Obama, Barack

views updated May 17 2018

Barack Obama

August 4, 1961 • Honolulu, Hawaii


Illinois voters sent a Democratic newcomer, Barack Obama, to one of the state's two seats in the U.S. Senate in 2004. Obama's landslide victory in Illinois was significant on several fronts. Firstly, he became the Senate's only African American lawmaker when he was sworn into office in January 2005, and just the third black U.S. senator to serve there since the 1880s. Moreover, Obama's political supporters came from a diverse range of racial and economic backgrounds, which is still relatively rare in American electoral politics—traditionally, black candidates have not done very well in voting precincts where predominantly non-minority voters go to the polls. Even before his Election Day victory, Obama emerged as the new star of the Democratic Party after delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts that summer. His stirring speech, in which he urged a united, not a divided, American union, prompted political commentators to predict he might become the first African American elected to the White House.

Born in Hawaii

Obama is actually of mixed heritage. He was born in 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, where his parents had met at the University of Hawaii's Manoa campus. His father, Barack Sr., was from Kenya and entered the University of Hawaii as its first-ever student from an African country. He was a member of Kenya's Luo ethnic group, many of whom played a key role in that country's struggle for independence in the 1950s. Obama's mother, Ann Durham, was originally from Kansas, where some of her ancestors had been anti-slavery activists in the 1800s.

The marriage between Obama's parents was a short-lived one, however. In the early 1960s, interracial relationships were still quite rare in many parts of America, and even technically illegal in some states. The Durhams were accepting of Barack Sr., but his family in Kenya had a harder time with the idea of his marryinga white American woman. When Obama was two years old they divorced, and his father left Hawaii to enter Harvard University to earn a Ph.D. in economics. The two Baracks met again only once, when Obama was ten, though they did write occasionally. Barack Sr. eventually returned to Kenya and died in a car accident there in the early 1980s.

"In no other country on earth is my story even possible."

Obama's mother remarried a man from Indonesia who worked in the oil industry, and when Obama was six they moved there. The family lived near the capital of Jakarta, where his half-sister Maya was born. At the age of ten, Obama returned to Hawaii and lived with his maternal grandparents; later his mother and sister returned as well. Called "Barry" by his family and friends, he was sent to a prestigious private academy in Honolulu, the Punahou School, where he was one of just a handful of black students. Obama recalled feeling conflicted about his mixed heritage in his teen years. Outside the house, he was considered African American, but the only family he knew was his white one at home. For a time, he loafed and let his grades slip; instead of studying, he spent hours on the basketball court with his friends, and has admitted that there was a time when he experimented with drugs, namely marijuana and cocaine. "I was affected by the problems that I think a lot of young African American teens have," he reflected in an interview with Kenneth Meeks for Black Enterprise. "They feel that they need to rebel against society as a way of proving their blackness. And often, this results in self-destructive behavior."

Excels at Harvard Law School

Obama graduated from Punahou and went on to Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he decided to get serious about his studies. Midway through, he transferred to the prestigious Columbia University in New York City. He also began to explore his African roots and not long after his father's death traveled to meet his relatives in Kenya for the first time. After he earned his undergraduate degree in political science, he became a community organizer in Harlem—but quickly realized he could not afford to live in the city with a job that paid so little. Instead, he moved to Chicago to work for a church-based social-services organization there. The group was active on the city's South Side, one of America's most impoverished urban communities.

Feeling it was time to move on, Obama applied to and was accepted at Harvard Law School, one of the top three law schools in the United States. In 1990, he was elected president of the Harvard Law Review journal. He was the first African American to serve in the post, which virtually assured him of any career path he chose after graduation. But Obama declined the job offers from top Manhattan law firms, with their starting salaries that neared the $100,000-a-year range, in order to return to Chicago and work for a small firm that specialized in civil-rights law. This was an especially unglamorous and modest-paying field of law, for it involved defending the poor and the marginalized members of society in housing and employment discrimination cases.

Obama also had another reason for returning to Chicago: During his Harvard Law School years, he took a job as a summer associate at a Chicago firm, and the attorney assigned to mentor him was also a Harvard Law graduate, Michelle Robinson. The two began dating and were married in 1992. Robinson came from a working-class black family and grew up on the South Side; her brother had excelled at basketball and went to Princeton University, and she followed him there for her undergraduate degree. Obama also considered Chicago a place from which he could launch a political career, and he became active in a number of projects in addition to his legal cases at work and another job he held teaching classes at the University of Chicago Law School. He worked on a local voter-registration drive, for example, that registered thousands of black voters in Chicago; the effort was said to have helped Bill Clinton (1946–) win the state in his successful bid for the White House in 1992.

Writes autobiography

Obama's time at the Law Review had netted him an offer to write a book. The result was Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, published by Times Books in 1995. The work merited some brief but mostly complimentary reviews in the press. Obama, however, was not hoping for a career as an author: he decided to run for a seat in the Illinois state senate. He ran from his home district of Hyde Park, the neighborhood surrounding the elite University of Chicago on the South Side. Though Hyde Park is similar to many American college towns, with well-kept homes and upscale businesses, the surrounding neighborhood is a more traditionally urban one, with higher levels of both crime and unemployment.

Obama won that 1996 election and went on to an impressive career in the Senate chambers in Springfield, the state capital. He championed a bill that gave tax breaks to low-income families, worked to expand a state health-insurance program for uninsured children, and wrote a bill that required law enforcement officials in every community to begin keeping track of their traffic stops and noting the race of the driver. This controversial bill, which passed thanks to Obama's determined effort to find support from both political parties in the state Senate, was aimed at reducing incidents of alleged racial profiling, or undue suspicion turned upon certain minority or ethnic groups by police officers on patrol. He also won passage of another important piece of legislation that required police to videotape homicide confessions.

Black Senators in U.S. History

Barack Obama became the fifth African American senator in U.S. history in 2005. He was only the third elected since the end of the Reconstruction, the period immediately following the end of the American Civil War (1861–65; a war between the Union [the North], who were opposed to slavery, and the Confederacy [the South], who were in favor of slavery). During the Reconstruction Era, federal troops occupied the defeated Southern states and, along with transplanted government officials, one of their duties was to make sure that newly freed slaves were allowed to vote fairly and freely in elections.

Before 1913 and the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, members of the U.S. Senate were not directly elected by voters in most states, however. Instead they were elected by legislators in the state assemblies, or appointed by the governor. Still, because of the Reconstruction Era reforms, many blacks were elected to the state legislatures that sent senators to Washington. In 1870, the Mississippi state legislature made Hiram Rhoades Revels (1827–1901) the state's newest senator and the first black ever to serve in the U.S. Senate. Revels was a free-born black from North Carolina and a distinguished minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who had raised two black regiments that fought on the Union side during the Civil War. He served in the Senate for one year.

In 1875, Mississippi lawmakers sent Blanche K. Bruce (1841–1898) to the U.S. Senate. A former slave from Virginia, Bruce was a teacher and founder of the first school for blacks in the state of Missouri. After the end of the Civil War, he headed south to take part in the Reconstruction Era. He won election to local office as a Republican, and in 1875 lawmakers sent him to the U.S. Senate. He served the full six-year term. In 1881, he was appointed a U.S. Treasury official, and his signature was the first from an African American to appear on U.S. currency.

Nearly a hundred years passed before another African American was elected to the Senate, and this came by statewide vote. Edward William Brooke III (1919–), a Republican from Massachusetts, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1966 and served two terms. In 1992 another Illinois Democrat, Carol Moseley Braun (1947–), became the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Obama made his first bid for U.S. Congress in 2000, when he challenged a well-known black politician and former Chicago City Council member, Bobby Rush (1946–), for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Rush was a former 1960s radical who had founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary black nationalist party of the era. Rush's campaign stressed his experience and questioned Obama's support base among wealthier white voters in the city, and Obama was solidly defeated in the primary, winning just 30 percent of the vote.

Enters Senate race

A few years later, Obama decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate when Illinois Republican Peter G. Fitzgerald (1960–) announced he would retire. Some of Obama's supporters thought he was aiming too high, but this time he beat out six other Democratic challengers in the primary with 53 percent of the vote. Suddenly, state and even national Democratic Party leaders began taking him and his Senate campaign seriously. In the primary, he had managed to do what few African American politicians had ever done: record an impressive number of votes from precincts that had a predominantly white population.

In his 2004 Senate race, Obama faced a tough Republican challenger, however: a former investment banker turned parochial-school (school supported by a church parish) teacher named Jack Ryan (1960–). Ryan was blessed with television-actor good looks and had even once been married to Boston Public star Jeri Ryan (1968–). But Jack Ryan was, like one of Obama's earlier primary opponents, derailed by allegations about his personal life. Chicago news outlets publicized Ryan's divorce documents from 1999, which revealed one or two incidents that seemed distinctly at odds with a Republican "family values" platform. Ryan dropped out of the race, but the Republican National Party quickly brought in talk-show host Alan Keyes (1950–), who changed his home address from Maryland to Illinois to run against Obama. Keyes was a conservative black Republican who twice had made a bid for the White House, but he worried some voters with his strong statements against homosexuality.

Obama, by contrast, was winning public-opinion polls among every demographic group that pollsters asked. He was even greeted with rock-star type cheers in rural Illinois farm towns. Many of these small-town voters recognized that the manufacturing operations of many U.S. industries were rapidly being moved overseas thanks to free-trade agreements that eliminated tariffs (taxes) and trade barriers between the United States and Mexico; another free-trade agreement was in the works for Central America. The result was a dramatic decline in U.S. manufacturing jobs. Obama's campaign pledged to stop the outsourcing of such jobs to overseas facilities. But Obama suddenly found himself in the national spotlight, when John Kerry (1943–), expected to win the Democratic Party's nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004, asked Obama to deliver the convention's keynote address. The keynote speech is expected to set the tone of the political campaign, and those chosen to give face tremendous expectations.

"That makes my life poorer"

Obama did not disappoint that evening. His speech, which he wrote himself and titled "The Audacity of Hope," was stirring and eloquent, and quickly dubbed by political analysts to be one of the best convention keynote addresses of the modern era. He earned several standing ovations during it, and Obama's confident, assured tone was broadcast to the rest of the nation. Cameras occasionally scanned the crowd to show tears on the faces of delegates. Obama praised Kerry's values and experience, and he reminded delegates and the national television audience that the country's strength came from unity, not division—that Americans had created a thriving nation out of many diverse ethnic groups and ideologies in its 228-year history. Economic policies aimed at providing a better life for everyone, not just a privileged few, was the American way, he said. "If there's a senior citizen somewhere who can't pay for her prescription and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it's not my grandmother," he told the crowd. "If there's an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It's that fundamental belief—I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper—that makes this country work."

Obama's speech, analysts said almost immediately, struck a hopeful, healing tone for a drastically divided nation and what had become a bitter, insult-heavy presidential contest. Obama, asserted Time 's Amanda Ripley, "described a country that America wants very badly to be: a country not pockmarked by racism and fear or led by politicians born into privilege and coached into automatons [robotic behavior]." Others called it one of the best political speeches of the century. Some newspaper and magazine editorial writers predicted that the rising star from Illinois would emerge a strong leader in the Democratic Party over the next few years, and could even run for president in 2012 or 2016.

Obama won his bid for the Senate a few months later by a large margin, taking 70 percent of the Illinois vote against just 27 percent for Keyes. At just forty-three years old, he became one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate when he was sworn into office in January 2005. The first major piece of legislation he introduced came two months later with the Higher Education Opportunity through Pell Grant Expansion Act of 2005 (HOPE Act). Its goal was increase the maximum amount that the federal government provides each student who receives need-based financial aid for college. In the 1970s and 1980s, Pell grants often covered nearly the entire tuition cost— excluding room, board, and books—at some state universities. But because they had failed to keep pace with risingtuition costs by 2005 they covered, on average, just 23 percent of the tuition at state schools.

Obama and his wife have two young daughters, Malia and Sasha. Instead of moving to Washington, Michelle Robinson Obama remained in Chicago indefinitely with the children and kept her job as a hospital executive. Television personality Oprah Winfrey (1954–) interviewed Obama not long after the Democratic National Convention and asked him how he became such an eloquent public speaker. He replied that he knew from an early age that he had a career in the persuasive arts—be they legal or political—ahead of him. "I always knew I could express myself," he said in O, The Oprah Magazine. "I knew I could win some arguments. I knew I could get my grandparents and mom frustrated!"

For More Information


Obama, Barack. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004.


Alter, Jonathan. "'The Audacity of Hope.'" Newsweek (December 27, 2004): p. 74.

Finnegan, William. "The Candidate." New Yorker (May 31, 2004).

Meeks, Kenneth. "Favorite Son." Black Enterprise (October 2004): p. 88.

"Oprah Talks to Barack Obama." O, The Oprah Magazine (November 2004): p. 248.

Ripley, Amanda. "Obama's Ascent." Time (November 15, 2004): p. 74.

Web Sites

Barack Obama, U.S. Senator from Illinois.http://obama.senate.gov/ (accessed on August 23, 2005).

"Rising Star: Senate Candidate Barack Obama Delivers Rousing Keynote at DNC." Democracy Now.http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/07/28/1313225 (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Obama, Barack

views updated May 21 2018

Barack Obama

United States senator

Born August 4, 1961, in Hawaii; son of Barack Obama, Sr. and Ann Dunham; married Michelle Robinson, 1992; children: Malia, Sasha. Education: Attended Occidental College, Los Angeles, CA; Columbia University, B.A., 1983; Harvard Law School, J.D., 1991.

Addresses: Office—713 Hart Senate Office Building, Washington, DC, 20510. Website—http://www.barackobama.com, http://www.obama.senate.gov.


Worked at the Business International Corporation, for a nonprofit recycling group, and on a campaign for a New York state assembly seat, 1983–85; community organizer with the Calumet Community Religious Conference, 1985–88; elected president of the Harvard Law Review, 1990; taught at University of Chicago Law School, 1991; civil-rights lawyer, 1991–1996; headed voter registration campaign, 1992; published Dreams From My Father, 1995; elected to Illinois state senate, 1996; ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Congress, 2000; elected U.S. senator, 2004; published The Audacity of Hope, 2006; announced candidacy for president of the United States, 2007.

Member: Board, Woods Fund; board, Joyce Foundation.


Barack Obama rose from Illinois state senator to candidate for president of the United States in just three years, between 2004 and 2007, thanks to an extraordinary combination of personality, identity, politics, and timing. One factor was Obama's charisma, built on his personal warmth, good looks, and comfort with his own self. Another was his idealistic speeches expressing his reassuring desire to transcend the country's divisions through a pragmatic search for solutions. His consistent opposition to the war in Iraq helped him attract supporters disillusioned with other Democrats who had authorized it. Obama's life story and heritage are also essential parts of his political appeal. His biracial background, as the son of a Kenyan father and a mother from Kansas, not only helps him relate to a wide variety of people, it has even become a personification of some supporters' hopes that the United States can move beyond its racial divide. Since Obama's obvious weakness as a presidential candidate is how little experience he has at the national level compared to his opponents, his candidacy will test how much personality and the hunger for change matter when Americans choose a leader.

Obama's mother, Ann Dunham, was 18 in 1959 when she married Obama's father, Barack Obama Sr., a native of Kenya who was studying economics at the University of Hawaii. Their son, born in Hawaii in 1961, was two years old when his father left his mother to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard University. He later returned to Kenya, where he worked for the government as an economist. Obama would only meet his father one more time, spending about a month with him at the age of ten. His mother and grandparents, who were originally from Kansas, raised him.

When Obama was six years old, his mother married an Indonesian oil manager and moved with her son to Jakarta, Indonesia, where they stayed for about four years. After that, Obama returned to Hawaii, where he lived with his grandparents, an insurance agent and bank worker, and attended Punahou School, the most prestigious private high school in Hawaii. He went to college in Los Angeles, at Occidental College, then transferred to Columbia University in New York City, graduating in 1983. After college, he worked at the Business International Corporation, for a nonprofit group in Harlem that promoted recycling, and on a candidate's losing campaign for a New York state assembly seat.

In 1985, at age 24, Obama moved to Chicago to take a job as a community organizer with the Calumet Community Religious Conference, which was trying to organize churches on the city's South Side into an activist force. Obama worked in poor neighborhoods that had been devastated by the loss of steel-making jobs, advocating for causes ranging from the establishment of job banks to asbestos removal. His organization's strategy was inspired by the late activist Saul Alinsky, who taught a radical method of political action built on "agitation," or getting citizens so upset about their condition that they work actively to change it.

Obama's work in Chicago met with mixed results. Some African-American pastors did not trust him because he was working for an organization run by whites. Also, many told him that he could not effectively organize religious communities when he was not part of a church. Obama began to attend services at Trinity United Church of Christ on Chicago's South Side. He grew to consider its pastor, Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., his spiritual mentor.

Later, Obama called his years as a community organizer the best education he ever had. However, his political philosophy began to diverge from that of his fellow organizers. Alinsky had disdained electoral politics, teaching that the only way to motivate people was through their self-interest, and criticized idealism, insisting on seeing the world as it was. Though Obama taught Alinsky's method to others, he came to feel that it underestimated the power of ideals and inspiring messages to motivate people.

In 1988, Obama left Chicago to attend Harvard Law School. Thanks to shrewd politicking, he was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990. The publicity from that achievement resulted in a book contract to write the story of his life and family. The book, Dreams From My Father, published in 1995, "may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician," Time writer Joe Klein later enthused, though other critics have credited its candid power to the fact that Obama wrote it before he became a politician. In the book, Obama admits that he used marijuana and cocaine as a teen and describes frequent periods of anger, soul-searching, and self-doubt about his identity and motivations. The climax of the book comes when Obama, in his late 20s, travels to Kenya and cries at the graves of his father and paternal grandfather, grieving over their ambitious lives and his father's lonely last years.

After graduating from law school in 1991, Obama returned to Chicago to practice civil-rights law, specializing in employment and housing discrimination and voting-rights cases. He taught at the University of Chicago Law School and joined the boards of the Woods Fund and the Joyce Foundation, which funded community organizations. In 1992, he married Michelle Robinson, a Chicagoan and fellow lawyer he had met at work. That same year, he headed a voter-registration drive in Chicago that helped the campaigns of presidential candidate Bill Clinton and U.S. Senate candidate Carol Moseley Braun, who was elected as the first female African-American senator that year.

When Obama ran for the Illinois state senate in 1996, he deftly mixed idealism and tough-minded strategizing. "What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?" he asked in a 1995 interview with the Chicago Reader (later quoted by Ryan Lizza in the New Republic). But Obama did not win through high-mindedness alone. He had planned to succeed Alice Palmer, a popular state senator who was running for Congress, but when Palmer lost the primary, she tried to hold on to her old seat. Rather than defer to Palmer and drop out, Obama challenged the signa-tures on her petitions to get on the ballot. His challenges disqualified Palmer and the other candidates, and Obama was elected to the state senate unopposed. "I think that oftentimes ordinary citizens are taught that decisions are made based on the public interest or grand principles," he told Lizza of the New Republic, "when, in fact, what really moves things is money and votes and power."

In the state Senate, Obama chaired the Health and Human Services committee, pushed for a tax cut for the working poor, and helped pass campaign-finance reform. He also worked successfully to pass changes in how Illinois administers the death penalty, such as requiring all confessions in capital cases to be videotaped. Obama became known for avoiding confrontational politics. Though he was a Democrat, Republicans often felt they could talk to him and compromise with him.

Obama suffered a career setback in 2000 when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress, trying to unseat the incumbent, Bobby Rush, a former member of the radical Black Panthers organization. A third candidate used racial politics to attack Obama, calling him a "white man in blackface," according to Lizza of the New Republic. That attack stung, but more important to Obama's loss was Rush's popularity in his district.

In October of 2002, while Obama was still a state senator, he spoke at a rally in Chicago against the United States going to war in Iraq. The speech later proved pivotal to his political career. "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars," he declared, according to William Finnegan of the New Yorker. Invading Iraq would be "a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics," he warned. That fall, many Democrats in Congress voted to authorize U.S. President George W. Bush to use force against Iraq. Later, as the war dragged on, anti-war voters found Obama's clear position attractive.

Obama decided to run for U.S. Senate in 2004. It was risky; he and his wife took out a second mortgage on their home to pay for the campaign. But Obama demonstrated an unusual talent for attracting very dedicated volunteers, in part because of his bold anti-war speech. To the surprise of some observers, who expected Illinois voters to vote along racial lines, Obama proved popular in black neighborhoods, white suburbs, and liberal white Chicago neighborhoods alike. In the seven-candidate Democratic primary, he won 53 percent of the vote.

National attention quickly followed. "Already there's speculation that he may be the first African-American president of the United States—and he's only a state senator," Washington Post political columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. wrote in June of 2004. Obama's life story and intelligence were part of the reason, Dionne wrote, but his search for common political ground was another. "His is a political mind that can incorporate the opposition's best arguments into his own—by way of answering them—and then take clear and unequivocal positions," Dionne wrote. "[He] can make staunchly progressive positions sound moderate by being quietly reasonable."

Observers saw Obama as reaching across the country's racial divide. "To white progressives, Obama represents the fantasy of racial reconciliation," argued Jennifer Senior in New York magazine, while to "affirmative-action skeptics, he's … proof that this country affords equal opportunities to anyone who works hard enough." New Yorker writer Finnegan, following Obama's campaign through rural and small-town Illinois, noted Obama's talent for connecting with voters there, which Obama attributed to his multi-racial upbringing. "I know those people. Those are my grandparents," he told Finnegan. "Their manners, their sensibility, their sense of right and wrong—it's all totally familiar to me." Obama also made the most of his status as one of the first national political figures who came of age in the 1980s. "We have seen the psychodrama of the baby-boom generation play out over the last 40 years," he complained to Senior of New York. "You feel like these are fights that were taking place back in dorm rooms in the sixties."

In the 2004 general election, Obama was to face Republican Jack Ryan, a wealthy attorney and teacher, but Ryan dropped out of the race after embarrassing details of his divorce from actress Geri Ryan became public. Republicans recruited longtime conservative activist Alan Keyes to move to Illinois and run, but polls put Obama way ahead. In July of 2004, the Democrats had their rising star deliver the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention. Obama told the story of his life and heritage and encouraged the country to move beyond its cultural and political divides. "The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats," he said, according to Larissa MacFarquhar of the New Yorker. "But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states."

Obama easily won election to the U.S. Senate in November of 2004 with 70 percent of the vote. The victory made him only the fifth African-American U.S. senator ever and only the third since the post-Civil-War Reconstruction era. As a senator, Obama worked on issues such as ethics reform of Congress, a bill establishing new funds to fight avian flu, and an increase in health care for veterans. He criticized the Bush Administration's response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He voted against the nomination of Supreme Court chief justice John Roberts, but when liberal activists blasted other Democrats for supporting Roberts, Obama wrote a long open letter, scolding them for being divisive. Despite his moderate rhetoric, Obama established a liberal voting record in the Senate, voting with his fellow Democrats 97 percent of the time in 2005, according to a Congressional Quarterly survey of votes. At first, he did not take a major role in opposing the Iraq war, arguing against a quick withdrawal of American forces while calling for progress toward stabilizing the country.

In the fall of 2006, Obama published his second book, The Audacity of Hope. He again argued that politics has to move beyond old divisions. "Follow most of our foreign policy debates and one might believe that we have only two choices—belligerence or isolationism," he argued in one passage, as quoted by Senior in New York Magazine. Some critics complained that Obama's book was too careful and moderate. "The annoying truth is, The Audacity of Hope isn't very audacious," complained Klein in Time, who "counted no fewer than 50 instances of excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness." But MacFarquhar of the New Yorker interpreted Obama's caution as a search for solutions rather than blame. "He rarely accuses, preferring to talk about problems in the passive voice, as things that are amiss with us rather than as wrongs that have been perpetrated by them," she wrote.

In February of 2007, Obama announced he was running for president of the United States. "I recognize there is a certain presumptuousness—a certain audacity—to this announcement," he said, as quoted by Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut of the Washington Post. "I know 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." He took a stronger position on the Iraq war, saying he supported pulling U.S. combat troops out of the country by March of 2008. "No amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war," he said, according to Balz and Kornblut.

Polls conducted in the winter and spring of 2007 consistently showed Obama in second place in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, behind Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. senator from New York and wife of former president Bill Clinton. By May of 2007, eight months before the first contests in the race for the 2008 presidential nomination, the Iraq war was already emerging as the race's main issue. That month, both Obama and Clinton cast votes against continued funding of the Iraq war because the bill did not include a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain charged that Obama's vote amounted to a surrender. "I know the toll of this war," Obama replied in a speech in Chicago, according to John McCormick of the Chicago Tribune. "What our troops deserve is not just rhetoric. They deserve a new plan."

Selected writings

Dreams From My Father, Three Rivers Press, 1995.
The Audacity of Hope, Crown Publishers, 2006.



Chicago Tribune, May 26, 2007, sec. News, p. 4.

New Republic, March 19, 2007, pp. 22-29.

New Yorker, May 31, 2004; May 7, 2007.

New York Magazine, October 2, 2006.

Time, February 20, 2006, p. 24; October 23, 2006; June 4, 2007, p. 25.

U.S. News and World Report, November 15, 2004, p. 53.

Washington Post, June 25, 2004, p. A29; February 11, 2007, p. A1.


"About Barack," BarackObama.com, http://www.barackobama.com/about (May 27, 2007).

"About Barack Obama," Barack Obama, U.S. Senator for Illinois, http://obama.senate.gov/about (May 27, 2007).

Obama, Barack

views updated May 29 2018

Barack Obama


Politician, attorney

Elected to represent Illinois in the United States Senate in November of 2004, Barack Obama had already become the subject of speculation as to his future on the national political stage. The speculation had grown exponentially in August of that year, when Obama delivered an electrifying keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. In that speech, Obama used the language of patriotism to frame an appeal to Americans to transcend their divisions. "There's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America."

Indeed, Barack Obama's story resonated with the durable narrative of the American melting pot. "Barack is the American dream," Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe told Ebony. Obama himself in his convention speech said that "in no other country on earth is my story even possible." Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. He was named after his father Barack, a Kenyan exchange student; the name is an African one and means "blessing" in his father's native Swahili. Obama's mother Ann was a white American born in Kansas who had moved to Honolulu with her parents.

Obama's family unit dissolved when he was two, as his father won a scholarship to Harvard that wasn't large enough to support the whole family and went to Massachusetts alone. After finishing his degree, the elder Obama went home to Kenya and took a job as an economic planner for the country's government. He continued to write letters to his son, and visited him once when he was ten, but his marriage to Obama's mother ended. She married an Indonesian oil company executive, and Obama lived in Indonesia between the ages of six and ten. His half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng was born in Indonesia and later moved to Honolulu.

Conflicted Identities in Honolulu

Sent back to Hawaii to live with his mother's parents in a small Honolulu apartment, Obama had a tough adolescence. Considered black by the world of which he was learning to be a part, he was nevertheless shaped most directly by the values of his small-town, white, Midwestern-grown immediate family. Later, when he was running for the Senate in the farm belt of downstate Illinois, he found that this Midwestern background worked to his advantage. "I know these people," he told the New Yorker, referring to down-state voters. "The food they serve is the food my grandparents served when I was growing up. Their manners, their sensibility, their sense of right and wrongit's all totally familiar to me."

As a teenager, though, Obama was a young man with a confused identity. He experimented with marijuana and cocaine, and though he had inherited a quick-study intelligence from his father and won admission to the top-flight Punahou School, his grades were inconsistent and his commitment to bodysurfing and basketball was bigger than his interest in school. One of seven or eight black students at Punahou, he found that whites had low expectations when they met him. "People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves," he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams of My Father. "Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry."

Inside, Obama was worried about fitting in and was on the way to developing a classic example of W.E.B. DuBois's double consciousness. "I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds," he wrote, "convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere." Despite these feelings, Obama's innate charisma began to show itself as he left the Punahou campus to flirt with college-aged women at the nearby University of Hawaii.

That coherence was still hard to find at New York's Columbia University, where Obama transferred as a third-year student. Obama enjoyed New York but found that racial tension infected even "the stalls of Columbia's bathrooms ," he wrote, "where, no matter how many times the administration tried to paint them over, the walls remained scratched with blunt correspondence between niggers and kikes. It was as if all middle ground had collapsed."

Wrote Letters to Community

After earning his degree in 1983, however, Obama responded with activist commitment instead of hedonistic escapism. He wrote to community service organizations all over the United States asking what he could do to help, and he signed on with the one group that replied, a church-based Chicago group doing neighborhood work on the city's economically reeling South Side. For three years, Obama was a community organizera tough job, but one in which he notched accomplishments ranging from job-training programs to a successful attempt to improve city services at the Altgeld Gardens housing project. The biracial outsider gathered with black Chicagoans at a South Side barbershop that he continued to patronize even after he became famous.

Obama applied to Harvard Law School"to learn power's currency," he wrote in his autobiography. His academic brilliance flowered fully and propelled him to the presidency of the prestigious Harvard Law Review in 1990, making him the first African American to hold the post, and to a magna cum laude graduation in 1991. One of his teachers was famed litigator Laurence Tribe, who told Time that "I've known Senators, Presidents. I've never known anyone with what seems to me more raw political talent." Back in Chicago for a summer internship, he met his wife Michelle, an attorney and South Side native who was assigned to supervise him. The couple has two daughters, Malia Ann and Natasha (Sasha).

At a Glance

Born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, HI; son of Barack Obama, a Kenyan government economist; raised by mother, a Kansas native; lived with mother in Indonesia as child; raised as teenager in Honolulu by maternal grandparents; married Michelle; children: Malia Ann and Natasha. Education: Columbia University, 1983; Harvard Law School, law degree, magna cum laude, 1991. Religion: United Church of Christ.

Career: Community organizer, Chicago, 1983-86; civil rights attorney, Chicago, 1991-96; University of Chicago, lecturer, early 1990s-2004; Illinois State Senator, 1996-2005; U.S. Senator, 2005.

Selected awards: Presidency of Harvard Law Review, 1990.

Addresses: Office U.S. Senate Office Buildings, Washington, DC 20515.

Obama passed up job offers from Chicago's top law firms to practice civil rights law with a small public-interest law office and to lecture at the University of Chicago, holding the latter position until he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004. He jumped into politics by chairing a voter-registration drive that helped carry Illinois for Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton in 1992, and his political ambitions became clearer when he turned down a chance to apply for a tenure-rack University of Chicago professorship. When an Illinois state senate seat in his home South Side district came open in 1996, he ran and was elected. In the Illinois senate Obama was noted for legislation to curb racial profiling and for a bill that mandated the videotaping of police interrogations carried out in death-penalty cases.

Despite his varied background, Obama identified himself as black. "When I'm catching a cab in Manhattan they don't say, there's a mixed-race guy, I'll go pick him up," he pointed out to Ebony writer Joy Bennett Kinnon. "Or if I was an armed robber and they flashed my face on television, they'd have no problem labeling me as a black man. So if that's my identity when something bad happens, then that's my identity when something good happens as well." But when Obama ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2000 Democratic primary against entrenched South-Side congressman Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, he suffered from a perception that he was an exotic, elite outsider and was trounced by a two-to-one margin.

Triumphed in Crowded Primary

South Side residents (including Rush) rallied around Obama during his next try for higher office, however. Obama jumped into a primary race that pitted him against two formidable opponents (and several others): longtime Chicago politician Dan Hynes, who was favored by the city's vaunted Democratic Party "machine" political organization, and businessman Blair Hull, who spent a $29 million personal war chest on the campaign. Obama put together an unusual coalition of blacks, "lakefront liberal" white Chicago voters, and downstate supporters to win the primary with a convincing outright majority of 53 percent. His victory was partly attributable to a fervent corps of volunteers who worked on his campaign, many inspired by Obama's early and unequivocal opposition to the Iraq war and by other unrepentant liberal positions. "People call it drinking the juice," Obama political director Dan Sherman explained to the New Yorker. "People start drinking the Obama juice. You can't find enough for them to do."

Then came Obama's Democratic National Convention speech, which Time called "one of the best in convention history." The speech really put Obama on the national political radar, and the phone in his South Side home rang nonstop with interview requests in the days after the convention. "I didn't realize that the speech would strike the chord that it did," Obama told Ebony. "I think part of it is that people are hungry for a sense of authenticity. All I was really trying to do was describe what I was hearing on the campaign trail, the stories of the hopes, fears, and struggles of what ordinary people are going through every day."

On the campaign trail Obama shone as he showed an ability to connect with voters across class, racial, and geographic lines. "I just never heard anybody speak like him before," a downstate Democrat told the New Yorker. "It's like he's talking to you, and not to a crowd." One reason Illinois voters reacted to Obama this way was that the candidate, in meeting individual voters one on one, drew effectively on the various dialects of English he had absorbed as a result of his diverse background. Working-class black Chicagoans, highly educated professionals and academics, and small-town business owners all felt that they had encountered one of their own when Obama gave a speech in their neighborhoods.

The Illinois Republican party floundered as its anointed candidate, Jack Ryan, struggled with allegations that he had forced his ex-wife, television actress Jeri Ryan, to visit sex clubs with him against her will. Ryan eventually dropped out of the race and was replace by Alan Keyes, an ultraconservative black radio commentator from Maryland who had previously criticized New York Senator Hillary Clinton for moving to that state solely for the purpose of running for the Senate. Obama won in a landslide, garnering seventy percent of the vote and spending much of his time in the final phases of the campaign stumping for Democratic candidates in neighboring states.

Beginning with the Democratic convention speech, talk began to swirl around Obama suggesting that those who had heard him speak at this early stage in his career had been looking at the man who would become the first African-American president of the U.S. Obama contributed nothing to such speculation, and many of his early statements regarding his intentions for his Senate term focused on the problem of Illinois's declining job base. Yet few could doubt that the state that had produced Abraham Lincoln was now home to another figure able to exert a powerful healing force to the nation's still-gaping racial wounds.



Obama, Barack, Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995), reprinted Three Rivers Press, 2004.


Black Enterprise, October 2004, p. 88.

Ebony, November 2004, p. 196.

New Yorker, May 31, 2004, p. 32.

Time, November 15, 2004, p. 74.

U.S. News & World Report, August 2, 2004, p. 25.

James M. Manheim

Obama, Barack

views updated May 17 2018

Barack Obama


Barack Obama appeared on the national political ' scene in 2004 and brought with him a renewed sense of unity and focus regarding the needs of all Americans and in particular African Americans. Steeped in a complex racial history, Obama embraces all those aspects of mixed race origins which influence who he is, while being fully aware of the blessings and challenges that come with his heritage. He wrote his autobiography which was prompted by his selection as the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review. A community activist, he served as an Illinois State senator for seven years, and later as the only African American senator in the 109th United States Congress. His skillful speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention and his call for all Americans to unite brought speculations about his national political future. Some envisioned him as the first African American U.S. president.

Barack Hussein Obama was born on August 4, 1961, at the Queen's Medical Center in Honolulu. His parents, Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama Sr., met as students at the University of Hawaii at Mano. Ann Dunham was from Wichita, Kansas, and a descendent of Jefferson Davis, the only president of the Confederate States of America, while Barack Hussein Obama was from Kenya, Africa with family ties to the Luo tribe. Obama Jr. was an only child. The family began to deteriorate when the elder Obama won a scholarship to Harvard to earn a Ph.D. Since the funding was not enough to support his family, he had to go alone. After completing his Ph.D. the elder Obama returned to Kenya and took a job as an economic planner for the country's government. The couple determined it was best to divorce. The elder Obama continued to write to his son and remarried, adding more siblings to share the family name. He came to see his son only once, before he died in an automobile accident in Kenya in 1982. On an extended holiday when Obama was ten, his father briefly shared his life.

In the years after his parents' divorce, Obama and his mother remained in Honolulu. Even though his grandparents did not cater to racist ideas and sought to protect him, Obama still chose to call himself Barry. His given name Barack means "blessed" in Swahili, but he chose a name that would allow him to fit in. In an environment of only seven or eight African American students in his school, this was important. Obama, in his autobiography Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, writes about being puzzled by his grandparents' resistance to racism. He was simply told by his grandmother, "your grandfather and I just figured we should treat people decently, Bar. That's all." Their mid-western small-town values had a direct affect on the person he was to become. Although their openness secured him in many ways, he came to understand himself as a person of mixed heritage. In 1967 when Obama was six years old, his mother remarried and the family moved to Djakarta, Indonesia. She married an Indonesian oil company executive and Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama's half sister, was born. When Obama was ten, he returned to Honolulu where he had better educational opportunities. He earned a place at Punahou School, a very prestigious school, and initially lived with his grandparents. He later lived with his mother and sister once they returned to Honolulu. Obama's teenage years were troubled because of his confused sense of identity. He experimented with drugs and gave more attention to basketball and bodysurfing than to academics. He was a black man within the school's small minority population, and the expectations regarding his success were low. As he stated in his memoirs, Dreams from My Father, people were quite satisfied that he did not move or speak too loudly, "Such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry." In spite of obstacles, Obama graduated from high school with honors.

As a young adult Obama moved to the mainland. For two years he attended Occidental College in Los Angeles, then transferred to Columbia University. From Hawaii to Columbia, Obama found that racial tension infected the environment. By this time he came to know that activism was the way to effect change. He graduated in 1983 from Columbia University in political science with specialization in international relations. He spent a year in the financial sector, while writing letters to community service organizations all over the United States, asking what he could do to help. Obama moved to Chicago and went to work with a church-based group that focused on the city's economically troubled neighborhoods. He became a community organizer in the Alt-geld Gardens housing project on the south side of Chicago. Various experiences caused a change in his thinking and he became a Christian. Obama joined the Trinity United Church of Christ.

Next, Obama enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he became the first African American editor of the student-run academic journal Harvard Law Review in 1990. This honor is bestowed on a law student who demonstrates exceptional academic abilities, excellent writing and editing skills, and strong leadership qualities. As a result of this work Obama was offered a publishing deal for a book about his life, which was to include optimistic messages regarding the racial situation in the United States. After graduating from Harvard Law School, magna cum laude, in 1991, Obama wrote his autobiography, which was published in 1995 and re-released in 2004. Also in 1992 while working in a corporate law firm, Obama met Michelle Robinson, a Harvard Law student from Chicago. Robinson, who also graduated from Harvard Law school, and Obama were married in 1992.

Chicago and Politics

Passing up an opportunity from a top Chicago law firm, Obama decided to practice civil rights law with the small public-interest law firm Miner, Barnhill and Galland. He also became a lecturer of constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Continuing his role as activist, Obama took on the management of a statewide voter registration drive as director of the Illinois Project VOTE. The aggressive organizational plan that Obama helped develop was effective in registering over 100,000 voters. The result aided in the election of Democratic President Bill Clinton and Senator Carol Mosely Braun.

In 1996 Obama stepped into the political ring. His goals were clear as he turned down a chance to apply for a tenure-track teaching position at the University of Chicago. Obama, who identifies himself as an African American, ran for Illinois state senator from Hyde Park, the thirteenth legislative district. His work in the community and his role as a professor and civil rights lawyer set the tone for a successful election. As state senator, he served as chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, passed bills to increase funding for AIDS prevention and care, and introduced legislation to curb racial profiling. Working-class people and those issues that impact the quality of their lives were key concerns for Obama.


Born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4
Moves to Djakarta, Indonesia with family
Returns to Honolulu to live with grandparents and later mother; attends prestigious Punahou Academy
Travels to Kenya because of father's death
Receives B.A. from Columbia University in political science with specialization in international relations
Moves to Chicago as community activist
Graduates magna cum laude from Harvard Law School; becomes first African American editor of Harvard Law Review; returns to Chicago; accepts position as senior lecturer at University of Chicago Law School in constitutional law; practices law at Miner, Barnhill and Galland
Marries Michelle Robinson
Publishes autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
Elected to Illinois State Senate from south side Hyde Park neighborhood
Makes unsuccessful run in Democratic primary for First Congressional District
Elected to United States Senate for Illinois; gives keynote address at Democratic National Convention in Boston; autobiography is reprinted

In 2000 Obama ran unsuccessfully for the first Congressional district against incumbent Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther. Criticism regarding Obama during his unsuccessful run centered on his biracial background and his having been too associated with the ivy league (in essence, not black enough). His autobiography is the source for these comments from the community. He hoped his book would show the process of self-awareness and the fact that mistakes and challenges can be overcome. Obama continued in the role of state senator until 2004. The debate on his background subsided and the stage was set for future political opportunities to aid the African American community and the community at large.

Enters U.S. Senate Race

The seat for United States senator from Illinois was vacated by Peter Fitzgerald in 2004 and Obama decided to run. He was supported by South Side residents as well as Bobby Rush. In spite of early competition from Danny Hynes, a favored Democrat, and Blair Hull, who personally spent $29 million on his campaign, Obama won the Democratic primary with an outright majority of 53 percent. His victory was attributed to volunteers, his coalition of white Chicago voters, and other supporters in the state. The Republican Party had fervently tried to find a candidate to run again Obama. They needed someone to meet political scrutiny and withstand the growing appeal of Obama. In a last effort to locate such a candidate, Alan Keyes, a former ambassador and African American conservative residing in Maryland, was chosen. Keyes was in trouble from the start as he first had to establish residency. He had recently criticized former First Lady Hilary Clinton for having to establish residency in order to run in the New York primary. Keyes also alienated both parties as well as voters by making politically incorrect statements. Hypocrisy, radical statements, and extreme positions promoted by Keyes fueled the almost frantic campaign in favor of Obama. In an election that was surrounded by false starts, candidate withdrawals, and questions of other candidates' integrity, Obama stood heads above the confusion with name recognition and a clear connection to Illinois voters. With a landslide victory of 70 percent of the votes, Obama became the third African American to be elected in the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction and the fifth African American to be elected in U.S. history. Obama also became the only African American senator in the 109th Congress.

Obama is a charismatic and forceful speaker, who captures the hearts and minds of Americans of diverse racial and social backgrounds. His campaign was so successful that he was invited to give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. Obama became the third African American to provide the convention speech. Time called Obama's speech, "one of the best in convention history," and Obama told Ebony all he was trying to do was to "tell the stories of the hopes, fears, and struggles of what ordinary people are going through every day." His ability to connect with the voters and exert a sense of healing for the racial divide in the United States sets Obama apart as one politician who truly represents the people.

Obama's journey is one of self-discovery, empowerment, and confrontation with the U.S. promise to all of its citizens. In 2004 he signed a $1.9 million deal for three books, seizing the opportunity to again tell his story and his experiences. The first of three books, due out in 2006, was expected to include Obama's political views. The second was expected to be a children's book co-written by wife Michelle and the couple's two daughters, Malia Ann and Natsha, with the proceeds to go to charity. The content of the third book was undetermined.



Manheim, James M. Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 49. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2005.


Graff, E. J. "Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance." American Prospect 12 (10 September 2001): 42.

Kinnon, Joy Bennett. "Barack Obama: New Political Star Attracts National Attention." Ebony (November 2004): 196.

Mitchell, Mary. "Memoir of a 21st-Century History Maker." Black Issues Book Review 17 (January-February 2005): 18-21.

Ripley, Amanda. "Obama's Ascent: How Do You Leap from Neighborhood Activist to U.S. Senator to Perhaps Higher Office?" Time (15 November 2004): 74.

Roach, Ronald. "Obama Rising: All but Assured to Become the Fifth Black American to Hold a Seat in the U.S. Senate, Obama Represents to Many the Emergence of a New Generation of National Political Leadership" Black Issues in Higher Education 21 (7 October 2004): 20.

Zeleny, Jeff. "Sen. Obama's Allure Transcends Black and White." Chicago Tribune, 30 June 2005.


Leibovich, Mark. "The Senator's Humble Beginning." Washington Post, 24 February 2005. http://www.lexis-nexis.com (Accessed 10 October 2005).

                                   Lean'tin L Bracks

Obama, Barack

views updated May 29 2018

Barack Obama

Barack Obama is the third African American to serve in the U.S. Senate since the mid-1800s. In 2008, he became the first African American to be considered a serious contender for the office of president of the United States.

Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Hawaii . His father was an African American from Kenya, and his mother was a white woman from Kansas . Obama's father returned to his homeland to work for the government while his son was still young, and Obama was raised by his stepfather and mother in Indonesia from the age of six to the age of ten. At that point, he returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.

After graduating from Columbia University in 1983, Obama moved to Chicago, Illinois , to work as a community organizer on the city's South Side, an area known for its intense poverty. While there, he decided to become a lawyer. He attended Harvard Law School, where he became the first African American president of the reputable Harvard Law Review. Obama graduated magna cum laude in 1991 and became a civil rights lawyer in Chicago. At the same time, he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.

Active in politics

Obama married Michelle Robinson in 1992. The couple had two daughters. In 1996, Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate as a Democrat. While there, he authored landmark legislation to end racial profiling and sponsored a bill to expand medical coverage for uninsured children. He earned a reputation as an intelligent, charismatic politician with a strong

work ethic. His vision of progress allowed him to work with members of both the Democratic Party and Republican Party .

In March 2004, Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate with 53 percent of the vote. He defeated his Republican opponent, Alan Keyes (1950–), another African American. It was the first time in history that two African Americans ran against one another in a Senate general election. Just months later, the Democratic Party invited Obama to be the keynote speaker at its national convention.

While serving in the U.S. Senate, Obama continued to impress fellow politicians and private citizens alike with his ability to find common ground. He distinguished himself as a man who was able to retain civility even as he disagreed with others. His personal philosophy was the basis for his 1995 book titled Dreams from My Father. His 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, was a best-seller.

Runs for president

Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in February 2007. His Democratic rivals included former First Lady and U.S. senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (1947–) of New York and former U.S. senator John Edwards (1953–) of North Carolina . Edwards eventually dropped out of the race, and Obama continued to win key primaries and caucuses over Clinton throughout the early months of 2008. He averaged $1 million in campaign donations per day, making his one of the most-funded campaigns in American political history.

Obama's campaign was relatively clear of scandal, and he maintained a respectful tone throughout. In March 2008, Obama's church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, was highly criticized as anti-American and racist, and it reflected badly on Obama. The church's minister, Reverend Jeremiah Wright (1941–), was often featured in the media because of his controversial sermons. At various times throughout his career, Wright had preached sermons accusing the federal government of crimes against African Americans, including perpetuating racism and creating the HIV virus to infect them. Following the release of sound-bites of some of Wright's controversial speeches, Obama publicly rejected Wright's racially charged comments but defended him as a friend and mentor. He urged Americans to use the controversy to examine race relations. But further controversial comments made by Wright in speeches in April 2008 resulted in Obama calling Wright's words “a bunch of rants.” He distanced himself from Wright and said he was “outraged by the comments.”

Obama on the issues

Obama and Clinton took similar stances on nearly ever issue, from educational reform to abortion rights. Where they differed was in their opinions regarding the Iraq invasion , which had been raging since 2003. Clinton had initially voted to send American troops to war but changed her mind and later decided that America needed to pull out of Iraq. Obama had consistently voted against waging war in Iraq. Supporters of Obama saw this consistency as proof of the candidate's good judgment.

The race between Obama and Clinton remained incredibly close into the spring. On June 3, Obama gained enough votes to reach the required 2,118 delegates needed to win the nomination. He could then concentrate on campaigning against the Republican nominee, U.S. senator John McCain (1936–) of Arizona .

Obama, Barack

views updated May 21 2018


Barack Obama was a state senator from Illinois when he won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in March of 2004. When he won the seat, the charismatic politician became only the third African American to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction. His selection as the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention that July confirmed his status as a rising star. That appearance also led to Obama running for and winning the Democratic nomination for president in 2008.

Obama was born in Hawaii. His father was a black man from Kenya, his mother a white woman from Kansas who had moved to Honolulu with her parents. Obama's father left the family to attend Harvard and eventually returned to Kenya, where he worked as a government economist. His mother's second husband was an Indonesian oil manager, and Obama lived in that country from the ages of six to ten. Afterward, he went back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents.

Although Obama's father only visited him once after he left, the son grew up with stories of his father's brilliant mind. Obama honed his own mind at Hawaii's top prep academy, Punahou School. From there, Obama went to Columbia University, where he became interested in community activism. After graduating in 1983, he moved to Chicago to spend three years as a community organizer on the city's poverty-stricken South Side. Obama's intellect, drive, and social conscience led to his decision to become a lawyer. He went to Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. Upon his graduation (magna cum laude) in 1991, Obama shunned offers of prominent law firms and impressive clerkships in order to practice civil rights law in Chicago. He also took a position teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. Soon the idealistic young attorney became involved in politics.

Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996, representing the 13th District as a Democrat. His work there included writing landmark legislation to stop racial profiling and sponsoring a bill to expand medical coverage for uninsured children. He also developed a reputation for an inclusive style that eschewed mudslinging and gained the admiration of his opponents. In March of 2004, Obama took his efforts to connect with all kinds of people to the Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. His message apparently resounded with voters, as he won a

Barack Obama

1991Graduated Harvard Law School
1996Elected to U.S. Senate
2004Keynote speaker at Democratic
national convention
2008Deomcratic nominee for

surprising 53 percent of the vote—including support from white blue-collar workers. Obama explained his appeal across demographic lines to Bob Herbert of the New York Times. While admitting there are differences among people, Obama said there is also “a set of core values that bind us together as Americans.” His message continued to resonate with voters, and Obama became only the third African-American U.S. Senator since Reconstruction.

Obama continued to attract attention while serving in the Senate, in no part due to his charisma, drive, and desire to find common ground with political opposites. From the nearly moment he entered the office, he was asked if he would run for president in 2008. Obama did not commit right away, but served his constituents and let all voters better understand him and his philosophy with his memoir Dreams From My Father (originally published in 1995, but re-published in 2004) and his 2006 best-seller The Audacity of Hope.

After announcing his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president in February 2007, Obama immediately began campaigning in Iowa. Though he was still relatively unknown compared to Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, Obama made inroads and his campaign gained momentum throughout the year and into primary and caucus season. Obama won the Iowa caucuses, and though he lost in New Hampshire, he made steady gains throughout January 2008. By February 2008, Edwards had dropped out of the race, and Obama continued to win key primaries and caucuses over Clinton. He did well on Super Tuesday, then won at least ten straight primaries and caucuses held after that date. Obama succeeded on the fundraising front as well, averaging one million dollars in donations per day. While Obama had emerged as the frontrunner and was beating Clinton in the delegate count after February 19 primaries in Wisconsin and Hawaii, he had not yet sewn up the nomination and continued to campaign vigorously. On June 3, 2008, he finally won an insurmountable delegates lead over Clinton, and became the Democratic nominee for president.