WASHINGTON - Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's long-shot race for the presidency could be an exciting shot in the arm for the nation, boosting the political adrenaline of Republicans, Democrats, and independents alike.
Mr. Obama, whose first name means "blessed," is betting that the nation is ready for its first biracial president. He's planning to be a candidate who lives in Washington but acts as an outsider. He outlines his plan to "regain the American dream" in The Audacity of Hope, his second best-selling book. And he will officially announce his candidacy Feb. 10 in his home-state capital of Springfield, which sent Abe Lincoln to the White House.
The 45-year-old senator has captured attention with his smile, his charm, his ability to see both sides of an argument, his call for civility in politics, and his candor. In his autobiography, Dreams of My Father, he wrote about his Kenyan father, an economist, who left the lawmaker's white anthropologist mother in Kansas to return to Africa. Mr. Obama also wrote of trying illegal drugs, meeting his father at the age of 10, and what his race means to him.
Mr. Obama came to America's attention when he gave the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, chosen by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to represent the future of the party. Mr. Obama is hoping that the future has arrived and that his feel-good messages of the need for optimism and bipartisanship will appeal to Americans who haven't bothered to vote in recent elections.
"There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," Mr. Obama said in Boston.
A Harvard-trained Chicago law professor who was elected to the Illinois state Senate before arriving in Washington in 2005, Mr. Obama is married to a lawyer. They have two young children. His attractive, charismatic family is certain to become part of his appeal, possibly evoking the allure of the early Kennedy era. But Mr. Obama has big obstacles to overcome in his quest for the nomination.
The first formidable challenge is New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has lined up pledges worth millions of dollars and the backing of powerful Democrats. She is expected within weeks to announce her bid to be the nation's first female president. Ms. Clinton is the front-runner, just as George W. Bush was when he knocked maverick John McCain out of the race in 2000.
Mr. Obama has become a top fund-raiser for Democrats, but admits he hates that part of the job. He also is competing for the party nomination against fellow Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Joseph Biden of Delaware, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and maybe 2000 standard-bearer Al Gore and 2004 nominee John Kerry.
Mr. Obama also has to convince skeptics why only two years of Senate experience is a suitable launching pad for the presidency. He was the Democrats' point man in the Senate for lobbying reform last year, but significant reform still eludes Congress. And he's a liberal in a country that has moved center-right. On NBC's Meet the Press in January, 2006, Mr. Obama promised that he would serve out his full six-year term and would not seek the presidency or the vice presidency in 2008.
Iraq also will be a test for Mr. Obama, as it will be for all 2008 presidential candidates. Mr. Obama opposed invading Iraq, but for most of last year he was against the withdrawal of troops. Now he says American forces must begin leaving Iraq this year.
National security will be a huge issue in 2008. Accordingly, Mr. Obama will have to sell himself as a leader who can help make America safer despite being a political neophyte.
But there is undeniable excitement about Mr. Obama. It stems from the hope that his candidacy will not be just another chapter from the same old book of politics, but perhaps a new volume altogether. He's young. He's handsome. He's smart. He has a gorgeous family. He's easy to get along with, easy to listen to, and easy to like.
And he speaks loudly to Americans' disgust at the polarizing politics that have infected Washington. In addition to Democrats, prominent Republicans also have quietly urged him to run. In his short Senate tenure, he has gained a reputation for listening and working with those across the aisle.
We've got a long road to travel to November, 2008. Here's hoping that Mr. Obama will use his campaign to enlighten and inspire us all before we decide which candidate we want to lead - and, we hope, unify - us for the next four years.
Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.
Contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org