After much speculation, Illinois Senator Barack Obama has finally declared: he wants to be President too.

While Obama hasn’t confirmed yet that he’ll run for Democratic nomination – he says he’ll make a formal announcement on 10 February – he’s taken a vital step, filing papers with the Federal Election Commission to establish an exploratory committee to enable him to raise funds.

The Christian Science Monitor puts it this way: “For the first time in American history, a black man is stepping toward a presidential run with the potential to win his party’s nomination – and even the presidency itself.”

Obama is entering an already crowded field which includes John Edwards. Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to join soon, says The IHT and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is also considering another run.

A hit in state politics, Obama got his biggest break to date in 2004 when he made an unlikely bid for a Senate seat – and won. His impressive keynote address at the Democratic National Convention was a turning point.

But Obama will have to work hard to overcome perceptions that he’s simply too inexperienced and lightweight for the nation’s top job. Obama brings a “thin resume based on just two years in the Senate”, writes Beth Fouhy in the Washington Post, not to mention “a hefty dose of political celebrity stemming from best-selling books, paparazzi bathing suit shots in glossy weeklies and his status as an Oprah Winfrey favourite”.

Perhaps, but that’s part of the secret to his success. Bringing a charisma reminiscent of Bill Clinton or JFK to the job, he’s fresh. And people want to believe in him. His candid memoir Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance written in his early thirties is a consistent bestseller.

At some level, possibly the most basic one, the mania surrounding Barack Obama is a simple function of his age, wrote Jennifer Senior in a recent New York magazine profile – “or, as John F. Kennedy would have said, his vigour. At 45, he’s 15 years younger than the average senator in the 109th Congress, and he’s 13 years younger than Hillary Clinton.”

But black activists are not convinced by the Ivy Leaguer. For another less than rose-coloured perspective, Harper’s Barack Obama Inc is an interesting read.

Over at Slate, they’re asking the big questions. Now that he’s entering the big league, will Obama feel compelled to abandon the dirty little habit that’s responsible for his warm presidential voice: smoking?

Peter Fray

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