Standing in the place where Abraham Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) declared his intention to become the next president of the United States. Thousands, braving the freezing cold, packed into the town plaza in front of the Old State Capitol Building in Springfield, Ill., to cheer him on. The symbolism was not wasted on the excited throng of supporters, who interrupted his speech several times with chants of “Obama, Obama!”

Invoking Lincoln’s determination to “organize the forces arrayed against slavery,” Obama declared his candidacy to be about “realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.” He called on his supporters to forget petty, small politics and to concentrate on the big and burning issues of the day. “That is our purpose today. That is why I’m in this race. Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation,” he declared.

Obama made ending the war in Iraq a central theme. Citing many critical domestic needs, he said that none of the serious problems the country faces can be solved without ending this “tragic mistake.” Obama spoke of legislation he has introduced in the Senate to bring U.S. combat troops home by March 2008. He made it clear that he thinks Bush’s surge will only put more U.S. troops in danger in what is essentially a civil war.

The Illinois AFL-CIO and other labor organizations, while not yet endorsing any candidates, did mobilize groups of members for Obama’s Springfield announcement. Obama joined his fellow Democratic presidential candidate, former Sen. John Edwards, in making passage of the Employee Free Choice Act a focal point of the announcement of his candidacy. Obama said that restoring the right to organize, free of corporate interference, is critical to “ensure that the nation’s workers are sharing in our prosperity.”

Obama also sounded a generational theme, calling for his presidency to be the one that solves some of the nation’s most intractable problems. Repeatedly using the refrain “let us be the generation to …,” he called for establishing a universal health care system by the end of the next president’s first term, ending poverty in America, providing everyone who wants to work with a job at a living wage, making college more affordable for everyone, ending global warming and freeing America from the “tyranny of oil.”

In one of Obama’s most innovative and creative proposals, he called for wiring the inner cities and rural areas of the country for broadband Internet access. He also returned to what has been one of his signature issues in the Senate. Obama called for getting one thing right about the Iraq war, and that is welcoming the troops home with adequate health care, training and services to restart their lives.

With his announcement, Obama joins a crowded field of Democratic contenders. Sen. Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are his closest competitors in these early days of the campaign for the Democratic nomination. Political commentators have noted that these three candidates seem to be competing for the “most progressive” label. As one labor leader in Illinois put it, “That kind of competition is good for labor and good for working people.”

Obama would become the first African American president of the U.S. As if anticipating this important democratic breakthrough, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) in his introduction to the rally said, “Join me at this moment in history and welcome Barack Obama.”

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