Obama: A Star Has Been Born

OBAMA: RETURNING HOME

Hundreds of people, young and old, lined up in the rain for two hours (some even longer) on a small, usually quiet street just two blocks away from the University of Chicago campus, where Obama has taught in the University’s Law School. When they finally stood face to face with Barack Obama, they were totally enthralled. They laughed big laughs at his little jokes. They immediately whipped out cameras and camera phones and started taking snapshots of him. And as Obama signed copies of his latest book, over and over the young and the old pleaded for him to run for president.

While any U.S. senator with a new book might be expected to draw a big crowd in the neighborhood where he once lived and worked, Tuesday’s book-signing at 57th Street Books in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where he does still live, was something else entirely. After all, Obama, a top Democratic party campaigner and fundraiser, is the hottest commodity in American politics. If the line stretching around the block for the biggest in-store signing the store’s manager has ever experienced didn’t illustrate that, one look at newsstands across the country, where Obama’s face fills the cover of Time Magazine next to the headline, “Why Barack Obama Could Be The Next President,” does.

For our generation he is kind of the lighthouse, the hope,” said a 19-year-old University of Chicago student from Milwaukee. “He’s changing the face of government in America.” One after another, college students, retirees and those in between took turns throwing around words like “charismatic” and “hope” or, if that wasn’t enough, “shining hope.” They even tossed out the “K” word, as in John F. Kennedy. “You know Kennedy was in the Senate for two years when he ran for president,” said Barbara O’Connor, 76, a few minutes before buying three copies of Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.” “I would love to see him run for president,” said O’Connor, who said she once worked as a community organizer with Obama.

The senator clearly enjoyed interacting with people who acted more like fans than constituents. When one woman said she was a teacher and suggested she was playing hooky from school, he joked, “If you need a note, let me know.” Obama was largely unknown outside of Illinois when he burst onto the national scene with a widely acclaimed address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, which included the phrase “the audacity of hope.” That November, he became the fifth black ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

Since then, he has become one of the party’s biggest stars, traveling around the nation stumping for Democratic candidates and raising money for the party amid questions about whether he will run for president in 2008. But Tuesday morning, during the first stop on a book tour that will take him to a dozen cities in the next two weeks, Obama discreetly handled pleas for him to run for president in 2008, either thanking people for their comments or wondering aloud how he could ever turn them down.

Then, when a University of Chicago graduate student said that she wanted him to become the nation’s first “attractive president,” even Obama couldn’t resist bringing up JFK.

Kennedy wasn’t bad, from what I understand,” he humorously replied, smiling.

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