Thousands of people — kids in snow pants, adults in long johns — saw U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s breath as he said the highly anticipated words, "Today, I announce my candidacy for the president of the United States," on the backdrop of the Old State Capitol in Springfield Saturday morning.
They heard him propose a form of universal health care by the end of the next president’s term and promise a plan to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq by March 2008. But they didn't hear any details of the plans. You can listen here.
He entered the stage with his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters. One of the first thing he said: “We all made this journey for a reason. It’s humbling to see a crowd like this, but in my heart I know you didn’t just come here for me (some people yelled, ‘Yes we did’). No. 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 politic that’s shut you out, that’s told you to settle, that’s divided us for too long, you believe that we can be one people, reaching out for one possible, building that more perfect union. That’s the journey we're on today.”
He smiled and laughed throughout the rest of his speech, but when he spoke of Iraq, his voice was low, deliberate and calm. When he spoke of health care and ethics in government, he raised his voice and his volume to rekindle the crowd. By far, the most energetic responses were to his comments about establishing universal health care and removing troops from a civil war in Iraq.
The scene fit the image of a presidential campaign: a huge American flag hung the Pease’s Fine Candies building with others between the pillars of a bank. Supporters waved blue Obama signs. Guards with bulletproof vests and binoculars surveyed the crowd from the top of three buildings.
The public gathered a couple of hours before gates opened 9 a.m. State, federal and local officials filled the gates first. Some people came to see “history in the making,” a common phrase this morning. Others were skeptics who wanted to see what was the big deal about Obama. One anti-abortion group held graphic signs and chanted against Obama’s belief that a woman has the right to choose to have an abortion.
The number of media was amazing. Some crews waited in line as early as 3:30 a.m. to secure a good spot when the media gates opened at 5 a.m. Local and international reporters from as far as Japan stood on three, multi-level stages lining the grounds. A British reporter told me that he would expect this size of a gathering in the final stretch of a presidential run, but not the first. Canadian reporter Beth Gorham, Washington correspondent for the Canadian Press, said people in her country feel curious about the potential of the first black or first woman president of the United States. She said people also were simply interested in knowing more about the man behind the buzz.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield, stepped onto the stage first and introduced Obama. Without saying Obama was the next Abraham Lincoln, Durbin did say Lincoln’s journey included skeptics who wondered whether he could meet the challenges of his time. Earlier, Durbin said Obama’s life experiences would inspire people to support him. “To rise to the position of being the editor of the Harvard Law Review, that says a lot. And then to make the decision not to cash in and make a lot of money as a lawyer, but rather become a civil rights lawyer working for poor people in the city of Chicago, community organizer, all these things tell me where his values are.”
After the event, Gov. Rod Blagojevich told one group of reporters after another: “The whole thing was great, especially his focus on health care for everybody. That’s a tremendous objective. Our objective is to get it done here in Illinois. So when Sen. Obama becomes president, all he has to do it get it done in 49 states instead of 50.”
State Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago Democrat, said he thinks Obama has a “great chance” to appeal to the masses because he's "uniter, not a divider." He added that he thinks Obama is not a political insider tainted by lobbying dollars.
I’ve never been so thankful for hand warmers and soccer socks. It was so cold that ink froze in my pens (good thing I had a few pencils), battery juice froze in my camera, and my digital recorder was stuck in the “on” position. I was lucky enough to score a good spot by one of the media stages. I knew what to expect with the size of the crowd, but it started to hit me just how big this day was when I felt the entire audience take a deep breath and stand on its toes when Durbin welcomed Obama to the stage, the music picked up and he came closer into view.
It was pretty neat standing among so many people from so many countries listening to an Illinois senator announce a presidential bid. Yet, many people don't know that much about Obama or his political stances, allowing them to assign any ideal identity to the candidate. We'll have to see how he rides the wave.
Seven out of eight people I spoke with had the facts wrong about today’s events. The majority believed that Obama was making history by being the first African American to announce a presidential run. Not to shame any of his supporters, but it’s not true. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Carol Mosley Braun and Shirley Chisholm have all made steps towards the White House in earlier races. Chisholm was actually the first African American to announce her bid for the presidency on Jan. 23, 1972.