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Unlike Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, Obama is part of a new generation of black leaders who insist on being seen as more than representatives of their race. That's in part because, as the biracial son of a white mother and an immigrant father from Kenya, he belongs to more than one. But it's also because he has declined to assume the role. When President George W. Bush suggested last year that his proposed Social Security private-accounts plan would help African-American men, because on average they die earlier than members of other demographic groups and often don't collect much of their Social Security money, Senate Democrats approached Obama to speak on the issue. He was reluctant and attacked Bush on this point only after some prodding, arguing that the current system helps blacks more than Bush's accounts would. Obama was more public in his criticism of Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina, but he declined to join other black leaders who said the debacle showed that Bush didn't care about African Americans. Privately, the Congressional Black Caucus, a group of 43 African-American members, complains that Obama hasn't done enough to push its causes--like organizing to oppose Bush's judicial nominees.
Obama sees no need to be a black leader on all issues. "I don't know who the top white leader is," he said, naming Bill Gates, President Bush and Bono as possibilities. He says his African-American roots are very important to him. Photos of Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King Jr. adorn his office walls, along with a painting of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice. Within his political-action committee, Obama has created a fund to support one-week training courses for minorities interested in working on political campaigns. Concerned about government-sponsored killing in the Darfur region of Sudan, he plans to visit that country on a trip to Africa this summer.
Obama says he does not worry that his political career is a delicate balancing act. And if it is, he does not consider that grounds for complaint. "That's a high-class problem to have," he says. But it is a problem, argues Obama critic David Sirota, a former Democratic congressional aide from Montana who now runs a blog that is popular among Washington insiders. Sirota is worried that Obama's caution may muddle his record in the Senate--which, as Kerry found out, could ultimately hurt his chances of winning the White House. "He's got all the talent," says Sirota. "The question is, Are you willing to be criticized? Are you willing to be attacked?"
Asked again in early February in an interview with TIME in his Senate office what he had been reading, Obama had an answer this time: E.L. Doctorow's new novel about the Civil War, The March, and the Bible. He added that he had picked a passage in the Book of Romans, Chapter 12, to read at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. It is a passage about humility.
For a Q&A with Barack Obama, visit time.com