Story Highlights• Sen. Obama addressed thousands in town square of Springfield, Illinois
• Listed poor schools, economic hardships, oil dependence and Iraq as priorities
• "Failure of leadership" to blame for not meeting nation's challenges, Obama says
• Before politics, practiced civil rights law, taught at U. of Chicago Law School
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SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (CNN) -- Sen. Barack Obama stood before a cheering crowd in his home state Saturday and announced he will seek the 2008 Democratic nomination for president.
Invoking the memory of fellow Illinoisan and the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, the first-term senator addressed thousands packed into the Springfield, Illinois, town square on a chilly day in America's heartland.
To chants of "Obama! Obama!," he told the crowd: "It was here, in Springfield, where North, South, East and West come together that I was reminded of the essential decency of the American people -- where I came to believe that through this decency, we can build a more hopeful America." (Watch as the crowd erupts when Obama officially declares his candidacy )
If the 45-year-old Obama were elected, he would become the nation's first African-American president.
"And that is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a divided house to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America."
Obama told the crowd he would tackle problems like poor schools, economic hardships and oil dependence, saying a "failure of leadership" is to blame for not meeting the nation's challenges. He also implored the crowd to demand that there be "universal health care in America by the end of the president's first term."
He called the Iraq war a "tragic mistake" and said, "It's time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war. That's why I have a plan that will bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.
"Letting the Iraqis know that we will not be there forever is our last, best hope to pressure the Sunni and Shia to come to the table and find peace," he said. (Watch the senator lay out his plan for Iraq )
He also lauded what he called the founding fathers' "genius" in creating a system of government that can be changed. He cited examples throughout history -- from the American Revolution to the Civil War to the Great Depression -- in which Americans have demanded, and effected, change.
"We've done this before. Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done. Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call," he said.
The absence of sound policy is not what's holding the country back, he said.
Rather, Obama said, "what's stopped us is the failure of leadership, the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle the big problems of America."
'Long enough' to know better
The senator acknowledged that he hasn't been in Washington long, but said he is familiar enough with the city's political machinations to understand that change is in order.
"I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness in this -- a certain audacity -- to this announcement," Obama said. "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 that the ways of Washington must change. (Watch how name recognition may be Obama's best weapon )
He added, "People who love their country can change it."
Admitting the tactic is typical of aspiring candidates, Obama promised to overhaul a political system he says is dominated by lobbyists and special interest groups "who've turned our government into a game only they can afford to play."
"They write the checks and you get stuck with the bills, they get the access while you get to write a letter, they think they own this government, but we're here today to take it back. The time for that kind of politics is over," he said. "It's time to turn the page right here and right now."
Obama, the son of a black Kenyan father and white American mother, then invoked Lincoln again.
"He had his doubts. He had his defeats. He had his setbacks, but through his will and his words, he moved a nation and helped free a people."
Despite his brief tenure in the Senate, Obama has quickly gained popularity as he pondered his bid to break the Oval Office's color barrier.
According to a University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center conducted this month, Obama placed second, behind Sen. Hillary Clinton, among New Hampshire Democratic primary voters. Obama snared 21 percent of the vote in that popularity poll, trailing Clinton by 14 points. (Full story )
Other Democrats seeking the office include Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware; Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut; former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina; Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Sen. Clinton of New York.
While speculation abounds over whether a black presidential candidate can be viable, Obama -- whose first name comes from the Swahili word for "one who is blessed" -- has not let the color of skin hinder his career.
He attended Harvard and Columbia universities and was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. He entered politics in Illinois, where he practiced civil rights law and taught at the University of Chicago Law School.
His first foray into politics came in 1997, when he took his seat in the state Senate, where he served until 2005. He was sworn in as a U.S. senator in 2005.