Obama kicked off presidential campaign 15 years ago in Springfield: A look back and forward

Thursday marks 15 years since Barack Obama officially launched his first presidential campaign on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield.

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Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks to a crowd gathered on the lawn of the old State Capital Building as his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia (2nd-L), 8 and Sasha, 4, look on Feb. 10, 2007 in Springfield, Illinois. Obama announced to the crowd that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) speaks to a crowd gathered on the lawn of the old State Capital Building as his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia (2nd-L), 8 and Sasha, 4, look on Feb. 10, 2007 in Springfield, Illinois. Obama announced to the crowd that he would seek the Democratic nomination for president.

Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Thursday marks 15 years since Barack Obama officially kicked off his first presidential campaign on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield.

Feb. 10, 2007.

It was a long day. Started in Springfield. Ended after rallies in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, Iowa, the state with the 2008 kickoff presidential caucus.

The night before, Sen. Barack Obama, wife Michelle and others in their entourage arrived at the hotel around 10 p.m. A smiling Emil Jones — the state Senate president who had mentored Obama when he was a state senator — was wearing a black T-shirt with a picture of Obama superimposed on the Old State Capitol.

The city was chosen because of its symbolism. Springfield was where Obama — and Abraham Lincoln — started their political careers.

The Old State House was the obvious site for the man on a quest to be the nation’s first Black president. It was the location of Lincoln’s famous “a house divided against itself cannot stand” speech in 1858 denouncing slavery.

It was frigid cold that morning. Before Obama spoke I was on the MSNBC set outside the Old State House, offering analysis along with Chris Matthews and Howard Fineman.

Frozen to the bone, I took refuge in the inside press file center overseen by a new young Obama staffer, Samantha Tubman, the deputy to the press lead, who joined the campaign a few weeks earlier and was detailed to Springfield for the announcement.

Obama made his entrance to “City of Blinding Lights,” the U2 hit that would be — and is to this day — his signature walk-out song.

Obama in his speech talked about how there was “a certain audacity” to the freshman senator making a bid for the White House.

“I know that I haven’t spent a lot of time learning the ways of Washington. But I’ve been there long enough to know the ways of Washington must change,” he said.

“And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you this day to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.”

Obama’s “hope” and “change” campaign slogans suggested that, as president, he could create some permanent transformation.

That was not to be.

President Donald Trump followed Obama’s two terms, with his political rise fueled by his Obama birther lies.

Trump’s divisiveness, lies and norm-breaking self-dealing led to two impeachments and the current threat to our democracy stemming from his attempts to overturn the 2020 election.

At the time, however, the goal of the speech was to get Obama elected, and those words struck political gold, setting the stage for his victory.

Shortly after the speech, the 57 journalists in the Obama traveling press corps were hustled to a waiting jet to fly to Iowa. His Waterloo rally lasted till around 10 p.m.

After clinching the nomination, Obama returned to the Old State Capitol on Aug. 23, 2008, with Joe and Jill Biden, to announce that the Delaware senator would be his running mate.

Obama will spend Thursday in his native Hawaii. He is building a house there, his fourth residence. The Obamas’ have homes in Chicago, D.C. and Martha’s Vineyard.

In a virtual session with House Democrats, he will have a conversation with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The Obamas directly oversee three operations: their joint personal office in D.C.; the Obama Foundation based in Chicago; and in Hollywood, Higher Ground Productions, a partnership with Netflix.

When I talked to Tubman on Wednesday, she remembered how “you could hear a pin drop” when Obama spoke that day.

Like many alums of the Obama campaigns and administration, Tubman’s life trajectory changed the day she joined the campaign.

The Obama Foundation on Thursday will be highlighting some stories of other Obama alums.

Tubman landed in Michelle Obama’s White House social office, then moved to the State Department protocol office. After serving in the administration for the full eight years, in the post-presidency, she joined the Obama Foundation.

In 2021, she moved to Los Angeles. She’s now in the L.A. Lakers front office, as chief of staff for basketball operations.

I asked how she landed in L.A., which led to another Obama alum story.

Joe Paulsen worked on the Obama announcement tour and was also in the White House all eight years in various posts, including being Obama’s “body man.”

In the Obama post-presidency, Paulsen was Obama’s deputy chief of staff in his personal office, where one of his jobs was to oversee Higher Ground. In 2021, he moved to Los Angeles to become one of its top executives.

And Tubman and Paulsen — they’re engaged.

Who knew 15 years ago where that day in Springfield would lead.

FOOTNOTE: Obama will be in Chicago on March 10 to headline the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Centennial Celebration.

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