By JOHN WHITESIDES
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, citing the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, pledged on Saturday to bridge the partisan gridlock in Washington, end the war in Iraq and transform American politics as the first black U.S. president.
Launching his 2008 White House campaign outside the building in where Lincoln began his fight against slavery with a famous 1858 speech that declared “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” Obama said it was time to “turn the page” to a new politics.
“Let us begin this hard work together. Let us transform this nation,” Obama, 45, told a cheering crowd of supporters in Springfield, Illinois, who braved sub-freezing temperatures outside the old state capital building.
“By ourselves, this change will not happen. Divided, we are bound to fail,” he said.
Obama, a rising party star and the only black U.S. senator, said the United States had overcome many difficult challenges, from gaining its independence to the Civil War to the Great Depression.
“Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what’s needed to be done. Today we are called once more — and it is time for our generation to answer that call,” he said.
Obama’s candidacy has intrigued Democrats looking for a fresh face and sparked waves of publicity and grass-roots buzz about the first black presidential candidate seen as having a chance to capture the White House.
He has vaulted quickly into the top tier of a crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders along with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards.
A LACK OF EXPERIENCE?
But the freshman senator from Illinois has faced questions and doubts about his relative lack of experience, his policy views on a wide range of issues and on whether the United States is ready to elect a black man to the White House.
Obama acknowledged the questions about his experience.
“I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness — a certain audacity — to this announcement. 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,” he said.
He said a fresh perspective could break through Washington gridlock on issues like energy, health care and the Iraq war.
“What’s stopped us from meeting these challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans. What’s stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics — the ease with which we’re distracted by the petty and trivial,” he said.
He said the last six years under Republican leadership in Washington had led to mounting debts, rising health care costs, economic anxiety and a botched foreign policy and war in Iraq.
“The time for that kind of politics is over. It is through. It’s time to turn the page,” he said.
Obama, an early opponent of the war, has called for a phased withdrawal of troops starting in May. He opposes President George W. Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq.
“America, it’s time to start bringing our troops home,” he said. “Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shia to come to the table and find peace.”
Obama’s political rise has been astonishingly fast. He gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention before he was even elected to the U.S. Senate, and he has authored two best-selling books and appeared on numerous magazine covers.
The son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, he was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review and served eight years in the Illinois Legislature in Springfield before going to Washington.
Obama will follow up his announcement with a three-day campaign swing to the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire and his hometown of Chicago.
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