In 2002, on the floor of the Illinois Senate, Sen. Barack Obama threatened to kick Sen. Rickey Hendon’s ass after Hendon called him out for voting in favor of a bill that would have closed a DCFS facility in Hendon’s West Side District.
“You embarrassed me on the Senate floor,” Obama told Hendon, “and if you ever do it again, I’ll kick your ass.”
“Really?” Hendon retorted.
“You heard me,” Obama said, “and if you come back here by the telephones, where the press can’t see, I’ll kick your ass right now.”
POLITICO is finally discovering what we in Illinois have always known about Obama: when someone gets in his way, he can be a coldblooded individual. According to a new e-book about the 2012 campaign, the man whose first national speech featured the phrase “there is not a Red America and a Blue America -- there is a United States of America” is prepared to turn the political waters red to ensure Team Blue wins this election.
This has produced a campaign being animated by one thing above all. It is not exclusively about hope and change anymore, words that seem like distant echoes even to Obama’s original loyalists — and to the president himself. It is not the solidarity of a hard-fought cause, often absent in this mostly joyless campaign. It is Obama’s own burning competitiveness, with his remorseless focus on beating Mitt Romney — an opponent he genuinely views with contempt and fears will be unfit to run the country.
Obama is sometimes portrayed as a reluctant warrior, sorry to see 2012 marked by so much partisan warfare but forced by circumstance to go along. But this perception is by most evidence untrue. In the interviews with current and former Obama aides, not one said he expressed any reservations about the negativity. He views it as a necessary part of campaigning, as a natural — if unpleasant — rotation of the cyclical political wheel.
Obama’s trash-talking competitiveness, a trait that has defined him since his days on the court as a basketball-obsessed teenager in Hawaii, was on display one night last February, when the president spotted a woman he knew was close to Sen. Marco Rubio in a Florida hotel lobby. “Is your boy going to go for [vice president]?” the president asked her. Maybe, she replied.
“Well,” he said, chuckling, according to a person who witnessed the encounter. “Tell your boy to watch it. He might get his ass kicked.”
Obama first had to kick an opponent’s ass in 1996, when he challenged state Sen. Alice Palmer’s petitions in a Democratic primary. Palmer had run for Congress, in a special election to replace Rep. Mel Reynolds, and anointed Obama as her successor. After losing that election to Jesse Jackson Jr., Palmer tried to retain her senate seat. But her ward organization failed to collect the 757 valid signatures necessary to get on the ballot, a misstep spotted by Obama’s supporters.
At first, Obama was reluctant to challenge Palmer’s petitions. He was finally persuaded by the locals on his staff: campaign manager Carol Anne Harwell, and field coordinator Ron Davis, who cut through Obama’s agonizing by growling, “The hell with this. The petitions are garbage.”
Suddenly forced to play hardball politician, Obama found a way to call Palmer an Indian giver without actually using that politically incorrect term. The primary, he predicted to the Hyde Park Herald, would be determined by how voters felt about his message.
“I’m not going to win because people feel Palmer went back on her word,” he said, using his rival’s last name, in case anyone thought they were still friends.
That was the birth of Obama as a Chicago politician. Palmer still hasn't forgiven him. Neither will Romney.
This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $2.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.