Background and Early Years
Barack Hussein Obama was born August 4, 1961, in Honolulu to a Kenyan father and a White-American mother, Obama grew up in culturally diverse surroundings. He lived for most of his childhood in the majority-minority U.S. state of Hawaii and spent four of his pre-teen years in the multi-ethnic Indonesian capital city of Jakarta. His father, Barack Sr. and his mother, Ann Dunham, from Wichita, Kan., met while both were attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where his father was enrolled as a foreign student. Obama's parents separated when he was two years old and later divorced. His father went to Harvard University to pursue a Doctorate degree, then he returned to Kenya, where he died in an auto accident when Obama was only 21. His mother later married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian foreign student and the two had one daughter, Maya. The family moved to Jakarta in 1967, where Obama attended local schools from ages six to 10. He then returned to Honolulu to live with his maternal grandparents while attending Punahou School from fifth grade until his high school graduation in 1979. Ann died of ovarian cancer a few months after the publication of his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. In the memoir, Obama describes his experiences growing up in his mother's American middle-class family. His knowledge about his absent biological father came mainly through family stories and photographs.
After graduating from Punahou, Obama studied at Occidental College in California, for two years, and he then transferred to Columbia University in New York, where he majored in political science with a specialization in international relations. He received his Bachelors of Arts and Sciences degree in 1983 from Columbia, and then he worked for one year at Business International Corporation before moving to Chicago to take a job as a community organizer. He entered Harvard Law School in 1988. In 1990, The New York Times reported his election as the Harvard Law Review's "first Black president in its 104-year history." He completed his Juris Doctorate degree and graduated magna cum laude in 1991. On returning to Chicago, Obama directed a voter registration drive. As an associate attorney with Miner, Barnhill & Galland from 1993 to 1996, he represented community organizers, discrimination claims and voting rights cases. He was a lecturer of constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1993 until his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004.
Early Political Leanings
Obama was elected to the Illinois State Senate in 1996 from the state's 13th District in the southern Chicago neighborhood of Hyde Park. In 2000, he made an unsuccessful Democratic primary run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by four-term incumbent candidate Bobby Rush. He was re-elected to the Illinois Senate in 1998 and 2002 and officially resigned in November of 2004 following his election to the U.S. Senate. As a state legislator, Obama worked with both Democrats and Republicans in drafting successful legislation on ethics and health care reform. He sponsored law-enhancing tax credits for low-income workers, negotiated welfare reform and promoted increased subsidies for child care. Obama also led the passage of legislation mandating videotaping of homicide interrogations, and a law to monitor racial profiling by requiring police to record the race of drivers they stopped. During his 2004 election campaign for U.S. Senate, Obama won the endorsement of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, whose president credited him with having been "immensely helpful in working with police organizations" on death penalty reform. He was criticized by a rival pro-choice candidate in the Democratic primary and by his Republican pro-life opponent in the general election for having voted either "present" or "no" on anti-abortion legislation.
In 2003, Obama began his run for the U.S. Senate open seat vacated by Peter Fitzgerald. In early opinion polls leading up to the Democratic primary, Obama trailed multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull and Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes. However, Hull's popularity declined following allegations of domestic abuse. Obama's candidacy was boosted by an advertising campaign featuring images of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and the late U.S. Senator Paul Simon; the support of Simon's daughter; and political endorsements by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. Obama received over 52 percent of the vote in the March 2004 primary, emerging 29 percent ahead of his nearest Democratic rival. His opponent in the general election was expected to be Republican primary winner Jack Ryan. However, Ryan withdrew from the race in June 2004, following public disclosure of child custody divorce records containing sexual allegations by Ryan's ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan. In August of 2004, with less than three months to go before election day, Alan Keyes accepted the Illinois Republican Party's nomination to replace Ryan. A long-time resident of Maryland, Keyes established legal residency in Illinois with the nomination. Through 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's 27 percent.
In 1988, while employed as a summer associate at the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin, Obama met Michelle Robinson, who also worked there. They were married in 1992 and have two daughters, Malia, born in 1999, and Natasha "Sasha," born in 2001.
Obama as Senator
Obama was sworn in as a U.S. Senator on January 4, 2005. In a move considered exceptional for a first-term incoming senator, Obama recruited Pete Rouse, a 30-year veteran of the Washington political scene and former chief of staff to Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, as his own chief of staff. Karen Kornbluh, an economist who was deputy chief of staff to former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin was hired as Obama's policy adviser. In July 2005, Samantha Power, Pulitzer-winning author on human rights and genocide, joined Obama's team. He holds assignments on the Senate Committees for Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and also Veterans' Affairs, and he is a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Obama sponsored 152 bills and resolutions brought before the 109th Congress in 2005 and 2006, and he co-sponsored another 427. He took an active role in the Senate's drive for improved border security and immigration reform. Beginning in 2005, Obama co-sponsored the "Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act" introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). He later added three amendments to the bill, S. 2611, the "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act," sponsored by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA). Bill S. 2611 passed the Senate in May of 2006, but failed to gain majority support in the U.S. House of Representatives. In September of 2006, Obama supported a related bill, the “Secure Fence Act,” authorizing construction of fencing and other security improvements along the United States–Mexico border. President Bush signed the “Secure Fence Act” into law in October 2006, calling it "an important step toward immigration reform."
Partnering first with Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN), and then with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), Obama successfully introduced two initiatives bearing his name. "Lugar-Obama" expands the Nunn-Lugar cooperative of a threat reduction concept to conventional weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles and anti-personnel mines. The "Coburn-Obama Transparency Act" provides for a web site, managed by the Office of Management and Budget, listing all organizations receiving Federal funds from 2007 onward and providing breakdowns by agency that allocate the funds, what dollar amount is given and the purpose of that grant or contract. In December of 2006, President Bush signed into law the "Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act," marking the first federal legislation to be enacted with Obama as its primary sponsor.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama made official trips to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In August of 2005, he traveled to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. The trip focused on strategies to control the world's supply of conventional weapons, biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction as a first defense against potential terrorist attacks. Following meetings with U.S. military in Kuwait and Iraq in January of 2006, Obama visited Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories. At a meeting with Palestinian students two weeks before Hamas won the legislative election, Obama warned that "the U.S. will never recognize winning Hamas candidates unless the group renounces its fundamental mission to eliminate Israel." He left for his third official trip in August of 2006 traveling to South Africa, Kenya, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Chad. In a nationally televised speech at the University of Nairobi, he spoke forcefully on the influence of ethnic rivalries and corruption in Kenya. The speech sparked a public debate among rival leaders, some formally challenged Obama's remarks as unfair and improper, while others defended Obama’s positions.
On the first day of the newly Democratic-controlled 110th Congress, in a column he wrote that was published in the Washington Post, Obama called for an end to "any and all practices that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a public servant has become indebted to a lobbyist." He joined with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) in strengthening restrictions on travel in corporate jets as part of the” Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2007,” which passed the Senate with a 96-2 majority. Obama joined Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) in sponsoring S. 453, a bill to criminalize deceptive practices in federal elections, including fraudulent flyers and automated phone calls, as witnessed in the 2006 midterm elections. Obama's energy initiatives scored pluses and minuses with environmentalists, who welcomed his sponsorship with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) of a climate change bill to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds by the year 2050, but were skeptical of Obama's support for a bill promoting liquefied coal production. Also during the first month of the 110th Congress, Obama introduced the "Iraq War De-Escalation Act," a bill proposing to cap troop levels in Iraq, begin phased redeployment and remove all combat brigades from Iraq before April 2008.
Later in 2007, Obama, with Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO), sponsored an amendment to the “2008 Defense Authorization Act” to add safeguards for personality disorder military discharges and call for a review by the Government Accounting Office following reports that the procedure had been used inappropriately to reduce government costs. He sponsored the "Iran Sanctions Enabling Act" supporting divestment of state pension funds from Iran's oil and gas industry, and joined Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) in introducing legislation to prevent nuclear terrorism. He also sponsored a Senate amendment to the State Children's Health Insurance Program to provide one year of job protection for family members caring for soldiers with combat-related injuries. After passing both houses of Congress with bipartisan majorities, SCHIP was vetoed by President Bush in October of 2007, a move Obama declared "shows a callousness of priorities that is offensive to the ideals we hold as Americans."
Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention while still an Illinois state legislator. He went on to win election to the U.S. Senate in November 2004 with a landslide 70 percent of the vote in an election year marked by Republican gains. As a member of the Democratic minority in the 109th Congress, Obama co-sponsored the enactment of conventional weapons control and transparency legislation, and made official trips to Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In the 110th Congress, he has sponsored legislation on lobbying and electoral fraud, climate change and care for returned U.S. military personnel.
The Presidential Race Begins
In February of 2007, standing before the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Ill., Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Describing his working life in Illinois, and symbolically linking his presidential campaign to Abraham Lincoln's 1858 House Divided speech, Obama said: "That is why, in the shadow of the Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once called on a house divided to stand together, where common hopes and common dreams still live, I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States of America." The announcement confirmed months of speculation on whether he would run in 2008.
He is among the Democratic Party's leading candidates for nomination in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. Since announcing his candidacy in February of 2007, Obama has emphasized ending the Iraq War and implementing universal health care as campaign themes. He has authored two bestselling books: a memoir of his youth titled Dreams from My Father, and The Audacity of Hope, a personal commentary on U.S. politics.
Through the fall of 2006, Obama had spoken at political events across the country in support of Democratic candidates for the midterm elections. In September of 2006, he was the featured speaker at Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's annual steak fry, an event traditionally attended by presidential hopefuls in the lead-up to the Iowa caucus. Speculation intensified in October of 2006 when Obama first said he had "thought about the possibility" of running for president, which departed from earlier statements that he intended to serve out his six-year Senate term through 2010. Following Obama's statement, opinion polling organizations added his name to surveyed lists of Democratic candidates. The first such poll, taken in November of 2006, ranked Obama in second place with 17 percent support among Democrats after Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) who placed first with 28 percent of the responses. In December of 2006, Obama spoke at a New Hampshire event celebrating Democratic Party midterm election victories in the first-in-the-nation U.S. presidential primary state.
Obama's campaign raised $58 million during the first half of 2007 topping all other candidates and exceeding previous records for the first six months of any year before an election year. Small donors, those contributing in increments of less than $200, accounted for 29 percent of Obama's record-breaking total, more than for any other 2008 presidential hopeful. His campaign reported adding 108,000 new donors through third quarter fundraising, for a total of 365,000 individual contributors in the first nine months. In May of 2007, Obama became the first presidential candidate to be newly assigned Secret Service protection more than 18 months before a general election. The Rasmussen polling organization reported in May 2007 that 49 percent of Americans consider it "somewhat likely" or "very likely" that Obama will be elected. Also in May, and again two months later, Zogby International reported that Obama leads all prospective Republican opponents in polling for the 2008 general election. If elected, Obama would become the first Black president in history.
Speaking before the National Press Club in April of 2005, he defended the New Deal social welfare policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He associated Republican proposals to establish private accounts for Social Security with Social Darwinism. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Obama spoke out against government indifference to growing economic class divisions calling on both political parties to take action to restore the social safety net for the poor. Shortly before announcing his presidential campaign, Obama told the health care advocacy group Families USA: "I am absolutely determined that by the end of the first term of the next president, we should have universal health care in this country."
At the Tax Policy Center in September of 2007, Obama credited special interests with distorting the U.S. tax code. "We are taxing income from work at nearly twice the level that we're taxing gains for investors," Obama said. "We've lost the balance between work and wealth." His new plan for taxes would eliminate taxes for senior citizens with incomes of less than $50,000 a year, repeal tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans, and it would simplify filing of income tax returns by pre-filling wage and bank information already collected by the Internal Revenue Services. Announcing his presidential campaign's energy plan in October of 2007, Obama said: "Businesses don’t own the sky, the public does, and if we want them to stop polluting it, we have to put a price on all pollution." He proposed a cap and trade auction system to restrict carbon emissions and a 10-year program of investments in new energy sources to reduce U.S. dependence on oil.
Speaking to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in November 2006, Obama called for a "phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq" and an opening of diplomatic dialogue with Syria and Iran. In March of 2007, in a speech to AIPAC, a pro-Israel lobby, he said that while the U.S. "should take no option, including military action, off the table, sustained and aggressive diplomacy combined with tough sanctions should be our primary means to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons." In August of 2007, in a speech detailing his strategy for fighting global terrorism,
In a December 2005 Washington Post opinion column, and at the Save Darfur rally in April of 2006, Obama called for more assertive action to oppose genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. He has divested $180,000 in personal holdings of Sudan-related stock and urged divestment from companies doing business in Iran. In the July-August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Obama called for an outward looking post-Iraq War foreign policy and the renewal of American military, diplomatic, and moral leadership in the world.
In December of 2006, he joined Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) at the "Global Summit on AIDS and the Church" organized by church leaders Kay and Rick Warren. Together with Warren and Brownback, Obama took an HIV test, as he had done in Kenya less than four months earlier. He encouraged "others in public life to do the same" to show "there is no shame in going for an HIV test." Addressing over 8,000 United Church of Christ members in June of 2007, Obama challenged "so-called leaders of the Christian Right" for being "all too eager to exploit what divides us."
Obama plays basketball, a sport he participated in as a member of his high school's varsity team. Before announcing his presidential candidacy, he began a well-publicized effort to quit smoking. "I've never been a heavy smoker," Obama told the Chicago Tribune. "I've quit periodically over the last several years. I've got an ironclad demand from my wife that in the stresses of the campaign I don't succumb. I've been chewing Nicorette strenuously." Replying to an Associated Press survey of 2008 presidential candidates' personal tastes, he specified "architect" as his alternate career choice and "chili" as his favorite meal to cook. Asked to name a "hidden talent," Obama answered: "I'm a pretty good poker player."
A theme of Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and the title of his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, was inspired by his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In chapter six of the book, titled "Faith," Obama writes that he "was not raised in a religious household." He describes his mother, raised by non-religious parents, as detached from religion, yet "in many ways the most spiritually awakened person that I have ever known." He describes his Kenyan father as "raised a Muslim," but was a "confirmed atheist" by the time his parents met, and his Indonesian step-father was "a man who saw religion as not particularly useful." The chapter details how Obama, in his 20s, while working with local churches as a community organizer, came to understand "the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change."
Obama has authored two bestselling books. The first, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, was published after his graduation from law school and before running for public office. In it he recalls his childhood in Honolulu and Jakarta, his college years in Los Angeles and New York City, and his employment as a community organizer in Chicago in the 1980s. The book's last chapters describe his first visit to Kenya, a journey to connect with his Luo family and heritage. In his preface to the 2004 revised edition, Obama explains that he had hoped the story of his family "might speak in some way to the fissures of race that have characterized the American experience, as well as the fluid state of identity—the leaps through time, the collision of cultures—that mark our modern life." Time magazine's Joe Klein wrote that the book "may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." The audio book edition earned Obama the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Album.
His second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, was published in October 2006, three weeks before the 2006 midterm election. It was an immediate bestseller and rose to the top of The New York Times Best Seller List by early November of 2006. The Chicago Tribune credits the large crowds that gathered at book signings with influencing Obama's decision to run for president. Former presidential candidate Gary Hart describes the book as Obama's "thesis submission" for the U.S. presidency: "It presents a man of relative youth yet maturity, a wise observer of the human condition, a figure who possesses perseverance and writing skills that have flashes of grandeur." An Italian translation was published in April of 2007 with a preface by Walter Veltroni, the Mayor of Rome. Spanish and German editions were published in June of 2007.
The People’s Champ
Supporters and critics have likened Obama's popular image to a cultural Rorschach test: a neutral persona on which people can project their personal histories and aspirations. Obama's own stories about his family origins reinforce what a May 2004 The New Yorker magazine article described as his "everyman" image. In Dreams from My Father, he ties his maternal family history to possible Native American ancestors and distant relatives of Jefferson Davis. Speaking to an elderly Jewish audience during his 2004 campaign for U.S. Senate, Obama linked the linguistic roots of his East African first name Barack to the Hebrew word baruch, meaning "blessed." In an October of 2006 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Obama highlighted the diversity of his extended family: "Michelle will tell you that when we get together for Christmas or Thanksgiving, it's like a little mini-United Nations," he said. "I've got relatives who look like Bernie Mac, and I've got relatives who look like Margaret Thatcher. We've got it all."
With his Kenyan father, his upbringing in Honolulu and Jakarta and his Ivy League education, Obama's early life experiences differ markedly from other Black politicians’ who launched their careers in the 1960s through participation in the civil rights movement. During his Democratic primary campaign for U.S. Congress in 2000, two rival candidates charged that Obama was not sufficiently rooted in Chicago's Black neighborhoods to represent constituents' concerns. In January of 2007, "The End of Blackness" author Debra Dickerson warned against drawing favorable cultural implications from Obama's political rise. "Lumping us all together," Dickerson wrote in Salon, "erases the significance of slavery and continuing racism while giving the appearance of progress." Expressing puzzlement over questions about whether he is "Black enough," Obama told an August of 2007 meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists that the debate is not about his physical appearance or his record on issues of concern to Black voters. "What it really lays bare," Obama offered, is that "we're still locked in this notion that if you appeal to White folks then there must be something wrong."
Writing about Obama's political image in a March of 2007 Washington Post opinion column, Eugene Robinson characterized him as "the personification of both-and," a messenger who rejects "either-or" political choices, and could "move the nation beyond the culture wars" of the 1960s. Obama, who defines himself in The Audacity of Hope as "a Democrat, after all," has been criticized for his political actions by self-described progressive commentator David Sirota, and complimented for his "can't we all just get along?" manner by conservative columnist George Will. But in a December 2006 Wall Street Journal editorial headlined,"The Man from Nowhere," former Ronald Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan advised Will and other "establishment" commentators to get "down from your tippy toes" and avoid becoming too quickly excited about Obama's still early political career. Echoing the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy, Obama acknowledged his youthful image, saying in an October 2007 campaign speech, "I wouldn't be here if, time and again, the torch had not been passed to a new generation."
Some Awards and Honors Thus Far
An October 2005 article in the British journal New Statesman listed Obama as one of "10 people who could change the world."
During his first three years in the U.S. Senate, Obama received Honorary Doctorates of Law from Knox College (2005), University of Massachusetts Boston (2006), Northwestern University (2006), Xavier University of Louisiana (2006), Southern New Hampshire University (2007) and Howard University (2007).
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Friday, December 7th 2007 at 3:38PM