The Road To The White House: First Steps

<B>60 Minutes</b> Looks Back At The Early Days Of Obama's Run For The Presidency

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When 60 Minutes went to Illinois nearly two years ago to do a story on a young, charismatic senator named Barack Obama, it wasn't because we thought he was going to be elected the 44th President of the United States.

Nobody thought that, but he was becoming a political phenomenon and there had never been a presidential candidate quite like him - his last name rhymed with Osama, his middle name was Hussein; racially he was half white and half black, and politically he was green.

It would have been easy to dismiss him if it were not for the fact that he was running second in the polls behind Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination. 60 Minutes and correspondent Steve Kroft wanted to find out what all the fuss was about.

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It was a frigid February night in 2007 at the old state Capitol in Springfield, Ill. where Barack Obama, a first-term senator with two years of national political experience planned to announce his candidacy for president the following day.

"Three years ago, you were a state legislator here in Springfield. What makes you think that you're qualified to be President of the United States?" Kroft asked.

"You know, I think we're in a moment of history where probably the most important thing we need to do is to bring the country together, and one of the skills that I bring to bear is being able to pull together the different strands of American life and focus on what we have in common," Obama replied.

The senator told Kroft he didn't have any doubts that he was ready. Asked where he got all this confidence, Obama joked, "My wife asks me that all the time."

As he gave 60 Minutes a tour of the historic building where Abraham Lincoln served in the legislature and delivered the "house divided" speech, there was much for Obama to be confident about. At age 45, he was one of only three black senators since reconstruction, the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Chicago, and the author of two best-selling books.

He was just audacious enough to invite comparisons to one of the few American presidents, who was elected with even less political experience than he had. "He grew into the presidency in ways that I think no body would have anticipated," Sen. Obama told Kroft, remarking on a Lincoln campaign banner that hangs in the building.

60 Minutes had first met him the week before at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. It was in the parlance of politicos, a "cattle call," an opportunity for all ten Democratic presidential hopefuls to make their pitch to the movers and shakers.

Obama's reception was warm - what you might expect for a rising young star. But it was a tough room. Most of those in attendance were already committed to Senator Hillary Clinton or John Edwards, and Obama's candidacy was not yet taken seriously, at least by the party establishment.

But it was a much different story later that afternoon on the campus of George Mason University in the Virginia suburbs, where Obama held his first campaign rally, just two weeks after establishing an exploratory presidential committee.

It was our first exposure to what came to be called "Obamamania." You sensed immediately that something unusual was going on, something rarely seen in American politics.

Some 5,000 students had turned out to see him, flooding the floor of the Johnson Center and ringing the floors above. He opposed the Iraq war from the onset, and encouraged his young audience to cast aside their cynicism of politics and engage the system, evoking the words of Martin Luther King.

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. It bends towards justice. But here's the thing, young people - it doesn't bend on its own," he told the students.

He had yet to declare his candidacy, but he was already the biggest political celebrity in America. Propelled by the media hunger for a fresh face and a good story, he had graced the covers of Time and Newsweek, been endorsed by Oprah, and the campaign itself seemed to morph out of his latest book tour.

As he left the stage at George Mason University and made his way out of the building, he was mobbed by a crush of people, protected only by campus security.

It was not a problem he encountered in the U.S. Senate, where as the junior senator from Illinois he was 88th on the list of seniority - a political neophyte in a body where patience is prized. Frustrated by the ways of Washington, and concerned about being co-opted or compromised, he decided that this was his moment to make a move.

"I wanna read you a quote from The St. Petersburg Times: 'Obama needs more than one Senate term to qualify for the presidency of the United States. The world is too complex and dangerous for this likeable, charismatic, African-American neophyte to practice on-the-job training,'" Kroft read. "Why are you in such a hurry?"

"You know, the truth is I'm not," Obama replied, laughing. "We have a narrow window to solve some of the problems that we face. Ten years from now, we may not be in a position to recover the sense of respect around the world that we've lost over the last six years. Certainly, when you look at our energy policy and environment and the prospects of climate change, we've gotta make some decisions right now. And so I feel a sense of urgency for the country."