“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” —President Obama
Barack Hussein Obama II was the 44th president of the United States, and the first African American to serve as U.S. president. He was first elected to the presidency in 2008 and then won a second term in 2012. He was a civil-rights lawyer and teacher before pursuing a political career. Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996, serving from 1997 to 2004.
Barack Hussein Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. His mother, Ann Dunham, grew up in Wichita, Kansas, where her father worked on oil rigs during the Great Depression. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, Dunham’s father, Stanley, enlisted in the service and marched across Europe in Patton’s army. Dunham’s mother, Madelyn, went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, the couple studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through the Federal Housing Program and, after several moves, landed in Hawaii.
Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was born of Luo ethnicity in Nyanza Province, Kenya. Obama Sr. grew up herding goats in Africa, eventually earning a scholarship that allowed him to leave Kenya and pursue his dreams of college in Hawaii. While studying at the University of Hawaii in Manoa, Obama Sr. met fellow student Ann Dunham, and they married on February 2, 1961. Barack was born six months later. Obama did not have a relationship with his father as a child. When he was still an infant, Obama Sr. relocated to Massachusetts to attend Harvard University, pursuing a Ph.D. Barack’s parents officially separated several months later and ultimately divorced in March 1964, when their son was two. In 1965, Obama Sr. returned to Kenya.
In 1965, Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, a student from Indonesia. A year later, the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where Barack’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro Ng, was born. From age six through ten, Obama lived with his mother and stepfather in Indonesia, where he attended Catholic and Muslim schools. “I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child and as a black child and as a whyte child,” Obama later recalled. “And so what I benefited from is a multiplicity of cultures that all fed me.” Several incidents in Indonesia left Dunham afraid for her son’s safety and education so, at the age of 10, Barack was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. His mother and sister later joined them.
While living with his grandparents, Obama enrolled in the esteemed Punahou Academy, excelling in basketball and graduating with academic honours in 1979. As one of only three Black students at the school, Obama became conscious of racism and what it meant to be African-American. He later described how he struggled to reconcile social perceptions of his multiracial heritage with his own sense of self: “I began to notice there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalogue … and that Santa was a whyte man,” he said. “I went to the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking the way I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me.”
Obama also struggled with the absence of his father, who he saw only once more after his parents divorced, when Obama Sr. visited Hawaii for a short time in 1971. “[My father] had left paradise, and nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact,” he later reflected. “They couldn’t describe what it might have been like had he stayed.”
Ten years later, in 1981, tragedy struck Obama Sr. He was involved in a serious car accident, losing both of his legs as a result. Confined to a wheelchair, he also lost his job. In 1982, Obama Sr. was involved in yet another car accident while travelling in Nairobi. This time, however, the crash was fatal. Obama Sr. died on November 24, 1982, when Barack was 21 years old. “At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me,” Obama later said, “both more and less than a man.” After high school, Obama studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years. He then transferred to Columbia University in New York, graduating in 1983 with a degree in political science.
After spending an additional year in New York as a researcher with Business International Group, a global business consulting firm, Obama moved to Chicago in 1985 and accepted an offer to work as a community organiser in Chicago’s largely poor and Black South Side. Obama’s main assignment as an organiser was to launch the church-funded Developing Communities Project and, in particular, to organise residents of Altgeld Gardens to pressure Chicago’s city hall to improve conditions in the poorly maintained public housing project. His efforts were met with some success.
It was during this time that Barack Obama, who said he “was not raised in a religious household,” joined the Trinity United Church of Christ. He also visited relatives in Kenya, which included an emotional visit to the graves of his biological father and paternal grandfather. “For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept,” Obama said. “I saw that my life in America—the black life, the whyte life, the sense of abandonment I felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago—all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away.”
Obama returned from Kenya with a sense of renewal, entering Harvard Law School in 1988, where he excelled as a student. The next year, he met Michelle Robinson, an associate at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin. She was assigned to be Obama’s adviser during a summer internship at the firm, and not long after, the couple began dating. Their first kiss took place outside of a Chicago shopping centre—where a plaque featuring a photo of the couple kissing was installed more than two decades later, in August 2012. In February 1990, Obama was elected the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review. Although Obama was a liberal, he won the election by persuading the journal’s outnumbered conservative staffers that he would treat their views fairly, which he is widely acknowledged to have done. As the first African American president in the long history of the law review, Obama drew widespread media attention and a contract from Random House to write a book about race relations. He graduated from Harvard, magna cum laude, in 1991.
After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer, joining the firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He also taught part-time at the University of Chicago Law School (1992-2004)—first as a lecturer and then as a professor—and helped organise voter registration drives during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. On October 3, 1992, he and Michelle were married. They moved to Kenwood, on Chicago’s South Side, and welcomed two daughters several years later: Malia Ann, was born in 1998 and their second daughter, Natasha (called Sasha), was born in 2001.
Obama published an autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, in 1995. The work received high praise from literary figures like Toni Morrison and has since been printed in 10 languages, including Chinese, Swedish and Hebrew. The book had a second printing in 2004 and was adapted for a children’s version. The 2006 audiobook version of Dreams, narrated by Obama, received a Grammy Award (best-spoken word album).
Obama’s advocacy work led him to run for a seat in the Illinois State Senate. He ran as a Democrat, and won election in 1996. During these years, Obama worked with both Democrats and Republicans to draft legislation on ethics, and expand health care services and early childhood education programs for the poor. He also created a state earned-income tax credit for the working poor. Obama became chairman of the Illinois Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee as well, and after a number of inmates on death row were found innocent, he worked with law enforcement officials to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in all capital cases.
In 2000, Obama made an unsuccessful Democratic primary run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by four-term incumbent candidate Bobby Rush. Undeterred, he created a campaign committee in 2002, and began raising funds to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004. With the help of political consultant David Axelrod, Obama began assessing his prospects of a Senate win. In 2002 when the Democrats won control of the Senate, he became a leading legislator on a wide range of issues, passing nearly 300 bills aimed at helping children, old people, labour unions, and the poor.
Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Obama was an early opponent of President George W. Bush’s push to go to war with Iraq. Obama was still a state senator when he spoke against a resolution authorising the use of force against Iraq during a rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza in October 2002. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he said. “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.” Despite his protests, the Iraq War began in 2003.
Obama, encouraged by poll numbers, decided to run for the U.S. Senate open seat vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald. In the 2004 Democratic primary, he won with 53 percent of the vote, more than all five of his opponents combined, defeating multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull and Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes. That summer, he was invited to deliver the keynote speech in support of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama emphasised the importance of unity, and made veiled jabs at the Bush administration and the diversionary use of wedge issues. After the convention, Obama returned to his U.S. Senate bid in Illinois. His opponent in the general election was supposed to be Republican primary winner Jack Ryan, a wealthy former investment banker. However, Ryan withdrew from the race in June 2004, following public disclosure of unsubstantiated sexual deviancy allegations by Ryan’s ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan.
In August 2004, diplomat and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes accepted the Republican nomination to replace Ryan. In three televised debates, Obama and Keyes expressed opposing views on stem cell research, abortion, gun control, school vouchers and tax cuts. In the November 2004 general election, Obama received 70 percent of the vote to Keyes’ 27 percent, the largest electoral victory in Illinois history. With his win, Barack Obama became only the third African-American elected to the U.S. Senate since the Reconstruction. In addition to his election, the other highlight of 2004 for Obama was his wildly successful keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. “There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America,” he declared. “There’s a United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America. There’s a United States of America.” Obama encapsulated his speech’s themes of optimism and unity with the phrase, “the audacity of hope,” which he borrowed from Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright was the pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, a large and influential black congregation where Obama was baptised when he became a Christian in 1988.
Sworn into office on January 4, 2005, Obama partnered with Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana on a bill that expanded efforts to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Eastern Europe and Russia. Then, with Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, he created a website to track all federal spending. Obama also spoke out for victims of Hurricane Katrina, pushed for alternative energy development and championed improved veterans’ benefits. His second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, was published in October 2006. The work discussed Obama’s visions for the future of America, many of which became talking points for his eventual presidential campaign. Shortly after its release, it hit No. 1 on both the New York Times and Amazon.com best-seller lists.
In February 2007, Obama made headlines when he announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He was locked in a tight battle with former first lady and then-U.S. senator from New York Hillary Rodham Clinton. On June 3, 2008, however, Obama became the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, and Senator Clinton delivered her full support to Obama for the duration of his campaign. On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama defeated Republican presidential nominee John McCain, 52.9 percent to 45.7 percent, winning election as the 44th president of the United States—and the first African-American to hold this office. His running mate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, became vice president. Obama’s inauguration took place on January 20, 2009.
When Obama took office, he inherited a global economic recession, two ongoing foreign wars and the lowest international favourability rating for the United States ever. He campaigned on an ambitious agenda of financial reform, alternative energy, and reinventing education and health care—all while bringing down the national debt. Because these issues were intertwined with the economic well-being of the nation, he believed all would have to be undertaken simultaneously. During his inauguration speech, Obama summarised the situation by saying, “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.”
Between Inauguration Day and April 29, 2009, the Obama administration took to the field on many fronts. Obama coaxed Congress to expand health care insurance for children and provide legal protection for women seeking equal pay. A $787 billion stimulus bill was passed to promote short-term economic growth. Housing and credit markets were put on life support, with a market-based plan to buy U.S. banks’ toxic assets. Loans were made to the auto industry, and new regulations were proposed for Wall Street. He also cut taxes for working families, small businesses and first-time home buyers. The president also loosened the ban on embryonic stem cell research and moved ahead with a $3.5 trillion budget plan.
Over his first 100 days in office, President Obama also undertook a complete overhaul of America’s foreign policy. He reached out to improve relations with Europe, China and Russia and to open dialogue with Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. He lobbied allies to support a global economic stimulus package. He committed an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan and set an August 2010 date for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. In more dramatic incidents, he took on pirates off the coast of Somalia and prepared the nation for a swine flu attack. For his efforts, he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize by the Nobel Committee in Norway.
On January 27, 2010, President Obama delivered his first State of the Union speech. During his oration, Obama addressed the challenges of the economy, proposing a fee for larger banks, announcing a possible freeze on government spending in 2010 and speaking against the Supreme Court’s reversal of a law capping campaign finance spending. He also challenged politicians to stop thinking of re-election and start making positive changes, criticising Republicans for their refusal to support any legislation, and chastising Democrats for not pushing hard enough to get legislation passed. He also insisted that, despite obstacles, he was determined to help American citizens through the nation’s current domestic difficulties. “We don’t quit. I don’t quit,” he said. “Let’s seize this moment to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and strengthen our union once more.”
In the second part of his first term as president, Obama faced a number of obstacles and scored some victories as well. In spite of opposition from Congressional Republicans and the populist Tea Party movement, Obama signed his health care reform plan, known as the Affordable Care Act, into law in March 2010. The new law prohibited the denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, allowed citizens under 26 years old to be insured under parental plans, provided for free health screenings for certain citizens and expanded insurance coverage and access to medical care to millions of Americans. Opponents of the Affordable Care Act, which foes dubbed “Obamacare,” asserted that it added new costs to the country’s overblown budget, violated the Constitution with its requirement for individuals to obtain insurance and amounted to a “government takeover” of health care.
On the economic front, Obama worked to steer the country through difficult financial times. After drawn-out negotiations with Republicans who gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 2010 mid-term elections, he signed the Budget Control Act of 2011 in an effort to rein in government spending and prevent the government from defaulting on its financial obligations. The act also called for the creation of a bipartisan committee to seek solutions to the country’s fiscal issues, but the group failed to reach any agreement on how to solve these problems.
Also in 2011, Obama signed a repeal of the military policy known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prevented openly gay troops from serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. In March 2011, he approved U.S. participation in NATO airstrikes to support rebels fighting against the forces of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, and in May he also gave the green light to a covert operation in Pakistan that led to the killing of infamous al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs.
Obama gained a legal victory in June 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which required citizens to purchase health insurance or pay a tax. In a 5-4 decision, the court decided the health care law’s signature provision fell within the taxation power granted to Congress under the Constitution. Voting with the majority were two associate justices appointed by Obama—Sonia Sotomayor (confirmed in 2009) and Elena Kagan (confirmed in 2010).
As he did in 2008, during his campaign for a second presidential term, Obama focused on grassroots initiatives. Celebrities such as Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker aided the president’s campaign by hosting fund-raising events. “I guarantee you, we will move this country forward,” Obama stated in June 2012, at a campaign event in Maryland. “We will finish what we started. And we’ll remind the world just why it is that the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth.”
In the 2012 election, Obama faced Republican opponent Mitt Romney and Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan. On November 6, 2012, Obama won a second four-year term as president by receiving nearly five million more votes than Romney and capturing more than 60 percent of the Electoral College.