WASHINGTON — 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.
Sen. Barack Obama (D) of Illinois filed papers Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission, establishing an exploratory committee that allows him to raise funds toward a possible presidential campaign. But the jolt of electricity even this step sent through the political world was enough to light up Chicago for the rest of the day.
Speculation that Senator Obama might run has raged for weeks, and so the announcement comes as little surprise. But the confirmation that the charismatic young senator with the exotic heritage has now entered the "money primary" raises a series of crucial questions: With only two years in the Senate, does he have enough experience to persuade voters that he's ready to be the most powerful person in the world? Can he topple the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York? Can he and his young family withstand the intense public scrutiny any top-tier candidate must endure?
And is America ready to elect its first black president?
Obama's new website, BarackObama.com, says the senator will announce his decision on whether to run Feb. 10 in Chicago. In a video statement released Tuesday morning on his site, Obama tried to capture the gravity of the choice he faces.
"Running for the presidency is a profound decision – a decision no one should make on the basis of media hype or personal ambition alone – and so before I committed myself and my family to this race, I wanted to be sure that this was right for us, and more importantly, right for the country," Obama said.
What he's really testing, political analysts say, is the strength of his fundraising ability. To make a serious play for a major-party nomination, a candidate needs to raise tens of millions of dollars in the next few months – a task that Senator Clinton should accomplish easily.
But, too, the Illinois Democrat may begin to see the downside of being a media darling. In his latest book, "The Audacity of Hope," he describes President Bush warning him just after he joined the Senate about life in the spotlight – especially for a senator who practically waltzed into his seat (after his competition imploded). The media are notorious for building people up, only to tear them down.
So far, Obama has faced criticism over a questionable deal he made in the purchase of his home in Chicago, a transaction he later called "boneheaded." In his first book, "Dreams From My Father" – published in 1995 after he was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review – he admits to using marijuana and cocaine in his youth, another point that could diminish his appeal among some donors and voters.
But the more central questions he faces involve his readiness for the presidency and the public's comfort level with his identity. With the nation at war, he will have to convince voters that he is prepared to step into the commander in chief role with a plan that satisfies, first, the vehemently antiwar Democratic base and then, if nominated, the general electorate.
In a way, his limited tenure in the Senate could work to his advantage. Only two Americans have ever made the leap directly from the Senate to the White House: Warren Harding and John Kennedy. More often, senators who try to run for president (and sooner or later, many of them do) get caught up in tangled legislative language that does not play well in a campaign.
But his biggest advantage could be his persona – young, attractive, articulate, a fresh face.
"He's a dynamic speaker; he's got charisma that engages people," says independent pollster Del Ali. "He's similar to [Bill] Clinton, similar to [Ronald] Reagan in that respect, similar to Kennedy."
As a member of the Illinois state Senate, before his election to the US Senate, he wowed the arena with his keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. And his personal background provides the classic "log cabin" story on which presidential politics thrives. The son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya, Obama was raised mostly in Hawaii. In his first book, he laid out his struggle to come to terms with his mixed-race heritage and absent father, who left the family when Barack was 2 years old.
It may be that his unusual name – including the middle name Hussein – proves trickier than his color in bringing Americans to a comfort level that would win their votes. Unlike past African-American presidential candidates, such as Jesse Jackson, he does not come from the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but rather represents the new face of black politics: pinstriped suits and an Ivy League pedigree.
"He seems to transcend the race issue to a degree," says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin. But on policy, he adds, Obama is "going to be under a lot of pressure to come up with lots of answers to lots of questions."
• Staff writer Ari Pinkus contributed to this report.