By Shailagh Murray and Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, whose best-selling books and political travels generated huge pressure to run for the White House, joined a crowded Democratic field yesterday, vowing to advance "a different kind of politics" in a campaign that could make him the nation's first African American president.
Obama, a state legislator just three years ago, announced that he has formed a presidential exploratory committee, accelerating his already rapid emergence in national politics and establishing him as his party's most formidable rival to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the Democratic front-runner. He will formally announce his candidacy on Feb. 10.
Obama, 45, portrayed his youth and short tenure in Congress as an asset in a statement distributed via Web video and e-mail. "Today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common sense way," the senator declared. "Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions."
But it is Obama's ethnic profile and life story that set him apart. His late father was a black Kenyan, his mother the white daughter of a Kansas farmer. Obama was born in Hawaii, lived in Indonesia in his youth and was the first African American to be elected Harvard Law Review president. His autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," was published in 1995, nine years before his keynote address electrified the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Another book, "The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream," has been a bestseller since it was published in October.
"This is an opportunity for a new generation of leaders to step forward to remake America," said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois and a key Obama ally. Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), another up-and-coming black lawmaker, called Obama "the kind of unique transformational candidate who surfaces once in a generation."
Obama and Clinton are considered the leaders of the Democratic field, but they have plenty of company. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.), the party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, has already announced his candidacy. Others who are lining up include Sens. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack. Former vice president Al Gore could jump in, as could Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), who narrowly lost the presidential election in 2004.
Obama is expected to spend the next several weeks fundraising, with no trips to early primary or caucus states. Unlike the other candidates except Clinton, Obama should have little trouble raising the $50 million to $100 million necessary to compete in the four states -- Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- that will vote in January 2008.
During last year's midterm elections, Obama barnstormed the country for Democratic congressional and gubernatorial candidates, collecting more than $4.5 million for his political action committee and building up a national network of donors. He has also built support among the "Net roots" -- the loose affiliation of progressive bloggers and activists who provided much of the financing for former Vermont governor Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign.
After he was elected to the Senate, Obama vowed to serve out his term. But he opened the door to a 2008 presidential campaign during an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" in October, saying that, "given the response I've been getting," he would consider the possibility after the midterm elections.
Despite all the hype about his potential candidacy, some of Obama's closest associates worry that the senator remains untested. After winning a tough Senate primary in 2004, he sailed through the general election, aided by a Republican nominee with extensive personal travails. "There will be bumps; there always are," said one senior Obama adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "He's going to have to manage expectations and show he has the strength and endurance for the long haul."
In yesterday's statement, Obama said that his campaign will emphasize traditional Democratic goals such as lowering health-care costs, providing college-tuition assistance and developing new energy sources. He only briefly mentioned the Iraq war, the issue that could well drive the 2008 election. "We're still mired in a tragic and costly war that should never have been waged," Obama said.
His Iraq views are complicated and could require some tricky navigation in the months ahead. The Senate authorized the war in the fall of 2002, two years before Obama was elected. But although he opposed the conflict from the beginning, he has not endorsed a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, a position forcefully advocated by Edwards.
According to his Senate Web site, Obama supports "a phased redeployment of American troops to signal to the government and people of Iraq that ours is not an open-ended commitment." But his unwillingness to set a date has infuriated war opponents, who also fumed last year over Obama's support for the reelection campaign of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), one of President Bush's strongest allies on Iraq. The Web site Antiwar.com called him "O-bomb-a."
Last week, Obama was quick to criticize Bush's plan to deploy an additional 21,500 troops in Iraq, comparing the move to that of a gambler who increases his bet in a bid to cover his losses. Yet he has refused to back a proposal by some Democrats to require congressional authorization before additional troops are sent to Iraq.
"We need to look at what options do we have available to constrain the president, to hopefully right the course that we are on right now, but to do so in a way that makes sure that the troops that are on the ground have all the equipment and the resources they need to fulfill their mission and come home safely," Obama said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation."
In most matters before the Senate, Obama has maintained a relatively low profile, tending to home-state concerns while promoting narrow causes such as congressional ethics reform, an issue now being debated on the Senate floor. Last year, Senate Democratic leaders asked Obama to help lead the reform charge, and he responded with proposals that went further than many of his colleagues had wanted to go.
While Obama paints himself as a reform-minded outsider, the small group of senior advisers who will guide his campaign are longtime Washington hands.
Nearly two-thirds of the Obama inner circle has political roots in the offices of then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) or then-Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). His staff's long experience in state and national politics should help Obama to compensate for his lack of campaign experience. He has made only a few cursory stops in Iowa, for example, where the first votes of the presidential race are likely to be cast on Jan. 14, 2008, but he has signed up Steve Hildebrand, who ran the Iowa caucus campaign of then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and Paul Tewes, Hildebrand's second-in-command in that campaign.
In New Hampshire, Obama drew a rock-star reception during a Dec. 9 visit. Jim Demers, a longtime party activist who squired Obama around the state for the day, said that his phone has not stopped ringing since, with people seeking to work for the campaign. "People here are excited to see and hear him," said Demers, who said he may volunteer himself.