Barack Obama Biography

United States senator

Barack Obama

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 —,


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,", (May 27, 2007).

"About Barack Obama," Barack Obama, U.S. Senator for Illinois, (May 27, 2007).

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