SPRINGFIELD, Ill – Barack Obama announced his bid for president Saturday, a black man evoking Abraham Lincoln's ability to unite a nation and a Democrat portraying himself as a fresh face capable of leading a new generation.
"Let us transform this nation," he told thousands shivering in the cold at the campaign's kickoff.
Obama, 45, is the youngest candidate in the Democrats' 2008 primary field dominated by front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and filled with more experienced lawmakers. In an address from the state capital where he began his elective career 10 years ago, the first-term U.S. senator sought to distinguish himself as a staunch opponent of the Iraq war and a White House hopeful whose lack of political experience is an asset.
"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," Obama said to some of the loudest applause of his 20-minute speech.
Obama is looking to cap his remarkable, rapid rise to prominence with the biggest political prize of all — the presidency. His elective career began just 10 years ago in the Illinois Legislature. He lost a bid for a U.S. House seat, then won the Senate seat in 2004, a relatively smooth election made easier by GOP stumbles.
In his speech, Obama did not mention his roots as the son of a man from Kenya and a woman from Kansas, his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia or the history he would make if elected. That compelling biography has turned him into a political celebrity.
Instead, he focused on his life in Illinois over the past two decades, beginning with a job as a community organizer with a $13,000-a-year salary that strengthened his Christian faith. He said the struggles he saw people face inspired him to get a law degree and run for the Legislature, where he served eight years.
He tied his announcement to the legacy of Lincoln, announcing from the building where the future 16th president served in the state Legislature.
"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 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," Obama said. His voice rose to a shout as he spoke over the cheers from thousands who braved temperatures in the teens.
"I know it's a little chilly, but I'm fired up," Obama said as he took the podium with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia, 8, and Sasha, 5, with U2's "City of Blinding Lights" blaring on the speakers.
Local authorities estimated the crowd at between 15,000 and 17,000.
Obama gained national recognition with the publication of two best-selling books, "Dreams From My Father" and "The Audacity of Hope," and by delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 — the same year he was elected to the Senate. His optimistic message and personal story immediately sparked talk of his White House potential.
"He's young and he's fresh," said 22-year-old Rachel Holtz, a graduate student from DeKalb, Ill., who plans to work in education.
Brenda and Michael Talkington, who live near Muncie, Ind., said they have never been involved in a political campaign, but both were laid off from jobs with a lighting company and plan to volunteer for Obama.
"He makes you feel like it is possible to change things," Brenda Talkington said.
She seemed to be reading from Obama's playbook.
He spoke of reshaping the economy for the digital age, investing in education, protecting employee benefits, insuring those who do not have health care, ending poverty, weaning America from foreign oil and fighting terrorism while rebuilding global alliances. But he said the first priority must be to end the war in Iraq.
"American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war," he said. He noted that he was against the invasion from the start.
Obama talked how previous generations have brought change — fighting off colonizers, slavery and the Great Depression, welcoming immigrants, building railroads and landing a man on the moon.
"Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done," he said. "Today we are called once more — and it is time for our generation to answer that call."
The Old State Capitol was where Lincoln launched his unsuccessful 1858 U.S. Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas with his famous "House Divided" speech. During his presidential campaign in 1860, Lincoln used rooms in the second floor as his political headquarters, and his body lay in state there in 1865.
Obama said it is because of Lincoln that Americans of every race face the challenges of the 21st century together.
"The life of a tall, gangly, self-made Springfield lawyer tells us that a different future is possible," Obama said. "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. He tells us that there is power in hope."
Obama planned to travel throughout Iowa on Saturday and Sunday before a homecoming rally Sunday night in Chicago.