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When Obama needed public-access TV to reach voters

A 2003 interview captures the future president explaining how he's a "populist."

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One day a few weeks ago, attorney and political activist Frank Avila was sifting through some papers when he discovered an old VHS cassette.

He popped it into a machine and, to his surprise, watched as it took him back in time to the summer of 2003.

It was a tape of a talk show Avila used to host on public-access TV.

Appearing on the show with Avila was Barack Obama, then a state senator, looking young and fresh faced as he explained why Illinois voters should elect him as their next U.S. senator, funny name and all.

"It's amazing to think that in just five years he would be president," says Avila, a local Democratic maverick.

Avila recently posted the tape on YouTube, and I urge you to check it out. It's not only a portal to the past, but a revealing barometer of how much President Obama has struggled to stay true to his earlier political ideals.

In some ways, it's funny to think that there was a time when Obama needed public-access TV to get his message out.

But back then he was a relatively unknown legislator from Hyde Park in his first statewide campaign. He was looking for any free media he could get—including cable access.

"Who is Barack Obama?" Avila asks at the beginning of the interview.

Obama shows a sense of humor as he starts with the basics, such as how to pronounce his name. "People call me 'Alabama,' 'Yo mama,'" he says. "'Barack' actually means 'one who is blessed' in Swahili."

He goes on to tell the story of his background that's now part of our national lore: His father was from Kenya, his mother from Kansas. They met in Hawaii, "where I was born."

Somehow Avila and his cohost, Morgan Carter, refrained from demanding to see his birth certificate.

"I came to Chicago after college because I was interested in community organizing," Obama says. "I worked as a community organizer on the south side. It was the best education I ever had. I fell in love with the city. Even when I was in law school [at Harvard], I knew I wanted to come back."

Ironically, at that moment he was fighting like hell to get out of the toxic political swamp of Chicago and move on to Washington. Not that I blame him.

Noting that Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago, Avila asks the young candidate for his position on Miguel Estrada's judicial nomination.

The interview is a revealing barometer of how much President Obama has struggled to stay true to his earlier political ideals.

Talk about a trip down memory lane. As a few legal and political geeks may remember, Estrada was a conservative lawyer nominated by President George W. Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia. In 2003, Senate Democrats successfully blocked Estrada's nomination on the grounds that he was unqualified and extreme.

Showing great political nimbleness, Obama artfully avoids saying whether he'd vote for Estrada's confirmation. Instead, he takes the opportunity to deliver a minilecture on his reverence for the Constitution—"a document of genius for all its imperfections."

He does throw a little red meat to Democratic liberals by acknowledging that he's concerned about how Estrada would respond if Attorney General John Ashcroft decided "I want to be able to read Frank Avila's e-mail without having to go to a judge."

Of course, there's a chance that President Obama's guys at the National Security Agency are reading my e-mails at this very moment.

For the record, Mr. President, let me assure you that these days I'm mostly chatting about what's up with Derrick Rose's knee and why nobody adequately appreciates Inside Llewyn Davis for the great movie that it is.

At any rate, Avila continues the interview by tossing the future president a bit of a softball: "How do you describe Barack Obama?"

"I believe I'm a populist," Obama says.

"As in William Jennings Bryan?" asks Avila.

Good comeback, Frank!

Clearly, Obama wants no part of any such comparison, even though Bryan electrified the 1896 Democratic convention with a rousing speech on behalf of the working classes.

Instead, Obama delivers an impromptu oratory that prefigures his "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America" speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.

He says that if there's a boy on the south side who goes to bed hungry because his parents have no money for an adequate meal, he too is our child. And if there are senior citizens in downstate Illinois who can't afford to pay the rent because of health bills, they might as well be our grandparents.

"I believe we are all connected as a people," he tells Avila.

Maybe if Mayor Rahm Emanuel is listening he'll be moved to reopen the mental health clinics he shuttered two years ago in poor black neighborhoods, since those patients are our brothers and sisters.

Avila's interview moves to foreign policy. Obama points out that he was against invading Iraq. But "I think America needs to have a robust military capability. We may need to intervene to protect our national interests."

Alas, as president he was essentially forced to keep fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he inherited from President Bush.

The subject then turns to education, as Obama explains his support for charter schools.

Remember, this was in 2003, when Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan was teaming up with Mayor Richard M. Daley to start the school-privatization process that Mayor Emanuel has accelerated. Duncan has taken the approach nationwide as Obama's education secretary.

There are two ways of looking at Obama's position on charters. He may actually believe they do a better job of educating low-income students—though there's not much in the way of objective evidence to support this.

Or he's smart enough to realize that if he wants to win over national pundits and right-of-center voters, he needs to let everybody know he's not afraid to tick off the teachers' unions.

Any way you look at it, his position on charters helped Obama advance his career.

And with that, the interview comes to a close. Avila thanks Obama for coming. "It was my pleasure," says Obama. "Great to see you, as always."

They shake hands. The funky theme music plays and the credits roll.

Obama went on to win the Democratic primary for Senate and then coasted through the general election. And, well, we know what happened then. Suffice it to say, he'll never need public-access TV to reach the voters again.

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