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Sen. Obama's Stock Quietly Rises

The Illinois Democrat is expected to raise about $1.2 million by year's end. He's also making powerful friends such as Warren Buffett.

November 20, 2005|Jeff Zeleny | Chicago Tribune

OMAHA — Warren Buffett sits on the edge of a soft brown sofa, closely watching as Sen. Barack Obama navigates the well-appointed living room. He moves his square glasses closer to his face, unfolds his arms and springs to his feet when the time comes to welcome his guest to Nebraska.

"There he is," Buffett says with a wide grin, pulling Obama toward him with a hearty handshake. "You're the hottest ticket in town today."

The sage of money and finance, America's second-richest man seldom becomes invested in politicians. But he has made an exception for the junior Democratic senator from Illinois, which is precisely why Obama has arrived here on a frosty fall morning, without an overcoat or an entourage.

No television cameras record the moment. No oversize crowds gather. Rather, a mere 16 people -- most of whom Obama is meeting for the first time -- finish a breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit in the home of Warren Buffett's daughter, Susie Buffett.

"I've got a conviction about him that I don't get very often," Warren Buffett explained later in an interview. "He has as much potential as anyone I've seen to have an important impact over his lifetime on the course that America takes.

"If he can do an ounce better with me," Buffett added, "fine."

Had the billionaire investor delivered such a glowing appraisal of a stock, his words would have sent shares soaring on Wall Street. But unlike the world of finance, where he never succumbs to speculation, Buffett is placing faith in Obama well before the senator establishes a record of performance.

Following his lead, the men and women sitting near a wooden grand piano have come to hear Obama's prescription for the Democratic Party. And though he has come to accept their contributions, he also has hopes of cultivating long-term investors in his political future.

By year's end, Obama will have collected about $1.2 million as he builds a coast-to-coast army of backers. At a seafood lunch in Beverly Hills, a dinner in Austin, Texas, or events in more than a dozen other cities, Obama is creating a network unlike that of any other freshman senator since Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

Although many politicians spend several hours a week on the phone, dialing through lists of party contributors in hope of winning them over, Obama's celebrity cachet allows him to keep such mundane aspects of the job to a minimum.

Whether on a book tour in New York, attending a college reunion in Boston or taking a family vacation to Phoenix, his fundraising apparatus is in tow. His staff makes the telephone calls and sets up events where the promise of an Obama visit attracts donors with checks of up to $5,000 for his political action committee, the Hopefund.

It's not altogether clear, at least now, what an investment in Obama might yield. There is no long-range prospectus, no true sense of the risk.

Yet the transaction offers an early benefit: Obama gains exposure and passes a share of the contributions along to like-minded Democrats running for office, who then are indebted to him. At the same time, contributors gain access to a senator on the rise.

Buffett, who at 75 still runs Berkshire Hathaway Inc., was captivated by Obama's speech last year at the Democratic convention. After the election, Buffett wanted to meet Obama, so he and his daughter invited him to Omaha for lunch.

Occasionally, Buffett tears out a newspaper article and sends it to Obama, accompanied by a note or comment. But he says he doesn't flood the senator with thoughts: "I am not one of these guys that thinks that every thought in the morning I have I must convey to the U.S. Senate."

Still, their friendship has provided Obama entree into at least a slice of Buffett's vast and influential circle, including a dinner this year with Bill Gates, a close Buffett friend.

Among those in the Omaha living room were Donald Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Co. Graham and his wife were visiting Buffett (a major shareholder of the Washington Post Co.), and they seized the opportunity to hear one of Washington's newest politicians speak far from the capital.

As guests continued to sip their coffee, Buffett and Obama stepped into an adjoining room. For the next hour, as they both recounted later, they discussed the federal deficit, tax policy and other economic matters.

That meeting underscored "the most important aspect" of their relationship, Obama said, because only a rare few can offer such insight.

"Warren Buffett's $2,000 is no different than anyone else's. There are a lot of people who can give me money," Obama said. "The wonderful thing about Warren Buffett -- similar to my relationship with Oprah -- it's somebody who doesn't need anything from me."

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