Sunday, February 11, 2007

"Obama pledges to 'transform' politics"

Financial Times:
Barack Obama, the brightest rising star of US politics, on Saturday officially announced he was running for the White House in 2008, vowing to emulate Abraham Lincoln by unifying a divided nation and building "a more hopeful America".
The Democratic senator, bidding to become the first black US president, made his declaration to thousands of cheering supporters on a bitterly cold morning in Springfield, Illinois, where both he and President Lincoln started their political careers as state senators.

Mr Obama said it was in Springfield, a small city of 115,000 people 200 miles south of Chicago, that he learned about the "essential decency" of the American people.

"That 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," he said.

The 45 year-old, considered chief rival to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, admitted there was a "certain presumptuousness" about his announcement, considering he is yet to complete his first term as a senator.

"I know I haven't spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington," he said. "But I've been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change."

The choice of location invited parallels between Mr Obama and President Lincoln, who also served only two years in Congress before seeking the presidency. Both men spent eight years in the Illinois legislature before entering national politics.

"The life of a tall, gangly Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible," said Mr Obama, referring to President Lincoln. "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 region, faith and station, we are one people."

Mr Obama, known for his uplifting oratory and powerful charisma, sought to portray his youth and relative inexperience as a virtue, promising to bring fresh vision and optimism to a political process soured by partisanship and cynicism.

US voters had been betrayed by "the smallness of our politics", he said, pointing to the "ease with which we're distracted by the petty and the trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions [and] our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of building a working consensus." He vowed to banish the "cynics, lobbyists and special interests" that have "turned politics into a game only they can afford to play".

"They think they own this government but we're here today to take it back," he said, to chants of "Obama! Obama!" from the crowd.

Supporters began to gather at 7.30am, more than two hours before the speech, wrapped in multiple layers of thick winter clothes to withstand temperatures that were well below freezing.

Queues of people trying to join the crowd stretched around several downtown blocks and side streets were jammed with buses that had brought supporters from Chicago and elsewhere across the state.

Pairs of police spotters stood monitoring the crowd from every tall building surrounding the Old Capitol, while hundreds of television cameras and journalists from as far away as China and the Philippines jostled for position on two packed media gantries.

After a stirring rendition of America the Beautiful by a local gospel choir, Mr Obama arrived at the podium with his wife and daughter to the sound of a U2 anthem, City of Blinding Lights, blaring from banks of large speakers.

In the heady atmosphere, it was easy to believe that Springfield was experiencing its most significant political event since President Lincoln made his famous "house divided" speech calling for the abolition of slavery nearly 150 years.

What seemed certain was that never before has such a large campaign rally taken place so long before a presidential election.

Kate Gilligan, a 20 year-old student from Champagne, Illinois, left home at 6am to see the event. "He was amazing," she said afterwards, reflecting the intense enthusiasm among his supporters. "I can't feel my fingers or toes because of the cold. But it was worth it. Hillary should be worried."

Jeannette Long, a 45 year-old training supervisor with the state government, was locked out of the Old Capital grounds but listened from nearby on a portable radio. "He was impressive but we already knew that," she said.

Sara Ghadiri, a 17 year-old high school student, had traveled with four friends from Chicago to attend the event, explaining that Mr Obama was the closest that US politics had to a "rock star". "We're first time voters and he's the only candidate that we are excited about," she said.

Mr Obama gave few specific policy details during his 20-minute speech, except for a commitment to bring combat troops home from Iraq by March 2008 and a pledge to introduce universal healthcare by the end of his first term.

He highlighted his consistent opposition to the war dating back to before the invasion – something his main rivals for the Democratic nomination cannot do – and vowed to "rebuild alliances" with international partners.

"It is time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreements that lie at the heart of someone else's civil war," he said. "Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last best hope to pressure the Sunnis and Shia to come to the table and find peace."

Other pledges included action to reduce dependence on foreign oil and cap greenhouse gas emissions, increased investment in scientific research and measures to end poverty, protect employee benefits and make college more affordable.

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