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Monday, February 12, 2007

US Diary: Barack Obama launches his candidacy for president

Obama's 'Improbable Quest'
After Official Entry, His Task Is to Conquer Questions of Experience
By JACKIE CALMES/Wall Street Journal

AMES, Iowa -- Illinois Sen. Barack Obama formally opened what he calls his "improbable quest" for the presidency, styling his campaign as a crusade in which Americans' biggest enemy is cynicism -- "the belief that we can't change things anymore."

His own challenge is battling cynicism that he has the experience and ideas to make such change.

After two years in the U.S. Senate, and eight in the Illinois senate, the 45-year-old Mr. Obama remains relatively untested as he seeks to make history as the first African-American president. His sudden fame owes to his charismatic style and eloquence in two best-selling books and a memorable address at the 2004 Democratic Convention. So now, perhaps more than any other candidate in the crowded 2008 race, he is under pressure to show some policy substance as well.

Mr. Obama knows that. In a weekend tour of Iowa, site of the first presidential contest, after announcing his candidacy Saturday in Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Ill., the senator offered a few specifics. To Iowans' questions, he said he opposed defense-spending cuts, for example, and called for direct U.S. talks with North Korea on nuclear weapons.

Mostly he kept up an audience-stirring diagnosis of the nation's ills and offered promises -- chiefly to provide universal health care by the end of a first term -- but no specific remedies. By yesterday, sensitive to critics calling for details, he took the offensive during a news conference at the University of Iowa.

"One of the narratives that's established itself in the mainstream media is this notion that, 'Well, you know, Obama has a pretty good style. He can deliver a pretty good speech, but he seems to prioritize rhetoric over substance.' Now, factually that's incorrect," Mr. Obama said.

He said he has "the most specific plan" on leaving Iraq, gave major speeches on health, education and energy in the two years before he decided to run for president, and has two books giving more "insights into how I think and how I feel about the issues facing America than any candidate in the field." As for the press, he teased, "you've been reporting how I look in a bathing suit" -- referring to a photo taken while he visited Hawaii over the holidays.

He and top campaign aides promised specifics will come, noting that the campaign has only begun. Meanwhile, as Mr. Obama's announcement confirmed, he will seek to turn his inexperience to advantage, positioning himself as a Washington outsider.

"I recognize that there is a certain presumptuousness -- a certain audacity -- to this announcement," he told the thousands braving frigid temperatures for his announcement in the square before Illinois' Old State Capitol in Springfield. "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."

By that message, he separates himself from New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, though he remains significantly behind her in polls, organization and money. But among the rest of the Democratic field, he is a top competitor for what amounts to a spot as the Clinton alternative, against former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

While Mr. Edwards is ahead in Iowa polls, Mr. Obama poses a fresh-faced challenge. After Mr. Obama's packed townhall meeting Saturday in Cedar Rapids, 80-year-old Bonnie Young of Marion, Iowa, and her 60-year-old daughter Claudia Young, both of whom worked for Mr. Edwards' 2004 presidential bid, said they have been torn between the two men. The mother left favoring Mr. Obama.

Mr. Edwards added to the pressure on Mr. Obama to be more specific with his recent unveiling of a health plan. But Democrats say Mr. Obama provoked the style-versus-substance talk himself, by his recent address to local Democratic Party leaders meeting in Washington, in which he seemed dismissive of "white papers" of policy specifics: "We've had a lot of plans, Democrats. What we've had is a shortage of hope."

As a committee chairman in the Illinois Senate, Mr. Obama tried to get consensus for universal health care, but could only pass a measure calling for a study of coverage options. Now, at each campaign stop, he calls not only for universal health care, but more resources for education and an effort akin to the Apollo Project to develop alternative fuels to end U.S. reliance on Mideast oil and help arrest global warming.

But no such progress is possible, he adds, "until we bring this ill-conceived war in Iraq to a close."

The applause for that line from the mostly Democratic crowds made plain that the war is the issue most on voters' minds. Mr. Obama reminds them, to more applause, "I was against this war from the start" -- which distinguishes him, as many Iowa Democrats know, from Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Edwards. And he outlines his Iraq plan: a phased withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops starting in May and ending by the end of March next year, allowing for enough U.S. forces to keep training Iraqi forces.

Mr. Obama didn't always give the answers his inquisitors may have liked. In Cedar Rapids, to a question from a man associated with a group that espouses reduced military spending, the senator said that because the Iraq war "has depleted our military...there's probably going to be a bump under an Obama presidency in initial spending just to get back to where we were."

To a public school teacher, he reiterated his call for teachers to be paid significantly more. "I have to say, though, there's got to be a bargain," he added, in which teachers in turn accept greater accountability for performance.

(Write to Jackie Calmes at


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