Standing outside the Historic Old State Capitol building where Abraham Lincoln gave a famous speech condemning slavery and calling for the United States to unite, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a 45-year-old with two years of federal legislative experience under his belt, today announced that he will claim the mantle of Lincoln and as president heal a divided nation.
"I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness in this, a certain audacity," Obama said, cheekily invoking his best-selling political treatise "The Audacity of Hope." "I know that 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."
The estimated crowd of 16,000 well-wishers, spectators, and media throngs braved temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit (with the region's considerable wind chill factor taken into account), to hear the former state legislator speak.
"I know it's a little chilly, but I'm fired up!" Obama ad-libbed as he began his speech.
Obama's oratory is an important part of the package; he first came to national prominence with a well-received and similarly-themed speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston.
For a man born in Hawaii, educated in Manhattan and Cambridge, Mass., and who lives in Chicago, Springfield was an interesting choice of location for his announcement speech, one designed to allow Obama to beef up his resume a tad by invoking his work as a state senator, where he served from 1996 through 2004, eventually serving as chairman of the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
But most of all Springfield allowed Obama to immodestly and continuously compare himself to Lincoln.
It was in Springfield where Obama "was reminded of the essential decency of the American people," he said, which is "why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a 'house divided' to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America."
If anyone missed the point, Obama said that "divided we are bound to fail. But the life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible. He tells us that there is power in words. He tells us that there is power in conviction, that beneath all the differences of race and religion, faith and station, we are one people."
Obama's allies are reminding voters that Lincoln's eight years in the state legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representative compare rather precisely with Obama's legislative experience.
Surely, though, Lincoln never had supporters throwing out campaign t-shirts to a crowd in a frenzied, concert-like atmosphere, as was the case today. In addition, Obama's Web site, BarackObama.com, has been revamped. It now has BarackTV, which features speeches and biopics of the candidate and his wife Michelle; a MySpace-like section called My.BarackObama.com, where one can create a profile and network with other users; sections for news, issue papers, blogging, and campaign schedules; and a campaign store featuring "Obama '08" shirts, buttons, signs, and stickers.
This may be part of Obama's attempt to turn questions about his youth and inexperience into an answer about his vigor, freshness, and how he has been unsullied by the nasty politics of yore. Obama in the past has criticized partisan fights between former President Bill Clinton and former Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., as being the vestiges of old baby boomer wars of the 1960s, called for contemporaries to join him on a generational mission to move beyond all that.
"Let us be the generation that reshapes our economy to compete in the digital age," Obama said, one of 12 such references to his generation. Obama was born in 1961 and if elected would be the first U.S. president born in the 1950s or '60s. His chief rivals for the Democratic nomination are Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who will turn 60 this year, and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who is 53.
In the glare of a sun that didn't seem to permeate the cold to provide any warmth, Obama basked in the warmth of his adoring crowd. Law enforcement snipers watched over the crowds on rooftops as Obama, his wife Michelle, and their two daughters Malia, 8, and Sasha, 5, came onto the stage with U2's "City of Blinding Lights" playing in the background.
"And I miss you when you're not around," U2's Bono sang on the recording. "I'm getting ready to leave the ground."
Beyond his message of unity and bipartisanship, Obama's platform seemed a familiar litany of Democratic causes: universal health care, better pay for teachers, affordable college education, international diplomacy, and ending the war in Iraq - a war that, unlike Clinton and Edwards, Obama has always opposed.
"Most of you know that I opposed this war from the start," Obama told the crowd to cheers. "I thought it was a tragic mistake."
Obama eagerly invoked his record from his state legislative days - reforming the death penalty system, co-authoring a state Earned Income Tax Credit to ease the tax burden on lower-income families, and work on health insurance for children.
"People see in him a person that's genuine, someone they can trust, someone who's sincere," said Emil Jones, president of the Illinois State Senate and Obama's mentor in Springfield. "I feel about this young man the way I feel about my own son or daughter."
But it's his time in Springfield that his Democratic and Republican opponents plan on exploiting on the campaign trail to argue that behind the moderate message is quite liberal.
Republican State Sen. Bill Brady said that Obama was ideologically one of the most liberal legislators he'd ever met, though they often played poker together.
"I used to kid him, 'If you were near as conservative with the taxpayers' money as you are with your own, the state of Illinois would be in better shape,'" Brady said. "We're not talking about a centrist Democrat who represents Midwestern values."
Jones first met his protégé when Obama was a community organizer in Chicago in 1983. He recalled that his first impression of Obama was a smart, but "rather pushy" young man.
"But he grew on me," Jones said.
Obama concluded his speech with his theme of hope.
"If you will join me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling and see, as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us," he said, "then I'm ready to take up the cause and march with you and work with you. Today, together, we can finish the work that needs to be done and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.
"Thank you," he said as Jackie Wilson's song "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" began playing. "I love you."
It may be nice to think that as a nation we have moved beyond race. But some observers say Obama faces serious questions of whether America is ready to elect an African-American president, or conversely whether he is not "black enough," as some African-American columnists have alleged.
And in that intersection of progress made and progress to come, the site of Obama's speech symbolizes not only hope for race relations in the U.S., but its myriad complications and ugly history.
On June 16, 1858, Lincoln - then a U.S. Senate candidate - delivered that famous anti-slavery speech to Republican delegates, paraphrasing Jesus by stating, "A house divided against itself cannot stand" to underline his belief that the U.S. "cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free." In that, the site is a place of optimism.
But Springfield is also the site of horrible race riots against blacks in 1908. Just a few blocks east from Obama's dais, a 56-year-old black barber named Scott Burton was lynched; an 84-year-old black shoemaker named William Donnegan was lynched a few blocks south. A false accusation of rape by a white woman against a black man had set a frenzied white mob upon first the town jail and then, with someone crying "Abe Lincoln brought them to Springfield and we will run them out," the black business district.
The Springfield Race Riot of 1908 not only resulted in the deaths of Burton and Donnega, but dozens of injuries, the destruction of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property and the displacement of hundreds of black families.
"What would their feelings be if they could see what is happening here today?" a columnist for the local Journal Register newspaper, Dave Bakke, wrote today. "What would those who were killed for the color of their skin think about a crowd that will come together today in the same place, but in a different mood and for such a different reason than that mob of 1908?"
Racial politics are an intriguing obstacle course for Obama. In 2000, Obama challenged U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush in the primary. Rush cleaned his clock, overwhelmingly winning in the predominantly African-American district. Obama, observers said, did not know how to appeal to black voters.
Even today, Clinton leads Obama among polls of African-American voters. Rush is now backing Obama, but tells the senator not to take the black vote for granted.
"I think it would be a mistake for Obama to neglect the black vote," Rush said. "I think he has to do some intensive work in the black community."
These are not new issues for the man born to a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas.
In a 2003 interview with Jeff Berkowitz of "Public Affairs" on Chicago television, Obama said of his 2004 Senate race, "I'm rooted in the African-American community, but I'm not limited to it. And we are going to be competitive in every part of the state among every demographic."
Those dicey racial politics and the ultraliberal views Republicans say Obama held in his days at the Illinois capital are the issues that he will face again during this campaign.