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Before Obama ever cast a vote in the Senate, his picture had been splashed on magazine covers, and pundits were declaring he would be the first black President. That kind of fame can be awkward in the Senate--where nearly every member thinks he or she could be President. But Obama has won over his colleagues by using the Hillary Clinton approach of conspicuously paying respect to their experience. After his term began, he met with more than a dozen Senators, including Clinton and Ted Kennedy, to seek their advice. In weekly breakfast meetings for Illinois residents visiting Washington, Obama spends much of his time deferring to Illinois' other Senator, assistant Democratic leader Dick Durbin. Obama tells the tourists they should direct their questions to Durbin, "the second most powerful Democrat in the Senate," a man who is "working on every bill." Says California Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat: "It's nice to see someone that young, that talented, show humility."
Republicans have also embraced Obama, realizing that any legislation he co-sponsors will automatically get more attention because of his fame. Obama was able to get more done last year than his junior status would normally allow. He joined a bipartisan effort on avian flu that resulted in several billion dollars of funding to prepare for a possible outbreak. He helped get funding for veterans' health care increased $1.5 billion. The main G.O.P. worry is that Obama's political future may be too promising--that he would be hard to beat as a presidential contender.
Make no mistake: Obama wants to be more than a well-liked, effective Senator. He says someone asks him about his presidential prospects "every day." He won't run for President or Vice President in 2008, he says, but even his aides acknowledge that he doesn't intend to spend decades in the Senate. And he already looks the part. He dresses impeccably and carries his 6-ft. 2-in. frame with a liquid confidence. He's fully aware of his talents. "I probably always feel on some level I can persuade anybody I talk to," Obama told TIME.
But Obama's ambition sometimes makes him overly cautious. Eight months ago, when a TIME reporter asked him if he had read any interesting books or met any interesting people lately, he said he wanted to think about that and respond later. Obama rarely plays the role of attack dog for his party. "He's very carefully chosen what assignments he will take," says a Senate Democratic aide. Some Democrats complain that his high-profile alliances with Republicans--such as his joining with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the Senate, to push a bill to monitor Hurricane Katrina recovery spending--smack of a man positioning himself for a presidential run. "He needs to be careful not to look too political and too out for himself," says a Democratic strategist. "He needs to pick some fights [with Republicans]." The McCain battle was unintentional, and Obama has tried to walk away from it. He called McCain "cranky" but said he still respects him.
HOLDING HIS BASE