As midnight approached, after excusing himself from official functions, he searched for a fresh start. He wanted to reach for something profound, something equal to the keynote address last summer at the Democratic National Convention that launched his rise to national prominence.
So Obama scribbled his thoughts on a yellow legal pad and refined them on a laptop computer. He praised Lincoln's character and his courage. Interestingly, by the time he finished, he had barely touched upon race, at least not in an obvious way.
"Lincoln was not a perfect man, nor a perfect president," Obama told the crowd the next day. "By modern standards, his condemnation of slavery might be considered tentative."
Obama did not craft those words to be critical. Rather, he said, they were designed to show his admiration for a man who hesitated and equivocated before finding his ultimate course. And that's where Obama offered a modern-day political lesson to an audience that included President Bush:
"At a time when image all too often trumps substance, when our politics all too often feeds rather than bridges division, when the prospects of a poor youth rising out of poverty seem of no consequence to the powerful and when we evoke our common God to condemn those who do not think as we do, rather than to seek God's mercy for our own lack of understanding--at such a time it is helpful to remember this man who was the real thing."
His carefully chosen words received little attention. Moments after Obama finished speaking that April morning, television stations cut away to images of white smoke at the Vatican, signaling the election of a new pope.
But the speech offered a window into how Obama approaches the issue of race. He does so with subtlety and subtext, often intentionally weaving the message inside a broader point, packaged so it does not sound too abrupt or too harsh.
Still, at an event designed to celebrate Lincoln, he managed to deliver a pointed critique of his political rivals who in their own speeches simply cited some of Lincoln's most famous lines.
"When I hear `With malice toward none, with charity toward all' being quoted, and all we have around here is malice toward all and charity toward none, it gets me frustrated," Obama said after he returned to Washington. "There are risks in including that kind of approach in a speech like that because it's a feel-good event, but one of the things that I'm trying to be mindful of is not starting to get so comfortable or risk-averse that I end up sounding like everyone else."
A complex biography
Indeed, Obama's most valued currency might be that he is different. He is not a progeny of the civil rights movement or the black church. Rather, his life has been a study in racial fusion.
The complexity of his biography--a black father from Africa, a white mother from Kansas, adolescence in the white world, adulthood in the black--has added to his allure as a public figure.
To a generation of Americans, he is the first of his kind in an era when the most dramatic struggles for racial equality are now grainy images from a distant past. Color alone does not define him, yet race is never far from the conversation when Obama is the subject.
It is still, after all, considered remarkable when a black man wins a seat in the U.S. Senate.
So when Obama was elected last fall, becoming the third African-American senator since Reconstruction, he inspired a bountiful hope that has long been percolating, a promise that includes the prospect of even higher public office.
For blacks it is a hope born of violence and discrimination, struggle and triumph. For many whites as well, Obama embodies a sense of hope that transcends traditional tensions and ambiguities of race.
Those ambiguities, for Obama, are his biography.