WASHINGTON - Although Sen. Barack Obama has been drawing enormous crowds and intense attention during his presidential campaign, friends say he has resisted the idea of a U.S. Secret Service detail for fear it would limit what has been a great part of his appeal, namely his ability to make a close connection with voters.
But those reservations gave way to security concerns on Thursday, when the Secret Service assigned a team to the Illinois Democrat - the earliest point in a campaign cycle at which the agency has ever taken responsibility for a candidate not already under its protection as an office holder.
Several congressional sources familiar with the situation say there was no specific event or threat that triggered the decision, but that a bipartisan panel of congressional leaders reviewed threats to Obama on Web sites and in letters before recommending special protection.
Obama declined to talk about the federal agents who accompanied him and who were posted outside his Hyde Park home, a development that came after friends and colleagues expressed worry about his safety.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the colleague whose concerns set the Secret Service detail in motion, said he thinks the protection is a good idea and that Obama will “learn how to live with the limits” imposed by the presence of agents.
“I love this guy, and I never want to see anything happen to him,” Durbin said of Obama. “He’s making a great sacrifice for his country. Doing our best to guarantee his safety is the least we can do.”
Obama isn’t the first African American candidate to face heightened security concerns while considering a campaign or running for office. After being heavily courted to run for the White House in 1996, Colin Powell cited his family’s fears of an assassination attempt when he announced he would not run.
Rev. Jesse Jackson said he received a steady stream of death threats when he ran for president in 1984, most of which were expressed in racist terms, and that the threats picked up as his campaign gained momentum, particularly in his second run in 1988. He said he had Secret Service protection from the day he announced his candidacy.
“There is gender bigotry, racial bigotry and religious bigotry,” Jackson said in an interview Thursday. “Those forces are very real and they always have a fanatical bent to them . . . It’s test time for your faith. You must determine to go forward by your faith and not be paralyzed by your fears.”
It’s not unheard of members of Congress who are running for president to get protection. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has a detail because of her status as a former first lady. Also, two government security officers accompanied Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., wherever he went on the campaign trail in 2003 and 2004.
But for weeks, Obama has shied away from the additional security, instead employing a private set of guards. But two weeks ago, Durbin went to the Senate’s top Democrat to point out the danger he thought Obama might be in.
Durbin said he told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., about the size of the crowds he’d seen on the campaign trail with Obama, and also that he showed Reid some unspecified material that added to his concern. Durbin declined to characterize the material he showed Reid or to say where he got it.
“I wasn’t forcing this on Harry Reid,” Durbin said. “I gave him what I thought to be the facts of the matter. I asked him, based on his experience, to make a judgment if it should be brought up for consideration.”
Reid brought the concerns to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Secret Service and a special congressional committee that reviews the need for special protection.
A congressional aide said that the request for Obama’s Secret Service protection was unanimously backed by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. The aide said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., made a vigorous argument for the detail when the advisory group met.
“Reid was very adamant,” said the aide.
On Thursday, at least four Secret Service agents stood out front of Obama’s home, with one of their SUVs blocking entrance to the driveway. Obama attended a private fundraiser in New York.
(Chicago Tribune staff reporter John McCormick contributed to this report from Chicago.)