time.

MS. NORRIS: Senator Obama, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

SEN. OBAMA: Great to talk to you, Michele.

MS. NORRIS: Senator Barack Obama of Illinois.


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