By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 11, 2007
SPRINGFIELD, Ill., Feb. 10 -- Illinois Sen. Barack Obama formally opened his campaign for president here Saturday, invoking memories of Abraham Lincoln and challenging a new generation to help him transform the nation.
Standing on the grounds of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech against slavery in 1858, the Democratic first-term senator began a bid for the White House that barely seemed possible just a few months ago but could make him the first black president. "I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness -- a certain audacity -- to this announcement," he said. "I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."
Thousands of supporters, some of whom had driven long distances to be here, braved freezing temperatures to join Obama at an event described by many as history in the making. Long before the candidate arrived with his wife, Michelle, and two young daughters shortly after 10 a.m. Central time, the Old Capitol grounds and surrounding areas were packed to capacity.
Against the morning cold, Obama wore an overcoat and a scarf, but no hat or gloves. In his speech, he presented an ambitious agenda that includes bringing an end to the Iraq war, eliminating poverty, ensuring universal health care and creating energy independence. But he seemed to be trying to transcend traditional political debate by arguing that what the country lacks is not good ideas.
"What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans," he said. "What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems."
Recalling past periods of economic or political crisis, he said, "Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more -- and it is time for our generation to answer that call."
The story of Obama's rise has captivated political insiders and ordinary Americans alike. The months ahead will test whether he now can transform himself from political phenomenon into the kind of candidate who can withstand the rigors of the marathon ahead.
Obama will be asked to demonstrate that his dearth of experience is not the liability that some of his rivals suggest, and he will be challenged to fill in the blanks of a policy agenda that is longer on goals than details.
He begins as one of the principal challengers to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the early favorite for the Democratic nomination. But he must also contend with former North Carolina senator John Edwards, whose progressive agenda and grass-roots campaign threatens to occupy some of the same space Obama aims to seize for his own candidacy. Other more experienced candidates hope to profit if he falters.
For all the enthusiasm that surrounds his candidacy, Obama still faces the reality that Clinton begins with a political machine that is far deeper and broader than his. Obama advisers said their campaign for the nomination may be more unconventional than hers.
"I think that the path to get there has to do with our ability to inspire a lot of people to get involved in this process who have not been involved, or who may have been involved once but lost heart," said David Axelrod, the campaign's chief strategist. "We have to give people a real sense of investment so that the electorate will maybe look a little different."
Obama's sharpest difference with both Clinton and Edwards is his early opposition to the Iraq war; they voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to invade Iraq. Edwards has since apologized for his vote, and Clinton has said she would not have voted that way had she known then what she knows now.
But Obama can point to remarks he made in the fall of 2002 in which he not only called the war "dumb" but also predicted the dangers of the long occupation that followed the successful invasion. In his announcement speech, he described the war as a "tragic mistake."
"It's time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war," he said Saturday. "That's why I have a plan that will bring our combat troops home by March of 2008. Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shia to come to the table and find peace."
Beyond the setting itself, Obama invoked Lincoln throughout the speech, even to the point where the tall, thin Obama recalled a "tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer" who ended slavery and led the nation though one of its darkest moments.
"He had his doubts," Obama said of Lincoln. "He had his defeats. He had his setbacks. But through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people."
But in issuing a call for a new generation to take its place at the center of public life, Obama summoned up memories of President John F. Kennedy and his 1960 campaign.
Obama, 45 and the son of a black Kenyan man and a white Kansas woman, worked as a community organizer in Chicago before graduating from Harvard Law School and returning to the city to become a civil rights lawyer. He ran for the state Senate in 1996 and served four terms there before launching what seemed a long-shot campaign for the U.S. Senate. Even before he won the seat and became the only African American in the Senate, Obama was seen as a rising star in his party because of the keynote speech he gave at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His two best-selling books -- and his appearances on "Oprah," on ESPN's "Monday Night Football" and in the pages of People magazine -- have spread his appeal widely over the past few months, even as his name recognition across the electorate remains relatively low.
In his announcement speech Saturday and in interviews leading up to it, Obama began the process of both laying out his professional experience and arguing that experience in Washington is not a requirement for becoming president.
Critical of Bush's presidency and what he said are the nation's unmet challenges, Obama decried the cynicism that he said pervades the political process and called on those disillusioned by a culture of special interests and gridlocked politics to join him in his campaign.
"The time for that politics is over. It is through. It is time to turn the page, right here, right now," he said, and the crowd responded with chants of "Obama, Obama, Obama."
Although his campaign infrastructure is still being built -- his advisers moved into their Chicago headquarters only last week -- Obama's launch had the trappings of a campaign that has been building for months. That included a new Web site launched in conjunction with the announcement and a new campaign logo, a blue "O" that evokes a rising sun and that appeared on buttons, placards and T-shirts.
The crowd was filled with committed Obama supporters who lifted signs -- "Barack the Vote" was among the more creative -- and cheered in waves as the candidate spoke.
From Illinois, Obama flew to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and a town hall meeting with more than 2,000 people. Obama spent an hour fielding questions about Iraq, North Korea, the No Child Left Behind Act and the cost of college tuition.
He said he believes many Americans feel that something has been lost since the promise of the Kennedy era.
"What's been lost is that our politics feels very much like an insider's game," he said. "People feel like you've got the two parties splitting the pot, and ordinary voters are left out of the process."
Opening the session, Obama talked about the challenges facing the country and his own ambitions to be president.
"I want to win," he said, "but I don't just want to win. I want to transform this country."