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President Barack Obama: A Short Biography
Part 1 of the Barack Obama Biography
- Barack Obama: A Short Biography of a Rising Political Star
This is part one of a two-part biography of Barack Obama, from his birth in Hawaii and his estrangement with his father, to his rise through the Illinois Senate until his arrival at the U.S. Senate.
Campaign for President
Going into his third year as a United States senator from Illinois, on February 10, 2007, Obama officially announced his candidacy for President of the United States, running on a platform that included ending the Iraq War, reforming the health care system, and increasing energy independence.
Obama’s race for the Democratic party’s nomination started off without much fanfare. Through much of 2007 he trailed the two front runners, former first lady and then senator from New York, Hillary Clinton, and former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards. Iowa was the first state in the primary campaign to vote and Obama was behind going into the contest. However, Obama’s momentum was growing, and he pulled out a surprise win, which would make it a three-way race.
Soon the contest would come down to Clinton and Obama battling it out for the party’s nomination. By June of 2008, Obama had enough pledged delegates to edge out Clinton and he became the party’s presumptive nominee going into the late August Democratic convention. Obama announced Joe Biden, a senator from Delaware, as his running mate. At the August convention, Obama accepted the party’s nomination, and both Bill and Hillary Clinton gave rousing speeches of endorsement for Obama. History had been made, as Barack Obama became the first African-American candidate to be a major political party’s nominee for president.
The Republicans nominated the veteran senator from Arizona, John McCain, as their nominee. McCain chose a relatively unknown running mate, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Palin offered diversity to the ticket in the hope of winning the woman’s vote; however, on election day, Obama and Biden pulled off a resounding victory.
President Barack Obama
On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States and the first African-American to ever reach the White House. He had his fair share of problems as he stepped into office, as America was involved in two foreign wars and the economy was plunging headlong into a financial meltdown. In his first days in office, he focused on working with the U.S. military to withdraw American troops from Iraq and close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp as soon as possible. The withdrawal from Iraq would take years, and closure of Guantanamo Bay would not happen under his watch.
Another important concern for President Obama was LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights. He signed several bills to show his support for the LGBT community and to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender. One of his most important bills was the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010, which was meant to counter an older Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy by finally permitting people of any sexual orientation to join the U.S. Armed Forces. Even as a senator, Obama showed his support for the rights of same-sex couples to legally form civil unions or domestic partnerships. In 2012, before the launch of his second presidential campaign, he offered public support for making same-sex marriage legal. During an interview with ABC News, he stated, “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue. I’ve always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally,” he said. “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”
Health Care Reform – Obamacare
One of Obama’s key campaign promises was to reform the country’s health care system in order to provide high quality medical coverage to more Americans. Several presidents going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt had attempted to solve this problem with little success. President Lyndon Johnson did make serious progress when in 1965 he signed landmark legislation establishing the Medicare program, which provided hospital insurance and medical assistance to individuals over 65. The legislation also created the program that would become known as Medicaid, which gave assistance to those deemed unable to afford insurance.
Early in his first term, Obama called on Congress to pass legislation to reform the nation’s health care system. In July of 2009, House Democratic leaders introduced a massive 1,017-page plan for overhauling the U.S. health care system. After much debate and compromise, Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) into law on March 21, 2010.
Under the new law, the government’s Medicaid program for the poor was expanded; states and the federal government were to set up “exchanges” through which private insurance companies would offer coverage to individuals and small businesses; people who did not have insurance would be required to buy it; companies that did not provide their employees’ health insurance were required to do so; and health insurance companies would not be allowed to deny coverage to individuals with preexisting conditions. The program became known as “Obamacare.”
Though the legislation creating Obamacare was signed in 2010, it would be 2013 before the public rollout of the plan happened, and this didn’t go well. The website set up by the government, healthcare.gov, was full of bugs and only managed to process just one enrollment on the first day. The unveiling of Obamacare turned out to be a public relations mess for the president and the administration. Over time, the problems with the new system were ironed out and by early 2014 the system was working as planned, and Americans were getting signed up for health care—some for the first time.
The new health care plan faced several legal challenges, mainly based on the argument that an individual mandate requiring Americans to buy health insurance was unconstitutional. The battle would wind its way through the courts and finally be ruled upon by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court up held the law by a 5 to 4 vote, declaring the mandate was constitutional under the U.S. Congress’s taxation authority
The Great Recession of 2008
Late in the administration of President George W. Bush, the economy started to slow dramatically, primarily due to the bust in the housing market. By the time Obama became president in January 2009, the stock market was significantly down, homes weren’t selling, unemployment was rising, and the average American was deeply in debt. Obama wasted no time once in office. In an attempt to stabilize the economy, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The act was a $787 billion stimulus package that increased federal spending for health care, education, and infrastructure, and gave tax breaks and incentives.
In order to jumpstart the housing market, the Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, introduced the Public-Private Investment Program for Legacy Assets, which provided for the purchase of up to two trillion dollars in depreciated real estate assets. In addition to the housing market, the auto industry was also in trouble due to lack of sales. Two of the nation’s largest auto manufactures, General Motors and Chrysler, were headed toward bankruptcy. In March 2009, Obama renewed loans to General Motors and Chrysler to continue operation while the companies reorganized. The White House was involved in providing a soft landing for both companies and helped broker the sale of Chrysler to the Italian automaker Fiat, and the U.S. government temporally purchased a 60% stake in General Motors. To stimulate car sales, in the summer of 2009, Obama signed the Car Allowance Rebate System, or as it became known, “Cash for Clunkers.”
As a result of the recession, which was second only in severity to the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people were thrown out of work. In October 2009, the unemployment rate peaked at ten percent. Then the economy started to slowly recover, and the unemployment rate would continue to decline throughout both of Obama’s terms in office, dropping below five percent by the time he left office in 2017.
Obama’s economic stimulus packages were successful to various degrees, the economy recovered, and people went back to work. The stock market recovered nicely under Obama, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average going from a March 2009 low of below 7000 to nearly 20,000 by the time he left office. However, the economic growth came at a price: the Obama administration is credited with the largest increases in the national debt of any president in United States history, a 68 percent increase (don’t worry—our grandchildren can pay for it!).
Second Term as President
Due to his progressive policies, Obama’s approval ratings were very high at the end of his first term in office, which helped him secure a second Democratic nomination for the presidential race of 2012. Obama’s opponent in the 2012 election was the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. His campaign focused on the sluggish U.S. economy and his ability as a former businessman to create jobs. Romney was a Washington political outsider who had never been associated with a political scandal. Romney, along with his running mate, Paul Ryan, had amassed a one-billion-dollar war chest for the campaign.
Obama relied heavily on social media and appealed to the groups that had been essential to his 2008 victory—young people, women, Latinos, African-Americans, and members of the LGBT community. Going into the final days of the election, the polls were close and some even showed Romney with a slight lead. When the votes were all counted, Obama was elected to a second term in office, gathering 51 percent of the popular vote and enough electoral votes to cinch the election.
The war in Iraq was winding down by the time Obama started his second term, while the war against terrorism in Afghanistan continued. Following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, president George W. Bush rallied a coalition of major world powers and launched a military campaign against the Taliban, a terrorist organization lead by Osama bin Laden that had a strong hold in Afghanistan. The fight against the Taliban and other terrorist groups in the region would drag on for years, leading directly into the Obama presidency.
As Obama would discover, getting into a war can is much easier than successfully getting out of a war. By 2011, the U.S. had expanded the number of troops in the country to around 100,000. The strong U.S. and coalition forces in the region were able to break the terrorist organizations, and in 2012 NATO leaders endorsed an exit strategy to withdraw troops. Beginning in 2013, U.S troops started to come home from Afghanistan and by 2016 there were only a limited number of troops in the country to support the Afghan government.
With all the troops returning from both of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Veterans Administration medical treatment facilities were sorely lacking. In the spring of 2104, a whistleblower revealed that hundreds of veterans were waiting months for treatment, or never receiving treatment at all, at Veterans Administration hospitals. During an investigation of the matter, it was revealed that schedulers at the hospitals were pressured by their superiors to create a secret wait list of veterans and doctor’s appointment lists to “prove” that wait times were not excessive. In June of 2014, the FBI launched a criminal investigation of the VA.
Another one of the tasks the Obama administration took on was curbing the effects of global warming. New legislation forced polluting facilities, such as factories, power plants, and oil refineries, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Obama also worked for the conservation of federal lands and created 25 new national monuments during his time in the office.
After eight years as president, Obama gave his farewell address to the nation on January 10, 2017, in his hometown of Chicago. This would be his last public address as the 44th President of the United States. His forward-looking speech summarized some of the accomplishments made during his administration and gave a call for America to move forward, saying, “You were the change. You answered people’s hopes, and because of you America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started… It is up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face.”
After the end of his presidency on January 20, 2017, Obama and his family moved to a rented house in Kalorama, Washington, D.C. He made his first public appearance since leaving office on April 24, 2017, when he went to a seminar at the University of Chicago to talk with the young generations about the need to participate in politics.
Obama often travels internationally to meet with world leaders and politicians. He visited German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prince Harry of England. He talked disapprovingly about the decision of President Trump to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. Obama also criticized the Senate Republicans for backing health care legislation changes that affect the low-income communities while providing benefits to the richest.
Obama is a devout Protestant Christian by choice. He came to the Christian faith later in life, as his family was not religious. Whenever he talks about his childhood, he emphasizes the cultural and religious diversity of his extended family. He has a half-sister whose father is Indonesian and seven half-siblings from his Kenyan father. Obama also has Irish cousins and a Kansas-born grandmother.
Obama played basketball in high school and continues to be a big fan of the sport. He is a supporter of the Chicago White Sox and a Chicago Bears football fan.
Among many other distinctions and awards, on October 9, 2009, Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize. In the press release from The Norwegian Nobel Committee, Obama was cited for “…his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”
List of 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.
Young, Aiden. Understanding the Financial Crisis of 2008. C&D Publications. 2016.
Amadeo, Kimberly. “U.S. Debt by President: By Dollar and Percent” November 2, 2017. https://www.thebalance.com/us-debt-by-president-by-dollar-and-percent-3306296. Accessed November 4, 2017.
Rhodan, Maya “In His Farewell Speech, President Obama Returns to His Roots as a Community Leader,” January 10, 2017. Time Magazine. http://time.com/4631089/barack-obama-farewell-speech-analysis/ Accessed November 7, 2017.
“The Nobel Peace Prize 2009: Barack H. Obama” October 9, 2009. https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2009/ Accessed December 5, 2017.