"Junkie. Pothead. That's where I'd been headed: the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man. . . . I got high [to] push questions of who I was out of my mind."
The Democratic senator from Illinois and likely presidential candidate offered the confession in a memoir written 11 years ago, not long after he graduated from law school and well before he contemplated life on the national stage. At the time, 20,000 copies were printed and the book seemed destined for the remainders stacks.
Today, Obama, 45, is near the top of polls on potential Democratic presidential contenders, and "Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance" has regularly been on the bestseller lists, with 800,000 copies in print. Taken along with his latest bestseller, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," Obama has become a genuine publishing phenomenon.
Obama's revelations were not an issue during his Senate campaign two years ago. But now his open narrative of early, bad choices, including drug use starting in high school and ending in college, as well as his tortured search for racial identity, are sure to receive new scrutiny.
As a potential candidate, Obama has presented himself as a fresh voice offering a politics of hope. Many say he offers something new in American politics: an African American with a less-than-traditional name who has so far demonstrated broad appeal. What remains to be seen is whether the candor he offered in his early memoir will be greeted with a new-style acceptance by voters.
It was not so long ago that such blunt admissions would have led to a candidate's undoing, and there is uneasiness in Democratic circles that "Dreams From My Father" will provide a blueprint for negative attacks.
"This is not the kind of book you would ever expect a politician to write," said GOP consultant Alex Vogel. "Anyone who has a career in politics has to be concerned with what's in their past, but there is no question that Americans have an appetite for redemption."
In fact, Bush himself has been a beneficiary of those sympathies. He has suffered little criticism from his conservative base after acknowledging that he drank too much in the past and is now a teetotaler.
Obama's partisan opponents and experts said it is too early to know whether the admissions will be a liability because the public seems to be enthusiastically embracing his openness at this point. What's more, they note that it is better for a politician to disclose his own transgressions, rather than be put on the defensive by revelations.
A senior Republican strategist who will be advising a GOP presidential candidate in 2008 said he did not see anything in the book that would be a "disqualifier," but he cautioned that Obama has not yet gone through an intense vetting process and that a problem could arise if there is more to his story than he has chosen to share. The strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, also suggested that there will be high tolerance for marijuana use among voters because many baby boomers probably tried the drug in the '60s.
"Who's going to cast that first stone?" asked Anita Dunn, a veteran Democratic political consultant, who has advised Obama's political committee.
Rhodes Cook, a independent political analyst, said that Democratic primary voters, who are typically more liberal, would be more understanding of his drug use -- "and if he makes it to a general election, it will be old news."
Obama's supporters said his admissions in the book could work to his advantage.
"I think it will be received as refreshing," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Obama's fellow Democrat from Illinois. "If you compare similar books, many of us in the political business tend to have selective memories."
In the book, Obama acknowledges that he used cocaine as a high school student but rejected heroin. "Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though," he says.
In an interview during his Senate race two years ago, Obama said he admitted using drugs because he thought it was important for "young people who are already in circumstances that are far more difficult than mine to know that you can make mistakes and still recover.