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Obama redefines Democratic campaigns, if not Democratic priorities

Michael Tackett
Chicago Tribune
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and wife, Michelle, wave to the crowd where he announced his candidacy for President of the United States at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, February 10, 2007. (Zia Nizami/Belleville News-Democrat/MCT)

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - The words from Senator Barack Obama as he formally announced his campaign for president on this frigid Saturday morning were not particularly new.

They included the familiar menu of Democratic causes, a call for universal health care, better pay for teachers and more protection for workers, along with a strong summons to end the war in Iraq.

But it was how he put the words together, the ease and optimism of his manner, and the symbolism built into the moment, that was more powerful and memorable, and why he passed an important first test in what will be the nation's longest campaign for the White House.

The stagecraft, with the grand Old State Capitol as a backdrop and echoes of Abraham Lincoln to suggest easy if facile comparison, was nearly flawless. The sun cast dramatic shadows off the building's stone columns and many thousand supporters crowded around, including parents who brought their children to capture a moment of history.

Equally striking was the pose when Obama and his wife Michelle, with their two young daughters, took to the stage offering up the prospect of a First Family who for the first time would not be white.

In one sense, Obama might be viewed as a hybrid candidate for a hybrid age - with a black African father and a white Kansan mother, a childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii and an adulthood on Chicago's South Side. He pledges to bridge divides of race and class and generation, to reach out to talk to enemies to try to win peace, to run a positive campaign at a polarized time and to run as a senator while running against Washington. He talks of an almost post-racial politics. He is a Democrat who openly talks about god and faith in the public square.

Though his intentions have been clear, for weeks, Obama's official launch still generated extraordinary interest in his 21-minute speech. By one count, 523 media credentials were issued, with dozens of international outlets included. His announcement was the lead story on the afternoon broadcast on BBC radio.

While no specific policy that he addressed truly sets him apart from the other Democrats seeking the nomination, at least in no significant way, the framing of his message in generational terms invites a clear contrast with the rest of the field, and most notably Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

He laid claim to a generational mantle much like John Kennedy did in 1960, Robert Kennedy in 1968 and to a lesser degree, Bill Clinton in 1992. In so doing, Obama clearly was attempting to turn his youth and relative inexperience into a strength. One of his better lines was when he talked of the "smallness of our politics - the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions . . ."

"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."

Obama also took the risk of the obvious, namely by invoking Lincoln, right down to the notion of them both as tall, gangly lawyers from Springfield.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, the historian and author of "Team of Rivals, the political genius of Abraham Lincoln," said Springfield was a natural "root" for Obama's campaign. She also noted that Obama could play off of Lincoln's own relative lack of experience when he sought the presidency in 1860.

"What Lincoln was saying was that character and judgment were more important than mere resume," Goodwin said. "What you want is a rich life experience that has broadened a person to make them curious."

Yet, the generational appeal, potent as it might be, also seems a bit fuzzy. At 45, he is a trailing edge Baby Boomer in a time that no successor generation is so clearly cohesive or defined. Obama is banking that the cynics who often report about politics don't understand the voters who are yearning for a reason to hope.

"Each and every time a new generation has risen up and done what needs to be done. Today we are called once more - and it is time for our generation to answer that call."

"For it is our unyielding faith that in the face of impossible odds, people who love their country can change it," he said.

The candidate who is most successful with the theme of a campaign-as-cause often gains a fast start, but as often has trouble ultimately prevailing, as the trail of tears for Eugene McCarthy, Ross Perot or even Howard Dean underscores.

Which seemed one reason that Obama said "this campaign can't be only about me. . . . this campaign must be the occasion, the vehicle, of your hopes, and your dreams."

For Obama, that will require more than a strong launch and a well-received foray into Iowa and New Hampshire. His status as a phenomenon is likely to wane at some point. His challengers seem more than eager to remove the halo that some have bestowed on him.

Despite the fame he has achieved through his books and speeches in his brief Senate career, Obama is still not well known nationally. He has nearly a year to go before voters will even cast ballots and sustainability will be an issue.

But on this day, when he made his formal introduction, the impression was compelling.

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