WASHINGTON — The phones weren't working right. The fax machine wasn't hooked up. And the walls were bare, except for a giant map of Illinois propped on its end, waiting to be hung.
But even before the makeshift office was up and running in the basement of a Senate building, even before he raised his hand Tuesday to take the oath of office as the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama was already a political rock star and a celebrated new face in Congress.
"Congratulations, man!" a cabdriver exulted, recognizing the 43-year-old senator and joyfully leaning on his horn.
"Welcome to Washington!" a jogger bellowed as Obama, the self-described "skinny kid with a funny name," walked the streets outside the Capitol on the way to a reception where well-wishers were lined up out the door.
The nation first met him six months ago in Boston during a keynote speech that held the audience breathless at the Democratic National Convention. He went on to win his race handily, becoming the Senate's only African American member and the third elected since Reconstruction.
He arrived Tuesday, his first official day in the Capitol, with star power reserved for the likes of former Sen. John Glenn and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Democrats see him as one of the few bright lights to come out of the drubbing they took at the polls in November. Republicans are dropping his name and admirers are already speculating about when he might run for president.
But unlike the government-issued desk, stature within the Senate's marbled halls does not come with the job. Influence must be earned, and Obama starts out 99th in seniority, the shining star in a party that is out of power throughout Washington, a would-be bridge-builder in a bitterly partisan Senate.
In the circles he runs in now, celebrity status is checked at the cloakroom door.
"He's enormously attractive, a good speaker and all of that, but he starts just as anybody else," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a 12-year veteran. "He is going to see that you sit at the end of the aisle and you wait your turn to ask questions. You have to develop alliances and credibility and trust on both sides to be able to get anything done. That's even more difficult now, because Democrats don't control anything."
The son of a black economist from Kenya and a white teacher from Kansas, Obama appears to be nothing if not humble. In his office Tuesday, he gave up his wing-backed chair to one of the dozens of reporters and camera crews standing in line for a few minutes of his time. Sitting for the first time at his historic place on the Senate floor -- last row, on the end -- he lifted the top of his newly assigned desk and curiously peeked inside.
When it was finally time to take the oath, he held his personal Bible, as family from as far away as Kenya watched from the visitors' gallery above. His daughters, Malia, 6, and Sasha, 3, in velvet dresses and patent leather shoes, bounced in their chairs when he looked up and waved.
A former community activist and state senator, Obama acknowledged that Washington's learning curve is steep. His first-year goals are rather modest: set up a constituent service office for the people of Illinois, help give them a good transportation bill and attempt to remedy the "inexcusable" treatment of veterans.
"I think if I work hard, I can make those happen," he said, sounding more like the new kid than the rock star. Even while most everyone around him seems to be expecting greatness, he claims to feel no pressure.
"The only burden I feel is to operate with honor and integrity, to work really hard," he said amid a fast-paced walk to the Capitol for one more first-day ceremony. Then he stopped, encountering another of his new colleagues, whose family had asked to shake Obama's hand.
His appeal transcends race. The first black president of the Harvard Law Review, he is a gifted orator and he did as well among voters in the white suburbs of Chicago as he did in its inner city.
The unanswered question is how far his new rank and his celebrity can carry him in a Senate that is tightly controlled by Republicans. Among his ambitions are to work on such issues as nuclear proliferation and conditions in Africa.
"Frankly," he said, "I was born in Hawaii and lived in Southeast Asia, so any hemisphere they toss at me, I probably have a little piece of me connected to it, and I think I can do some good."
The phones in his office were up and running by noon and proceeded to ring without stopping. "I'll be sure to pass that on to the senator," a receptionist promised, but the good wishes came in such a rush she didn't have time to write anything down.
Throughout his first day, Obama remained characteristically calm, even eloquent, shaking hands with Washington luminaries and accommodating the media pack that trailed his every step.