Rupert Cornwell: Out of America special

With a measured attempt to borrow from the legend of Abraham Lincoln, the first real black contender launches his bid for the White House
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The Independent Online

With the ghost of the President who abolished slavery hovering in the icy air, Barack Obama yesterday launched the first presidential campaign by a black politician in US history reckoned to have a real chance of winning the White House.

"I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for the presidency of the United States," he declared to thunderous cheers from an estimated 15,000 people outside the Old State Capitol building of Illinois. "Thank you everybody. I love you," he said, as he ended an impassioned oration. "Let's get to work."

Tall and slender, wrapped in a long black overcoat against the cold, the 45-year-old first-term Senator mixed Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy as he issued his summons to arms. "It is time for our generation to answer the call, even in the face of impossible odds," he proclaimed. "That's what Abraham Lincoln understood. Through his will and words he moved a nation.

"Today we have the chance to face the challenges of this millennium together as one people, as Americans," he urged, as the crowd chanted O-B-A-M-A, O-B-A-M-A. But this would depend on "the active participation of an awakened electorate", he said, urging cynical and disillusioned voters to join what amounts to a popular crusade.

The crowd, stretching several blocks down the street next to the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln first served in the Illinois legislature some 170 years ago, braved a temperature of -11C to watch Senator Obama launch his bid. Many sported "Are You Ready to Barack" sweatshirts over sweaters and coats.

After his announcement, Mr Obama left for Iowa, the state whose caucuses on 14 January 2008 kick off the primary season, before returning to Chicago tonight. Tomorrow he will be in New Hampshire, a day after Hillary Clinton, frontrunner for the Democratic party nomination, pays her first visit to the state that hosts the bellwether early primary.

"I know there is a certain presumption to what I am doing," he declared, acknowledging how short a time he had been on the national stage. But the country was looking for something new to face its challenges: among them a "war without end in Iraq", the desperate need for a new energy strategy, and the failings of the educational system.

"It hasn't been an absence of sound plans that has stopped us, but the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics. People have looked away in disgust and disillusion. We're here to take politics back. It's time to turn the page, right here and right now."

But if the message was thoroughly 21st-century, the unseen presence was that of Lincoln, the 16th President, widely considered to be the greatest man ever to occupy the White House, and whose political career began in the building where Senator Obama spoke.

No American city exudes presidential atmosphere like Springfield, Lincoln's home for half a century, "where I passed from a young to an old man", before leaving for Washington in 1861 as the country descended into civil war. His house stands a few blocks away. In the Old State Capitol, he delivered his famous speech two years before he was elected in 1860, stating that "a house divided against itself cannot stand"; that "this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free".

Across the street are the Lincoln Herndon offices where he practised law. Here, after he was assassinated, his body was brought back to lie in state. He is buried outside the city.

Even Lincoln could not resolve the problem of race in America. In 1908, fully 45 years after the Proclamation of Emancipation, a mob lynched William Donnegan and Scott Burton, less than half a mile from the Old State Capitol. Their only sin was to be black. Only now has the wheel turned full circle, to a black candidate for the presidency whose greatest strength is that he transcends race.

That is in large measure because Mr Obama is, literally, an African-American. His mother was a white woman from Kansas, his father a Kenyan who studied in the US before returning to Kenya. He was born in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia. Slavery and the plantations are not part of his ancestors' history, and race will not be part of his campaign.

As always, Senator Obama was the master orator yesterday, peppering his speech with soaring phrases, pacing it effortlessly, seemingly without notes. In fact, it was as choreographed as any event in today's stage-managed politics. The evening before, his advance team were showing dozens of camera crews how to bottle the Lincoln magic for their candidate. "This is a great profile shot," they enthused, drawing the sight line from the simple podium to the columns of the Greek revival-style building, decked out with red, white and blue for the occasion.

Now, however, the real battle begins. Hillary Clinton, with her huge fundraising resources, her calibrated centrism and the vast political network inherited from her husband, is the main barrier between Mr Obama and the Democratic nomination. But she is not the only one.

No one can rule out John Edwards, campaigning for the White House ever since he failed to be elected as vice-president in November 2004.

Mr Edwards has staked out a populist position to the left of both Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton. Right now, he trails both of them in the polls. But if they cancel each other out, he could yet prevail.

Senator Obama's ascent has been meteoric even by the standards of US politics. Three years ago, he was an accomplished Illinois state senator, but seemingly no more, who had launched a bid for a seat in the US Senate which the Democrats believed they had a good shot at winning.

Primarily for that reason, he was handed the showcase slot at the party convention in Boston in 2004 which nominated the John Kerry-John Edwards ticket. The speech was a national smash, Mr Obama was elected in a landslide, and by the middle of last year, with a bare 18 months of experience in Washington, he was being talked of as presidential material. In the end, his formal announcement was forced on him by public demand.

His family was reluctant. But even his wife, mother of the couple's two daughters, was resigned to the inevitable. "This is an incredible opportunity," she said, to CBS News. "If I wasn't married to him, I'd want him in there."

But Mr Obama's policies, beyond his instinctive liberalism, are still something of a mystery. "He was obviously good, smart and he could get along with everyone," recalls Bernard Schoenburg, political writer for the Springfield Journal Register, who watched him in the state legislature. "But you'd never have thought this would happen so quickly: that he'd become a national obsession almost overnight. And frankly, I don't think he thought it would happen." But it has.

Mr Obama may well yet fail. He may be exposed as all warm platitudes that offer nothing of substance. But in today's anxious America, where the standard partisan battles seem so self-defeating,he strikes a deep chord. It's not just the change of generation (he makes Hillary look a creature of the past, though at 47 he would be a few months older than Bill Clinton when he came to power), but a change of attitude. With his words and his background, he preaches unity, reconciliation and boundless horizons: in short that hoary but ever potent notion of "the American Dream".

Yes he is inexperienced. But that, curiously, is his appeal. He had no foreign affairs experience, yet knew enough to oppose the invasion of Iraq. The Bush national security team was said to be the best ever. But it contrived the greatest foreign policy blunder since Vietnam, perhaps in all US history. "It's time to bring our troops home," he declared to loud cheers.

The Audacity of Hope is the title of his bestselling political memoir. His emergence may be more hype than hope. But then again, the Obama project may not be so audacious after all. America may be ready to entrust its future to someone who is so untested, having concluded that the old politics has run out of answers.

Either way, there are more questions than answers. But yesterday, for a moment at least, the glacial air froze out the doubts. Our eyes watered and our pens stopped working. And just maybe we had watched history in the making.

Barack v Hillary

How the two top Democrats stack up:

Barack Obama

Plus: Youth, freshness, eloquence and vision of "not a black America and a white America but a United States of America". Inspires real passion among supporters, especially the young.

Minus: Inexperience - a Senator for only two years - accused of fuzzy "feelgood" politics and lack of clarity on the issues. Can a black candidate win?

Clinton

Plus: Experience - eight years at the White House, six in the Senate - and a command of the issues. Already has $10m and the best fundraising machine.

Minus: Will bring the Clinton-haters out in force, reviving memories of everything from Whitewater to Monica Lewinsky. Is America ready for a female President?

Major backers

Obama: Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, fellow Illinois

Senator and deputy Senate majority leader Dick Durbin, billionaire George Soros and a part of Hollywood.

Clinton: Bill, of course, and old Clinton establishment; the other part of Hollywood.

Iraq war

Obama: Against invasion before it happened. Now wants timetable for phased withdrawal, starting in 2007.

Clinton: Voted for it, now says she would never have done so if she had known then what she does now. Says she will end it as President.

From Lincoln to the White House

Illinois produced the man who abolished slavery. Can a black candidate from the same state succeed him in the presidency?

1863

Abraham Lincoln declares the end of slavery during the American Civil War (1861-65) as a "necessary war measure".

1936

Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, destroying the Nazi myth of "Aryan" superiority.

1955

Rosa Parks, a black seamstress, is arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man. Her actions inspire the modern civil rights movement.

1963

Martin Luther King makes his famous "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

2001

Colin Powell, first black head of the US military under President Bush Snr, appointed Secretary of State by his son, the highest office yet held by a black American.

2005

Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser in George W Bush's first administration, succeeds Powell as Secretary of State, the first black woman to hold the office.

2007

Senator Barack Obama announces his candidacy for President of the United States.

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