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Obama Seeks to Make History as First African American President


Senator Barack Obama of Illinois hopes to become the first African-American president in U.S. history. But to do so, he will first have to defeat Democratic rivals, who include the current frontrunner, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York.

VOA National correspondent Jim Malone has a profile of Senator Obama and what makes him a unique figure in presidential politics.

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother from Kansas.

Obama spent part of his childhood in Indonesia and later attended Columbia University and Harvard Law School.

Obama's political career was shaped by his years as a community organizer in Chicago and as a member of the Illinois State Senate.

Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, the same year he delivered the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention. "I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story," he told that audience, "that I owe a debt to all of those who came before me, and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible."

Obama's convention speech gave him a national profile that set the stage for his presidential announcement early in 2007. "In the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where [Abraham] Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together."

University of Virginia expert Larry Sabato says, "He is able to connect to individuals as well as the tenor of the crowd as a whole. The energy that comes with his youthful enthusiasm is a big plus. This really is a John F. Kennedy-like situation from 1960. That gives him a real chance."

Democratic rivals focus on what they say is Obama's relative youth and lack of experience. Senator Hillary Clinton, during a candidates' debate commented, "The issue is, which of us is ready to lead on day one?"

Obama agrees he has not spent many years learning the "ways of Washington." "But I have been there long enough to know that the ways of Washington must change," he said when announcing his candidacy.

Like many Democrats, the senator opposes the war in Iraq and favors a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. "There is no military solution in Iraq. There never was. The best way to protect our security and to pressure Iraq's leaders to resolve their civil war is to immediately begin to remove our combat troops. Not in six months or one year, but now," he said.

Senator Clinton leads Obama among Democrats in national polls. But Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards run close to Clinton in early-voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

George Washington University political analyst Stephen Hess compares the two, "He has the charm of newness, in which everybody can read into it what they think he believes because it is what they believe. She, we know where she is coming from. It is just an absolutely fascinating duo."

Experts believe Obama is the most formidable African-American presidential candidate in history and well positioned to overcome the historic reluctance of white Americans to support a black candidate.

John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute comments, "Some worry that an African-American candidate still will have trouble winning in America. I think there are some concerns about that, but America has moved very, very far in that direction over the years and polls show that most people would accept an African-American candidate."

Barack Obama's multi-cultural background and his ability to connect with voters make him unique in presidential campaign history. Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire in January will have the first say as to whether Obama's fresh approach can counter concerns about his lack of experience.