History will remember Barack Obama as one of the definitive leaders of his time for many reasons. His two terms in the Oval Office have come with highs and lows, but with charisma, poise, and professionalism, he has worked diligently to bring about justice and equality for all his nation’s inhabitants.
Barack Hussein Obama was born on August 4th, 1961, at the Kapi’olani Hospital in the Hawaiian capital of Honolulu. His parents were anthropologist Ann Dunham, and Kenyan Barack Obama Sr., who was the University of Hawaii’s first foreign student from an African nation, before becoming a prominent economist in his home country.
Ann and Barack separated soon after his birth, with his mother taking him to live in Seattle. Obama would see his father only once after the divorce was filed in 1964; Barack would die in a car crash 18 years later.
The following year, Ann remarried to an Indonesian student named Lolo Soetoro, who the family would follow home several years later upon the expiration of his visa. Together, they would set up residence in south Jakarta, where Obama would first attend school. He took class at Indonesian-language establishments, with supplemental English studies being taught by his mother.
At the age of 10, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. Thanks to a scholarship, he was able to attend Punahou School, a college prep institution where he remained until graduation in 1979. He moved to Los Angeles that same year.
“The opportunity that Hawaii offered – to experience a variety of cultures in a climate of mutual respect – became an integral part of my world view, and a basis for the values that I hold most dear,” he would later reflect in Honolulu’s Star Bulletin.
Two years into his studies at liberal arts school Occidental College, Obama – or Barry, as he was known – made his first public speech, calling on the college to disinvest in South Africa in response to the country’s apartheid policy. It marked an important turning point in his life.
1981, and a cross-country relocation to New York’s Columbia University saw Obama study political science, majoring in international relations. After graduating with his BA, he worked first at Business International Corporation, then at the New York Public Interest Research Group. The years that followed were ones steeped heavily in soul-searching for a man who was not sure what his future held. He has talked off drinking and taking illegal substances in order to “push questions of who I was out of my mind”.
Obama had little to worry about. A mere two years after graduation, he was hired as director of the Developing Communities Project in Chicago. “Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilised grass roots. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll organise black folks. At the grass roots. For change,” he ironically thought.
Spanning eight Catholic parishes across the city’s south side, Obama led the organisation in setting up job training programs, a college preparatory tutoring program, and a tenants’ rights group designed to push the city into action on such issues as asbestos removal.
Retiring from the role in mid-1988, Obama took a five week trip to meet his paternal relatives in Kenya, before returning to enter Harvard Law School. He became editor of the Harvard Law Review in his first year, the journal’s president the next year (the first African American to hold the position), and finally a research assistant for constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe. He left the school in 1991 with a doctorate of law, having graduated magna cum laude.
By then, word of his striking brilliance had spread, and a publisher reached out to invite him to write a book on race relations. Dreams from My Father, a memoir, would be published in 1995.
In the meantime, Obama took a two-year position at the University of Chicago Law School. He spent this time working on the book, before becoming a lecturer, then a senior lecturer on constitutional law over the years 1992 – 2004.
He launched Project Vote in 1992 to assist in the registering up to 400,000 unlisted African Americans across Illinois. The campaign was a huge success, which saw Crain’s Chicago Business list Obama as one of its 40 under Forty influencers.
When not teaching, Obama worked at a law firm specialising in civil rights litigation, on the board of directors for the Woods Fund of Chicago, which was used to financially buoy projects in developing communities.
1996 was the year Obama finally entered politics, when he was elected to the Illinois Senate as representative for the district where he had spent so many of his early professional years. While in power, he helped bring about health care and welfare reform, fought for the rights of low-income earners, and supported the Republican Governor in the passing of regulations designed to avert home foreclosures.
He was reelected in 1998, and 2002. He ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004, winning the primary election after an unexpected landslide which saw him become an icon of the Democratic Party. Barely three months later, he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, to an audience of 9.1 million. It was no surprise then, when he won the November general election with 70% of the vote.
Over the next four years, Obama sponsored a range of bills primarily designed to increase government transparency, and increase support for employees of the military. Two initiatives featured his name: the Lugar-Obama initiative, which campaigned for the nonproliferation of conventional weapons, and the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparence Act, which authorised a website that detailed federal government spending.
On February 10th, 2007, Obama announced his candidacy for presidency.
“I recognise there is a certain presumptuousness–a certain audacity–to this announcement,” he said before the Old State Capitol, where thousands of supporters had gathered. “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 called for an end to the Iraq War, for health care reform, and for the renewal of a concept which would define his campaign: hope.
After a fierce race against fellow candidates, Obama spent most of the primary election in a duel with Senator Hillary Clinton, but proved the most prepared. She bowed out on June 7, 2008, and endorsed Obama accordingly.
With Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, Obama received the Democratic party’s official support at the DNC convention in Denver Colorado. Rather than deliver his acceptance speech to a room of his peers and media, he travelled to the nearby Invesco Field, where he spoke to a crowd 75,000 strong.
“America, we cannot turn back,” he told the crowd, and the millions who watch from home. “We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to walk into the future.”
On November 4th, 2008, the American people went to the polls. Obama won 365 electoral votes to John McCain’s 173, and 52.9% of the popular vote. So it was that he became the 44th President of the United States, and the very first African American president.
His first point of action was to order the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a move that was ultimately blocked by Congress. He then reduced the secrecy given to presidential records, and revoked a policy that restricted family planning groups rights to counsel on abortion.
Over his two terms – he was reelected in 2012, becoming the first Democratic president since Roosevelt to win the public vote twice – Obama proved himself a revolutionary president by:
- The appointment of three women to the Supreme Court, for the first time in history.
- Signing the first extension of federal hate-crime law in 40 years.
- Repealing the controversial Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy regarding gay members of the US Armed Forces.
- Becoming the first sitting president to support the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
- Launching the White House Council on Women and Girls to improve the welfare of women across America.
- Creating the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.
- Championing a domestic energy policy.
- Recommending internet services be classified as telecommunications to preserve net neutrality.
- Restoring the pre-Cold War relationship between the United States and Cuba.
- Opening negotiations with Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.
- Becoming the first American president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, the site of the WWII atomic bombing.
Though the strains of the job are etched permanently in his face, Barack Obama’s charismatic disposition and brilliant oratory ability have made him not just one of America’s most popular presidents, but a positive icon for people across the world. Though his terms have been far from perfect – even, sometimes, less than ideal – his positive impact on a changing world is undeniable.
For that, we must be thankful.