Barack Obama, Unplugged

If three years ago, someone had told you that an Illinois state legislator named Barack Hussein Obama, was thinking about running for president, you might have thought he was, well, unhinged.

The Democratic Illinois senator announced Tuesday that he had established an exploratory committee for a presidential run, but said as recently as a year ago he might understand any skepticism.

"I certainly didn't expect to find myself in this position a year ago," he said in a video statement released on his Web site Tuesday.

Obama's meteoric rise shows how much can happen in the world of politics in a short period of time: Nasty politics can get even nastier, a president's popularity can plummet, and an already-brutal war can devolve into what many see as a catastrophic civil war.

And so a once-obscure state legislator turned media phenom can sense a moment, as did Obama, a liberal Democrat with charm, charisma, a compelling personal story -- and very little experience.

"Today, our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way," Obama told supporters in his video message.

"Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions," he said.

Experience as a Detriment?

Not only did the man who is only two years into his first term in the U.S. Senate target all those politicians whose experience outmatches his, he also seemed to say that their experience may be part of the problem.

After all, as Obama told "Nightline" anchor Terry Moran just a few months ago, former Defense Secretary "Donald Rumsfeld has one of the best resumes in Washington. And yet I would also argue that one of the consequences of bad judgment on his part is some of the problems that we've seen in Iraq," he said at the time.

That was also the message Tuesday, if you read between the lines.

"We're still mired in a tragic and costly war that should have never been waged," Obama said, choosing to emphasize his view that the decision to go to war was a grievous error.

Obama May Not Have Same Iraq Baggage

Of course in 2002, supporters of the war included all his major rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination: Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Joe Biden, John Edwards, John Kerry and Chris Dodd.

Where was Obama in 2002? Rallying against the war in Chicago, where he stated his anti-war credentials. "I don't oppose war in all circumstances. … What I do oppose is a dumb war," he said then.

For fellow Chicago Democrat Bill Daley, former secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, that's a pretty compelling argument.

"What he feared the war was going to bring to the world … basically has been proven true," Daley told ABC News Chicago affiliate WLS, referring to a lengthy statement Obama wrote at the time.

In that statement he outlined what he predicted would be the disastrous results of military intervention in Iraq.

"It's pretty amazing," Daley said. "And people talk about experience. He had less experience then than he has now, but he sure seemed to have a lot of vision and understanding of the world at that time."

Former U.S. Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., said Obama was perfectly positioned for 2008 to run as an anti-inside the Beltway politician.

"He is the opposite of the Washington candidates and he is coming off that way. He projects that way. That's a huge asset today," Coelho told ABC News.

Can He Compete?

But will it be enough to compete with experienced heavy hitters?

Political insiders like Donna Brazile, former campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 campaign and an ABC News consultant, wonder.

"Unless he's able to raise $50 million to $75 million by the end of 2007, he won't be seen as a serious contender. Hillary Clinton will be able to raise that overnight," Brazile told ABC News.

Beyond the excitement of Democrats and some in the media, it's not tough to discern a feeling of confusion on Capitol Hill.

The question one often hears may be fueled by some resentment and jealousy, sure, but it bears answering: Just who the hell is Barack Obama? And why on Earth should he be trusted in these dangerous times with the most powerful job on Earth?

His biography is part of his selling point: Born in Hawaii to a white mother from Kansas and an African father, Obama moved around a lot as a child. After college he became a community organizer. Then he went to Harvard Law School where he became the first black president of its esteemed law review.

Chicago businesswoman Valerie Jarrett has known Obama and his wife, Michelle, for more than 15 years.

"He's a wonderful listener. He's compassionate, and he's the kind of person where if you pick up the phone and your voice sounds a little funny, he knows it right away and says, 'What's going on with you?'" Jarrett said.

Rock-Star Status

What's going on with Obama is a catapulting into the celebrity stratosphere -- Jay Leno, Monday Night Football, Oprah Winfrey.

It all seems pretty heady. Obama even made People magazine photographed in a bathing suit near spreads about Hollywood pinups Penelope Cruz and Hugh Jackman.

Jarrett said that Obama was embarrassed by the photo.

"He was mortified. … It was a wake-up call. They think they are enjoying a quiet family moment, and they weren't," Jarrett said. "So in a sense it's a message that this is what their life is going to be like, and he's decided that it's worth it."

Former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie does not know Obama, and disagrees with his politics. He admires his talent, though.

"He is a very good speaker. I saw him in Boston at the Democratic National Convention, and he did a very good job," Gillespie told ABC News. "He enjoys a pretty broad appeal."

But Gillespie notes what Obama himself has acknowledged: that right now he's in many ways a blank slate on which fans are projecting their views and their hopes, and that this popularity is unlikely to remain the more people find out about him.

"Right now I think there are a lot of moderate Democrats who assume he is a moderate and a lot of liberal Democrats who assume he is a liberal democrat," Gillespie said. "In the end, given his numbers somebody is going to be disappointed."

Democrats may be disappointed to learn that as a teenager Obama did cocaine, as he said in the "Nightline" interview.

"Well, when I was in high school, you know, I did a lot of stupid things," he said.

Democrats may not like what they hear about a questionable land deal Obama was involved in with a political operative, who has since been indicted on fraud charges.

He told "Nightline" he could have handled the deal better.

"We paid higher than the appraised value. But, you know, it's a situation where I missed, sort of, the potential appearance of impropriety, or at least the possibility that he was doing me a favor," he said.

Or they may decide that they want the skinny guy with the funny name to be their next president.

Obama's friend Jarrett says he is not perfect.

"If you ask [his wife,] Michelle, she'll give you a list of the flaws. It usually has to do with not picking up after himself and not doing the dishes and stuff like that, but you know, but I'm not going to say he's flawless," she said. "Everybody has flaws, and he's the first to recognize his flaws."

Obama would be the first to agree with that assessment.

"One of the things I'm pretty confident about is that when people know me, they conclude not that I'm perfect, but that I am in this thing for them, and that I generally exercise good judgment," he told "Nightline."

ABC News' Avery Miller, Artis Waters and Z. Byron Wolf contributed to this report.