WASHINGTON (AP) – Sen. Barack Obama launched a presidential campaign Tuesday that would make him the first black to occupy the White House, and immediately tried to turn his political inexperience into an asset with voters seeking change.
The freshman Illinois senator – and top contender for the Democratic nomination – said the past six years have left the country in a precarious place and he promoted himself as the standard-bearer for a new kind of politics.
“Our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, commonsense way,” Obama said in a video posted on his Web site. “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. And that’s what we have to change first.”
Obama filed paperwork forming a presidential exploratory committee that allows him to raise money and put together a campaign structure. He is expected to announce a full-fledged candidacy on Feb. 10 in Springfield, Ill., where he can tout his experience in the state legislature and tap into the legacy of hometown hero Abraham Lincoln.
In a brief interview on Capitol Hill, Obama said the reaction has been positive and added, “we wouldn’t have gone forward this far if it hadn’t been this positive.”
Obama’s soft-spoken appeal on the stump, his unique background, his opposition to the Iraq war and his fresh face set him apart in a competitive race that also is expected to include front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
Obama has uncommon political talents, drawing adoring crowds even among the studious voters in New Hampshire during a much-hyped visit there last month. His star has risen on the force of his personality and message of hope – helped along by celebrity endorsements from the likes of Oprah Winfrey, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and actors Matt Damon and Edward Norton.
“I certainly didn’t expect to find myself in this position a year ago,” said Obama, who added that as he talked to Americans about a possible presidential campaign, “I’ve been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics.”
The 45-year-old has few accomplishments on the national stage after serving little more than two years in the Senate. But at a time when many voters say they are unhappy with the direction of the country, a lack of experience in the nation’s capital may not be a liability.
“The decisions that have been made in Washington these past six years, and the problems that have been ignored, have put our country in a precarious place,” Obama said.
He said people are struggling financially, dependence on foreign oil threatens the environment and national security and “we’re still mired in a tragic and costly war that should have never been waged.”
Clinton is expected to announce her presidential campaign within days, but her spokesman said there would be no comment on Obama’s decision from the Clinton camp. Back from Iraq, she abruptly canceled a Capitol Hill news conference minutes after word of Obama’s announcement, citing the unavailability of a New York congressman to participate.
Other Democrats who have announced a campaign or exploratory committee are 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Biden of Delaware and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson also are considering a run.
Obama’s decision was relatively low-key after months of hype, with no speech or media appearance to accompany his online announcement. He said he will discuss a presidential campaign with people around the country before his Feb. 10 event, and he wasted no time calling key activists Tuesday.
New Hampshire lobbyist Jim Demers talked with Obama for about five minutes. “He is extremely pumped and excited that this campaign is coming together,” said Demers, who accompanied Obama on his visit to the state last month.
Obama’s quick rise to national prominence began with his keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his election to the Senate that year. He’s written two best-selling autobiographies – “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream” and “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.”
Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his parents met while studying at the University of Hawaii. His father was black and from Kenya; his mother, white and from Wichita, Kan.
Obama’s parents divorced when he was two and his father returned to Kenya. His mother later married an Indonesian student and the family moved to Jakarta. Obama returned to Hawaii when he was 10 to live with his maternal grandparents.
He graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was the first African-American elected editor of the Harvard Law Review. Obama settled in Chicago, where he joined a law firm, helped local churches establish job training programs and met his future wife, Michelle Robinson. They have two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
In 1996, he was elected to the Illinois state Senate, where he earned a reputation as a consensus-building Democrat who was strongly liberal on social and economic issues, backing gay rights, abortion rights, gun control, universal health care and tax breaks for the poor.
The retirement of Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois in 2004 drew a raft of candidates to the Democratic primary, but Obama easily outdistanced his competitors. He was virtually assured of victory in the general election when the designated Republican candidate was forced from the race by scandal late in the election.
Obama insisted during the 2004 campaign and through his first year in the Senate that he had no intention of running for president, but by late 2006 his public statements had begun to leave open that possibility.
Associated Press Writer Dennis Conrad contributed to this report.
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