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Obama Tests Presidential Waters with Committee


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. Illinois Senator Barack Obama took the first step toward running for president today. He filed papers forming a presidential exploratory committee that will allow him to raise and spend money in pursuit of the White House. NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: Obama has been the object of a political frenzy inside the Democratic Party for months. He's electrified audiences in New Hampshire, and there's been a Draft Obama movement, urging him to run. Today, he took the first step, posting this video on his Web site.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I certainly didn't expect to find myself in this position a year ago, but as I've spoken to many of you in my travels across the states these past months, as I've read your e-mails and read your letters, I've been struck by how hungry we all are for a different kind of politics. So I spent some time thinking about how I could best advance the cause of change and progress that we so desperately need.

LIASSON: Obama presents himself as a new-generation politician, someone who can transcend partisan divisions. The outlines of his personal story are well known: white mother from Kansas, black father from Kenya. He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia.

In the first of his two bestselling books, he admitted using cocaine. Before he won a seat in the United States Senate, he served eight years in the Illinois legislature. The country doesn't know a whole lot else about him, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is that Obama has a ton of sheer political talent.

Judge ABNER MIKVA (Professor, University of Chicago Law School): He has been at the top of the heap every time there's been a heap.

LIASSON: Judge Abner Mikva tried to recruit him as a law clerk when Obama was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review. Then, Mika worked with him later on, when they were both professors at the University of Chicago Law School.

Judge MIKVA: I certainly knew that he was a very, very special political property. There's such an enthusiasm about him, and it's so magnetic. Here was Barack, a young, beginning professor, teaching Constitutional law at one of the great law schools in the country, and his ratings were off the charts. I mean, the kids were stampeding to try to get into his class, and they loved having him when they got him.

LIASSON: The biggest downside to an Obama campaign is that he will be the least-experienced candidate in the field with only two years in the United States Senate. Here's what Mikva, a former White House counsel, says about that.

Judge MIKVA: There was another Illinoisian who had about the same amount of experience - one term in the Congress and a few terms in the state legislature - and he turned out pretty well. I'm talking about Abraham Lincoln.

LIASSON: Talk about high expectations. The man whose job it is to manage all the hype about Obama is Chicago political strategist David Axelrod.

Mr. DAVID AXELROD (Political Strategist): Yes, I have apprehensions. Yes, expectations are high. Yes, he is a vessel for hope for a lot of people. All those things are true, but I also think that he is equal to the task.

LIASSON: Obama is the sixth Democratic candidate, after Chris Dodd, Tom Vilsack John Edwards, Joseph Biden and Dennis Kucinich. In the competition for the finite resources of Democratic operatives and big donors, he has the potential to shut out some of those candidates. Obama's biggest challenge will be figuring out how to handle the competition with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's expected to announce her candidacy by the end of the month. David Axelrod.

Mr. AXELROD: If he runs, I don't think he's going to approach this as a front-runner. He's going to approach this as an insurgent trying to bring change, and he's going to approach it from the grass roots, and we'll see where that take us. But he's not going to approach it as a stop-anyone candidate. That's not who he is, and that's not his politics.

LIASSON: Unlike Clinton, Obama has been against the Iraq War from the beginning. Other points of difference may emerge when Obama begins to discuss specifics in his announcement speech on February 10th. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.