After a two-year stint working in corporate research and at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in New York City, Obama moved to Chicago, where he took a job as a community organizer with a church-based group, the Developing Communities Project. For the next several years, he worked with low-income residents in Chicago’s Roseland community and the Altgeld Gardens public housing development on the city’s largely black South Side. Obama would later call the experience “the best education I ever got, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School,” the prestigious institution he entered in 1988.
In 1996, Obama officially launched his own political career, winning election to the Illinois State Senate as a Democrat from the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park. Despite tight Republican control during his years in the state senate, Obama was able to build support among both Democrats and Republicans in drafting legislation on ethics and health care reform. He helped create a state earned-income tax credit that benefited the working poor, promoted subsidies for early childhood education programs and worked with law enforcement officials to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in all capital cases.
Re-elected in 1998 and again in 2002, Obama also ran unsuccessfully in the 2000 Democratic primary for the U. S. House of Representatives seat held by the popular four-term incumbent Bobby Rush. As a state senator, Obama notably went on record as an early opponent of President George W. Bush’s push to war with Iraq. During a rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza in October 2002, he spoke against a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq: “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars…I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U. S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences.”
When Republican Peter Fitzgerald announced that he would vacate his U.S. Senate seat in 2004 after only one term, Obama decided to run. He won 52 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, defeating both multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull and Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes. After his original Republican opponent in the general election, Jack Ryan, withdrew from the race, the former presidential candidate Alan Keyes stepped in. That July, Obama gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, shooting to national prominence with his eloquent call for unity among “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democratic) states.
In November 2004, Illinois delivered 70 percent of its votes to Obama (versus Keyes’ 27 percent), sending him to Washington as only the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction. During his tenure, Obama notably focused on issues of nuclear non-proliferation and the health threat posed by avian flu. With Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, he created a Web site that tracks all federal spending, aimed at rebuilding citizens’ trust in government. He partnered with another Republican, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, on a bill that expanded efforts to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Eastern Europe and Russia. In August 2006, Obama traveled to Kenya, where thousands of people lined the streets to welcome him. He published his second book, The Audacity of Hope, in October 2006.