January 19, 2007

Obama explores '08 bid

Illinois Senator and U of C law professor Barack Obama took the first step toward a presidential run Tuesday, forming an exploratory committee that allows him to begin fundraising and building a campaign organization. Obama, elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004, would become the first black president in U.S. history if he were to win both the Democratic primary and general election.

News of Obama’s decision was greeted with excitement both in Hyde Park and nationwide.

“I am very enthusiastic about his decision,” said Cass Sunstein, U of C law and political science professor and contributing editor to The New Republic. “He’s sensationally talented and he has an extraordinary mind, plus a wonderful character.”

“He is a tremendous political talent, the best I have seen since Bill Clinton,” said William Howell, public policy professor and author of two books on the presidency. “I suspect…that Obama’s individual talents and mass appeal, both of which I’m told were on full display when he taught in the law school at the University of Chicago, will carry him far on the national stage.”

The decision also resulted in significant attention from politically active members of the student body.

The campus Democrats have worked closely with Obama’s office on community efforts and placing interns since his election. “In the wake of the Senator’s announcement, our membership is positively buzzing about the impending Obama candidacy,” said fourth-year Phil Caruso, president of UCDems.

“It’s very encouraging to work for him because in each of the times I’ve met him he’s been just as thoughtful, articulate, and genuinely passionate as he comes off in TV interviews and in his books,” said fourth-year Rico Gardaphe, an intern in Obama’s Chicago office, echoing enthusiasm for the decision.

Although Obama entered the national consciousness just two years ago, following a widely regarded keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, he has been an influential Hyde Park community member since returning to Chicago after receiving his law degree from Harvard in 1991. Obama organized and directed Illinois Project Vote, a voter registration and education campaign that registered 150,000 low-income Cook County voters. Obama also worked closely on the redevelopment of the Cabrini Green housing complex and served as general council to community health clinics and charter schools.

At the Law School, where he remains on the faculty during an extended leave of absence, Obama taught courses on constitutional law, voting rights, the democratic process, and race.

“He was, and is, widely admired by students and faculty alike—and entirely across political divisions,” said Sunstein on the Law School faculty blog. “I think their agreement resulted from Obama’s character (he’s a genuinely wonderful guy), his evident ability and sheer excellence (for example, he’s a terrific teacher, and we tried to convince him to join the faculty full-time on several occasions), and his independence and unpredictability.”

Members of the community responded with similar optimism.

“I would say that for the most part, people think this is a great thing,” said Abdul Karim Shakir, owner of the Hyde Park Hair Salon where Obama frequents. “I think it’s like 98 percent of people who think this is magnificent, and I can’t speak for the other two percent. The time is now; he should seize the day.”

Obama’s decision to potentially seek the presidency could also directly affect another influential community and University member—his wife, Michelle Obama, who currently serves as vice president for community and external affairs at the U of C Hospitals. In her position, she has spearheaded programs aimed at improving neighborhood outreach, volunteer recruitment, and staff diversity.

Before taking her post, she was the founding director of the University Community Service Center, a campus organization that coordinates community service opportunities for students. She was also named the first associate dean of Student Services in the University and continues to serve on the board of multiple Chicago-area community service organizations.

In his statement released Tuesday, Obama said he would make a final decision about his candidacy on February 10 in Chicago.