Obama announces in Springfield


by Mike Kroll


The political story of Barack Obama is compelling because it is so unique. The first-term U.S. Senator officially embarked on yet another improbable chapter in that story this past Saturday in Springfield where he announced his candidacy for president on the plaza of Illinois' old State Capital. By the time the announcement was scheduled it had already become almost anti-climatic, like most presidential contenders it was clear that Obama would be in this race well before his speech made it official. Unlike most of his fellow candidates, past or present, Obama could legitimately claim that he was essentially drafted into a political role he was not seeking.

“Let me begin by saying thanks to all you who've traveled, from far and wide, to brave the cold today.”

It was a frigid Saturday morning in Springfield but that didn't keep either the crowd or press away from Obama's speech. Although we arrived almost an hour and a half before the scheduled speech and had prearranged press credentials the event organizers told us no more credentials remained as we checked-in. They had planned for up to 500 media to cover this event and before 8am Saturday well more than that number had checked-in. Besides the thong of media there were thousands of citizens waiting in long lines for the privilege of attending this speech and rally. Springfield police later estimated that there had been 15,000-17,000 spectators crowded around the old State Capital that morning and while there was a loud group of anti-abortion protesters the majority were clearly Obama supporters.

“We all made this journey for a reason. It's humbling, but in my heart I know you didn't come here just for me, you came here because you believe in what this country can be. In the face of war, you believe there can be peace. In the face of despair, you believe there can be hope. In the face of a politics that's shut you out, that's told you to settle, that's divided us for too long, you believe we can be one people, reaching for what's possible, building that more perfect union.”

My perch for most of the event was atop the press risers directly in front of the speaker's platform amidst television camera crews. Newspaper people weren't supposed to be on these risers but it afforded a good position to view both Obama and the crowd from an elevated perspective. The crowd was divided into three categories, politicians and the politically connected, friends of politicians and the politically connected, and everybody else. The “VIPs” in the first group had yellow tickets that entitled them to stand closest to the speaker's platform while those in the second group had red tickets that permitted them to stand behind the yellow ticket-holders but inside the iron fence surrounding the old State Capital. The bulk of the crowd had no tickets and stood on the streets and sidewalks outside the fence.

“That's the journey we're on today. But let me tell you how I came to be here. As most of you know, I am not a native of this great state. I moved to Illinois over two decades ago. I was a young man then, just a year out of college; I knew no one in Chicago, was without money or family connections. But a group of churches had offered me a job as a community organizer for $13,000 a year. And I accepted the job, sight unseen, motivated then by a single, simple, powerful idea - that I might play a small part in building a better America.”

A few members of the crowd came with their own signs but most of the Obama signs were passed out by his campaign staff immediately before he arrived. While the assembled crowd stood around freezing in single-digit temperatures the only solace was that it was a clear and sunny day with negligible wind and, unlike Galesburg, there was little residual snow on the ground. Obama's staff arranged for an excellent church choir to sing warm-up the crowd as they awaited his arrival and he mercifully avoided the traditional long list of preliminary speakers. Only his Senatorial partner, Dick Durbin, spoke before Obama and Durbin was brief in his introduction.

“My work took me to some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. I joined with pastors and lay-people to deal with communities that had been ravaged by plant closings. I saw that the problems people faced weren't simply local in nature - that the decision to close a steel mill was made by distant executives; that the lack of textbooks and computers in schools could be traced to the skewed priorities of politicians a thousand miles away; and that when a child turns to violence, there's a hole in his heart no government could ever fill.

It was in these neighborhoods that I received the best education I ever had, and where I learned the true meaning of my Christian faith.

After three years of this work, I went to law school, because I wanted to understand how the law should work for those in need. I became a civil rights lawyer, and taught constitutional law, and after a time, I came to understand that our cherished rights of liberty and equality depend on the active participation of an awakened electorate. It was with these ideas in mind that I arrived in this capital city as a state Senator.”

Like many of those watching Obama make this announcement I was struck by how much importance he placed on his religious beliefs. Having seen Obama speak on numerous occasions it was clear that he is not normally a politician who wears his religion on his sleeve. His invoking religion so strongly in this announcement was therefore surprising but understandable in light of the efforts of his opponents in the media to misbrand him a Muslim as he speaks out loudly in opposition to the war in Iraq and president George W. Bush's management of that war.

“It was here, in Springfield, where I saw all that is America converge - farmers and teachers, businessmen and laborers, all of them with a story to tell, all of them seeking a seat at the table, all of them clamoring to be heard. I made lasting friendships here - friends that I see in the audience today.

It was here we learned to disagree without being disagreeable - that it's possible to compromise so long as you know those principles that can never be compromised; and that so long as we're willing to listen to each other, we can assume the best in people instead of the worst.”

Springfield was chosen for its political symbolism but it worked well organizationally as well. Despite the throngs of people who converged on Springfield last Saturday there were no traffic jams and parking was relatively easily obtainable within blocks of the old State Capital. The Springfield Police Department was out in force and they, along with Illinois State Police and Sangamon County Sheriff's deputies blocked off all the streets surrounding the site. The crowds seemed well behaved and so were the police officers but clearly there was a fear that Obama could be someone's target. Police officers were clearly in view on surrounding rooftops but curiously there were no metal detectors used as either the media or spectators filed into position.

“That's why we were able to reform a death penalty system that was broken. That's why we were able to give health insurance to children in need. That's why we made the tax system more fair and just for working families, and that's why we passed ethics reforms that the cynics said could never, ever be passed.

It was here, in Springfield, where North, South, East and West come together that I was reminded of the essential decency of the American people - where I came to believe that through this decency, we can build a more hopeful America.

And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States.”

Before his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic convention Obama was an obscure law professor and state legislator who got into the 2004 Senate race as an underdog seeking to replace one-term Republican Peter Fitzgerald (who surprisingly chose not to seek reelection). Obama went into that Illinois senate primary among a crowd of more-accomplished, better-known, and well-funded competitors and prevailed by surprise. As Obama campaigned for his senate seat his political advantages of intellect and superb oratory were overshadowed only by his charm and charisma. It was those characteristics that got him to the convention speakers list and allowed him to become an national sensation before he had even won his senate race.

 “I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness - a certain audacity - to this announcement. 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.

The genius of our founders is that they designed a system of government that can be changed. And we should take heart, because we've changed this country before. In the face of tyranny, a band of patriots brought an Empire to its knees. In the face of secession, we unified a nation and set the captives free. In the face of Depression, we put people back to work and lifted millions out of poverty. We welcomed immigrants to our shores, we opened railroads to the west, we landed a man on the moon, and we heard a King's call to let justice roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

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

Obama has now entered another crowded field of presidential candidates in the first totally open presidential race in years. Unlike that Senate race he enters this race as one of the celebrated front-running candidates alongside Senator Hillary Clinton and former-Senator and past vice presidential candidate John Edwards. And once again nearly all of Obama's opponents have far greater experience than he but this time fund raising shouldn't be a handicap. Only Clinton should have as easy or easier time of garnering campaign cash.

“...All of us know what those challenges are today - a war with no end, a dependence on oil that threatens our future, schools where too many children aren't learning, and families struggling paycheck to paycheck despite working as hard as they can. We know the challenges. We've heard them. We've talked about them for years.

What's stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics - the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems.”

His detractors point to Obama's relative inexperience but conveniently forget that the present occupant of the oval office had little prior political experience as did former president Ronald Reagan. Both George W. Bush and Reagan have/had charisma and Reagan was one of the best presidential speakers ever but neither share Obama's intellect. Perhaps the American politician most like Obama is former president Bill Clinton. Like Obama he is highly charismatic and a gifted speaker but he also was criticized for being a political lightweight until he won election and showed himself to be the consummate politician, albeit one with a propensity for personal self-destruction.

“...As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say: "Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through."

That is our purpose here today.

That's why I'm in this race.

Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.

I want to win that next battle - for justice and opportunity.

I want to win that next battle - for better schools, and better jobs, and health care for all.

I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America.

And 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; if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear, and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I'm ready to take up the cause, and march with you, and work with you. Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.”

Obama clearly can move a crowd with his words and he is currently the brightest light among newly arrived national politicians but the ability to categorize his politics remains elusive. He appears quite liberal socially and yet a fiscal middle of the road Democrat. His position against the war in Iraq is clear as is his support for the war on terror but in most other foreign policy matters he is an unknown quantity. In domestic policy he has staked out positions in favor of improved education, better access to healthcare and a modern environmentally-friendly energy policy. But not only do all the specifics on these issues remain to be disclosed there are numerous other pressing domestic issues on which Obama has been harder to characterize.

He has spoke in support of better treatment for America's veterans and against the flight of American jobs overseas but so far rhetoric is all we have seen. He has said little about immigration issues or tax policy and as a constitutional scholar it is troubling that he hasn't been an outspoken opponent of many of Bush administration policies that are constitutionally questionable or Congressional actions such as the Patriot Act that seem to fly in the face of the Bill of Rights. There is little doubt that Barack Obama will have ample opportunity to better define himself over the next two years and with the advantage of a relatively slight official Senatorial record that can be manipulated to his political disadvantage.