WASHINGTON — Sen. Barack Obama took an important formal step on Tuesday toward a Democratic presidential campaign that would make him the most formidable African-American candidate ever, offering a call to common purpose as a remedy to bitter partisan divisions and marking a potential turning point in the nation’s race relations.
By filing papers to form a presidential exploratory committee, the first-term Illinois senator signaled his intent to run for the presidency, a move that he has been publicly considering for months. Advisers said Obama and his family had made the personal commitment to a grueling, two-year presidential bid and the senator now would concentrate on assembling a campaign apparatus and testing support among financial backers and grass-roots activists.
The Democratic lawmaker will make a formal announcement on his candidacy Feb. 10 in Springfield, Ill., where barely two years ago he served as a mere state senator. He will return a cultural phenomenon, a best-selling author coveted as a guest by television talk show hosts and followed by celebrity photographers. He has come to embody the hopes and dreams of many Americans.
His candidacy would create a historic moment, as the American public contemplates a leader of mixed-race heritage, the son of an African father and white Kansan mother. Race would be a spoken and unspoken subtext to a campaign that also would raise grave policy issues on the war in Iraq, with Obama an early and consistent critic of the ongoing U.S. military mission there.
His efforts to reach toward the center with appeals to common ground is a reversal of the recently successful political formula of polarization to drive up turnout among base voters that won President Bush re-election in 2004.
Obama made the official announcement of his exploratory committee on his Web site, in a simple video that featured him seated, wearing a coat and no tie, telling viewers he wanted to be the first to tell them of the development. He sounded a theme of change, saying he was “struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics.”
“Our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way,” Obama said. “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.”
Right after the spot was placed on the Web, Obama got on the telephone and spoke to dozens and dozens of people throughout the day, including a morning telephone conference call with more than 100 people. He spent the day at the offices of his exploratory committee in Washington
Interviewed on the way to a vote on the Senate floor early in the evening, Obama said the response had been “very positive.” American voters, he added, “want honesty and they want bold approaches to some of the problems we’re facing.”
In a campaign, he would faces challenges to his lack of experience in high government office. He has only two years in the U.S. Senate and no major accomplishments in that body, although his limited time in office is counted as a virtue by some who seek a break with the political past.
Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster and political strategist, said, “He is a political phenomenon. But being a political phenomenon does not make you a credible candidate to be commander in chief of the armed forces and leader of the free world in a time of war. Normally, qualifications are the first consideration when you’re thinking about a candidate for president in a time of war.”
But Obama brings to a presidential bid eloquence, the political power of celebrity, a hopeful vision and a sense that his candidacy would be a clear break with the established order.
Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster and strategist for the 2004 Wesley Clark campaign, said, “In the next year, Democrats will be weighing those assets against his experience and what it takes in their view to become a capable president. I think we’re at a special moment in America where there’s a real yearning for change and a different kind of leadership that rises above it all. It’s that yearning that is such an asset to his campaign.”
Obama’s path to victory would be a gauntlet of relentless fundraising, laser-like scrutiny and an exhausting grind of campaigning. Mounting a presidential campaign would present a huge organizational and financial undertaking for a candidate who is relatively new to the national political scene and did not even face a serious Republican opponent in his only prior high-level campaign, for the U.S. Senate in 2004.
In both the Democratic primary and the general election, he would face opponents who have been laying the groundwork for their bids for years. Political opponents and the voting public will watching to see how he stands up to the rigorous testing of a national campaign.
Likely Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) can rely on a political organization that she and her husband have nurtured for years. And former vice presidential nominee John Edwards, who already has announced his candidacy, began cultivating supporters in early primary states almost immediately after the 2004 election.
Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Clinton, said, “The field is shaping up as a strong field. It’s an exciting time to be a Democrat. We obviously wish Sen. Obama well.”
Edwards’ camp sounded a similar note. “The country’s going to face some tremendous challenges in 2009 and we need the very best candidates to run,” said Edwards adviser Jennifer Palmieri. “He thinks that anyone who has good ideas on how we tackle these problems should get into the race.”
In the 2008 campaign, presidential candidates face an unusually compressed schedule of early contests. The Iowa caucuses and primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada unfold over four weeks about a year from now, allowing candidates little margin for error and little time to raise additional money in between those critical contests. In the early contests Obama must do well—probably first or second—to prove his appeal matches the hype.
An adviser to Obama said fundraising proceeds of $50 million “is a kind of ante to this process.” Since most political operatives believe that a serious candidate must be collect at least that much by Dec. 31, that translates in to donations of more than $1 million per week, which must by law come in increments of no more than $2,100 per person. Others believe a successful campaign may require more money.
An Obama adviser said the exploratory committee hopes to raise $7 million by the end of March. Under federal election law, an exploratory committee can transfer its assets directly to a presidential campaign.
Most political professionals involved in presidential politics believe that Obama’s celebrity and his ability to reach small donors through the Internet position him well to meet the financial challenges ahead. His advisers also expressed optimism that he will be financially competitive.
“I am highly confident,” said John Rogers, a friend of Obama and a prodigious Democratic fundraiser for many years. “People around the country who know that I’m engaged in this process have been calling me, people from coast to coast, Republicans and Democrats. They’re experienced fundraisers and people wanting to get involved for the first time. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Despite his renown, Obama’s public persona also is an unfinished canvas and he must work to fill that in before his opponents do. The campaign will force him to take more detailed positions on complex issues.
He already is being pressed in uncomfortable ways on his approach to Iraq. While Obama has opposed Bush’s increase in troop levels in Iraq, he has not joined those calling for a congressional cut-off of funding for the “surge,” while Edwards has demanded just that.