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Barack Obama: A Short Biography of a Rising Political Star

Updated on November 12, 2017
President Barack Obama.
President Barack Obama.

Early Life

Born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii, Barack Hussein Obama II is the son of Barack Obama, Sr., who was from a small village in Kenya. His mother, Ann Dunham, was born in Wichita, Kansas, and had moved to Hawaii two years previously with her parents. Her family had Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and even German ancestry. Obama’s parents were both students at the University of Hawaii when they met and fell in love. Obama, Sr., was a foreign student who left Kenya with the aid of a scholarship, and even though he had a wife and child back home, he married Ann in Wailuku, Hawaii, in 1961. At that time, inter-racial marriages were uncommon and in some states illegal.

Barack Obama, Jr., was born just six months after his parents’ wedding. Soon after Barack Junior’s first birthday, his father accepted a scholarship to pursue graduate studies in economics at Harvard University. He moved without his family to Boston to pursue his education. The emotional and physical separation between Ann and Barack, Sr., caused too much strain on the marriage and they divorced in early 1964.

A year after the divorce, Barack Obama, Sr., completed his master’s degree at Harvard and returned to Kenya, where he aspired to put his education to work to improve his homeland. In 1982, when Obama was only 21 years old, his father died in a car accident. The two had seen each other only once since the divorce.

Soon after separating from her husband, Obama’s mother met an Indonesian man, Lolo Soetoro, who was a graduate student at the University of Hawaii. Ann married Lolo and the family settled in Indonesia in 1967, living in Jakarta. In Indonesia, the six-year-old Obama became quite familiar with the poverty of the third-world country, where the house they lived in had no stable electricity and the streets in their neighborhood were not paved. Obama started to attend a local Indonesian-language school. After three and a half years, Ann supplemented her son’s education with English-language homeschooling. In 1970, Obama became a big brother when Ann and Lolo had a baby girl named Maya.

When Barack Obama was 10, his mother sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents in their two-bedroom apartment. Eventually, his mother and half-sister Maya Soetoro returned to Hawaii as Ann wanted to pursue graduate school in anthropology at the University of Hawaii. However, after three years of study, she went back to Indonesia with her daughter to start anthropology field work. Although she divorced Lolo in 1980, Ann settled in Indonesia, living there for most of the next twenty years. She earned her Ph.D. degree in 1992. While his mother and sister were in Indonesia, Obama continued to live with his maternal grandparents in Hawaii, where he attended a private college preparatory school with the aid of a scholarship. He was a good student who was popular among the many different cliques of students.

Stanley Armour Dunham, Ann Dunham, Maya Soetoro and Barack Obama, mid-1970s (left to right)
Stanley Armour Dunham, Ann Dunham, Maya Soetoro and Barack Obama, mid-1970s (left to right)

College Years

After graduating from high school in 1979, Obama began a new life on the mainland. He moved from his grandparents’ house to Los Angeles and became a student at Occidental College. Into his college years, Obama struggled with his mixed-race heritage; with a white mother and a black father, his mixed race was a source of confusion. He sought out black friends but still didn’t feel as though he fit in. Around this period, he became invested in political and social issues and made his first public speech in 1981, demanding that the government impose sanctions on South Africa in response to the brutal apartheid. Later that year, he transferred to Columbia University, in New York. He earned his BA in political science, with specialties in international relations and English literature in 1983. Shortly after graduation, he started to work as a financial researcher and writer at the Business International Corporation, where he spent only a year.

Early Career and Marriage

Two years after his graduation from Columbia University, Obama moved to Chicago, where he had received a job as director of the Developing Communities Project, a community foundation made up of Catholic parishes on Chicago’s South Side. He worked there from 1985 until 1988, helping to set up tutoring programs for college applicants, training programs, and even a tenants’ rights committee. He also offered consulting and instruction services to the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organizing institute.

While working in Chicago in the 1980s, Obama had a long-term love relationship with anthropologist Sheila Miyoshi Jager, to whom he proposed marriage twice. However, Jager turned him down because of her young age.

Obama met the woman who would become his wife in 1989 when he was a summer associate at a Chicago law firm. Michelle Robinson had been assigned as Obama’s adviser at the firm and they attended many parties and social gatherings together but started to date near the end of the summer. They married on October 3, 1992, after a three-year relationship. On July 1998, they had their first child, Malia Ann. Their second daughter, Natasha, was born on June 10, 2001.

Barack Obama Video Biogoraphy

Harvard Law School

Obama, now 26 years old, decided to visit Kenya before his law studies began in the fall at Harvard. He visited the village in Kenya, near Lake Victoria, where his father grew up. There he met his grandmother and his extended family for the first time and began to understand the struggles his father went through. Obama would later write of the visit to Kenya, “[The visit] helped unify my outward self with my inward self in an important way.” Coming back in the fall, he enrolled at Harvard Law School and moved to a nearby town in Massachusetts. He became editor of the Harvard Law Review and just one year later, he was elected president of the prestigious academic journal. At the end of his second year at law school, he started to work as research assistant to one of Harvard’s scholars. He spent his summer vacations in Chicago, working as an associate at various law firms. Obama graduated with a magna cum laude J.D. degree in 1991.

Obama became seriously involved in politics in 1992 when he directed a voter registration campaign in Illinois. The Project Vote involved mostly volunteers but nonetheless managed to register a third of the unregistered African Americans in the state. The success of the campaign put Obama in the spotlight as one of the powers to be of 1993. Moreover, as the first black person to have been elected president of the Harvard Law Review, he unknowingly sparked the interest of the media, which culminated with an attractive contract with a publishing house for a book on the dynamics of racial relations. Dreams from My Father was published in 1995 as a personal memoir. He wrote the book while he was a Visiting Law and Government Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School. Obama remained at the university as a lecturer of constitutional law for another four years and then spent another six years there as senior lecturer. From 1993 to 2004, he also worked as an associate and later counsel at a law firm working on civil rights and community development cases.

Obama started his political career by running for and being elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996. While in the Senate, the 35-year-old proved that he took his political agenda very seriously. He focused on ethics and health care legislation, and some of his most important measures included a welfare reform and increased subsidies for childcare. His policies made him popular and he was reelected to the Illinois Senate in 1998 and again in 2002.

Harvard Law School Library.
Harvard Law School Library.

Failed Run for the U.S. House of Representatives

While in the Illinois Senate, Obama, against the advice of his friends and advisors, ran in 2000 for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His opponent was a four-term incumbent named Bobby Rush, a practicing Baptist minister and a former Black Panther. Rush campaigned hard against Obama, telling a local newspaper, “He [Obama] went to Harvard and became an educated fool… Barack is a person who read about the civil-rights protests and thinks he knows all about it.” Even though Obama had impressive fund-raising skills and attracted support from the district’s white liberals, he was soundly defeated in the election, winning only 30 percent of the vote. Despite the loss, Obama gained a much greater knowledge of and acceptance for his South Side Chicago community.

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United States Senator Barack Obama

In January 2003, Obama officially announced his candidacy for the United States Senate. To Obama’s good fortune, the Republican primary winner, Jack Ryan, dropped out of the race and the less popular Alan Keyes took his place. Obama easily defeated Keyes, taking 70% of the vote. Obama’s victory was historic, as he was the first African-American male Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate.

In the summer of 2004, Obama was asked to give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. With his victory in the Senate race almost assured, the Democrats were eager to showcase a rising star within the party. In his speech, Obama reflected on his personal history and the nation’s history to explain what he called “the true genius of America—a faith in simple dreams, and insistence on small miracles…” He continued on with a unifying message, “…There is not a liberal America and a conservative America—there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.” His speech met with boisterous applause on the convention floor and was well received by millions watching on the television, bringing him to the eyes and ears of the nation.

On January 3, 2005, Obama was sworn in as a senator. He spent three years in the U.S. Senate, during which he sponsored and cosponsored numerous legislative changes, including the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act and the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. He also introduced initiatives of his own, but not all his bills were successful. The Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007, for example, didn’t pass the Senate.

Obama was also involved in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he gained a wide expertise in international affairs. He was elected Chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on European Affairs and made many official trips to developing countries all around the world. While in Kenya, he condemned corruption within the government in a speech held at the University of Nairobi.

Soon his political aspirations would lead him to run for the office of the President of the United States. The story continues in Part 2 of this biography.

United States Senator Barack Obama in 2005.
United States Senator Barack Obama in 2005.

References

Hamilton, N. A. and I. C. Friedman, reviser. Presidents: A Biographical Dictionary. Third Edition. Checkmark Books. 2010.

Maraniss, David. Barack Obama: The Story. Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Matuz, R. Bill Harris, editor. The Presidents Fact Book – The Achievements, Campaigns, Events, Triumphs, Tragedies, and Legacies of Every President From George Washington to Barack Obama. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009.

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    • dougwest1 profile image
      Author

      Doug West 2 weeks ago from Raymore, MO

      Thanks to you all for your comments. I hope more people vote in the poll. I would like to see who Hub page readers think is the best of the modern president.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 2 weeks ago from U.S.A.

      Wonderful article. President Obama was ranked 12th by historians among all presidents. You displayed a skillful telling of his story, and gave all Americans hope that it is not where you begin in our nation, it's how you want to finish. I would say that about all of our presidents, including Donald Trump.

    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 2 weeks ago from Oklahoma

      Interesting overview.

    • Tim Truzy info4u profile image

      Tim Truzy 2 weeks ago from U.S.A.

      Barack Obama was a superb president. Historians have already rated him high comparable to others. It's interesting that you highlighted an important point: from the very beginning former President Obama spoke the language of unity.

      Perhaps, he was too bright with natural people skills; Or perhaps he didn't have a right to be so educated to others - but undeniable, he reminded us the power of our democracy to allow people to achieve their goals even with monumental societal barriers.

      Barack Obama had to walk a line of "perfection" nearly every day. My, my - how we have lowered the bar substantially.

    • dougwest1 profile image
      Author

      Doug West 2 weeks ago from Raymore, MO

      Thanks for the comment. President Obama did have an unusual upbringing and over came many obstacles to reach the White House. It will be interesting to see how historians view his presidency. BTW - I should have part 2 of the biography ready next week.

    • Sharlee01 profile image

      Sharon Stajda 2 weeks ago from Shelby Township Michigan

      He certainly has an interesting biography. One would have thought he would have been a better president? Not sure how historians will treat him?

      I enjoyed the read, well done, very informative.