Barack Obama is one of the most influential and popular figures in modern history. He served as the 44th president of the United States from 2009 to 2017, and was the first African American to hold that office. He is also a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a best-selling author, and a global citizen.
Early Life and Education
Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii. His name, Barack, means “one who is blessed” in Swahili. His parents, Stanley Ann Dunham and Barack Obama Sr., divorced when he was two years old, and his father returned to his native Kenya. Obama only saw his father once again, when he visited Hawaii in 1971. He was killed in a car accident in 1982.
Obama’s mother remarried an Indonesian man named Lolo Soetoro, and moved with her son to Jakarta in the late 1960s. There, Obama learned to eat exotic foods such as snake and dog meat, roasted grasshopper, and kept a pet ape named Tata. He also attended a local school where he learned some Indonesian language and culture.
In 1971, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents and attend a prestigious private school called Punahou. He excelled in academics and sports, especially basketball, and earned the nickname “O’Bomber” for his skills on the court. He also began to explore his racial identity and the challenges of being a biracial person in America.
After graduating from high school with honors, Obama moved to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College in 1979. He later transferred to Columbia University in New York, where he majored in political science and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1983. He then worked for five years in various jobs, including as a community organizer in Chicago, before pursuing his law degree.
In 1988, Obama enrolled at Harvard Law School, where he became the first ever African American president of the Harvard Law Review, a prestigious student-run journal. He graduated magna cum laude in 1991, and returned to Chicago to work as a civil rights lawyer, a law professor, and a director of a voter registration campaign.
Political Career and Presidency
Obama’s political career began in 1996, when he was elected to the Illinois State Senate as a Democrat. He served for eight years, during which he sponsored and supported several bills on health care, ethics, education, and criminal justice reform. He also opposed the Iraq War, which he considered a “dumb war”.
In 2004, Obama ran for the U.S. Senate and won by a landslide, becoming the fifth African American senator in U.S. history. He gained national attention for his keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, in which he spoke of his vision for a united and diverse America. He also published his second memoir, The Audacity of Hope, which became a best-seller.
In 2007, Obama announced his candidacy for the 2008 presidential election, facing a tough primary contest against Hillary Clinton, the former first lady and senator. He ran on a platform of change, hope, and progress, and appealed to young and minority voters with his charisma and eloquence. He also used the internet and social media to mobilize his supporters and raise funds.
After winning the Democratic nomination, Obama faced John McCain, the Republican senator and war hero, in the general election. He made history by choosing Joe Biden, a veteran senator and former rival, as his running mate. He also faced unprecedented challenges, such as the global financial crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the rise of terrorism.
On November 4, 2008, Obama won the election with 365 electoral votes and 52.9% of the popular vote, becoming the first African American president of the United States. He delivered his victory speech in Chicago, in front of a crowd of over 200,000 people, and declared: “Yes we can”.
Obama was sworn in as the 44th president on January 20, 2009, with the theme of “A New Birth of Freedom”. He inherited a country in crisis, facing a deep recession, a soaring unemployment rate, a ballooning national debt, and a loss of confidence in the government. He also faced a hostile and divided Congress, and a skeptical and polarized public.
Despite these obstacles, Obama pursued an ambitious and progressive agenda, aiming to reform the health care system, revive the economy, end the wars, combat climate change, and restore America’s leadership in the world. Some of his major achievements include:
- Passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a $787 billion stimulus package that created or saved millions of jobs, invested in infrastructure, education, energy, and science, and provided tax relief to 95% of working families.
- Signing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, a landmark health care reform that expanded coverage to over 20 million uninsured Americans, reduced costs, improved quality, and prohibited discrimination based on pre-existing conditions.
- Ordering the U.S. military to kill Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda and the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in a covert operation in Pakistan in 2011.
- Withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011, and announcing the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, fulfilling his campaign promise to end the wars.
- Negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, a multilateral agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief, preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and averting a potential war.
- Signing the Paris Agreement, a global pact that committed nearly 200 countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change, the biggest threat to the planet’s future.
- Restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending a half-century of hostility and isolation, and becoming the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island nation since 1928.
- Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”.
Obama also faced many challenges and criticisms during his presidency, such as:
- Failing to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, a controversial prison for suspected terrorists, despite his pledge to do so.
- Expanding the use of drone strikes, a controversial and secretive form of warfare that killed hundreds of civilians and violated the sovereignty of other countries.
- Facing a backlash from the Tea Party movement, a conservative and populist movement that opposed his policies and questioned his legitimacy and citizenship.
- Dealing with the rise of the Islamic State, a brutal and extremist group that seized large parts of Iraq and Syria and carried out terrorist attacks around the world.
- Facing a gridlock in Congress, especially after the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014, blocking many of his initiatives and nominations.
- Facing a resurgence of racism and hate crimes, especially after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, a civil rights movement that protested against police brutality and racial injustice.
- Facing a wave of mass shootings, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, that killed dozens of innocent people, especially children, and sparked a national debate on gun control and violence prevention.
Obama was re-elected for a second term in 2012, defeating Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a successful businessman. He won 332 electoral votes and 51.1% of the popular vote, becoming the first president since Dwight D. Eisenhower to win more than 51% of the vote twice. He continued to pursue his agenda, while also dealing with new challenges, such as the Russian annexation of Crimea, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis, and the rise of Donald Trump, a billionaire and reality TV star who ran a divisive and populist campaign for the presidency.
Obama left office on January 20, 2017, with a 60% approval rating, one of the highest for a departing president. He was succeeded by Trump, who vowed to undo many of his policies and legacy. Obama delivered his farewell address in Chicago, where he thanked the American people for their support and urged them to remain hopeful and engaged in democracy. He said: “Yes we did. Yes we can”.
Personal Life and Legacy
Barack Obama is married to Michelle Obama, a lawyer, writer, and former first lady of the United States. They met in 1989, when they worked at the same law firm in Chicago, and married in 1992. They have two daughters, Malia and Sasha, who were born in 1998 and 2001, respectively. They also have two dogs, Bo and Sunny, who are Portuguese water dogs.
Obama is a Christian, who was baptized in 1988 at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He is also a fan of basketball, jazz, and comic books. He is an avid reader and writer, who has published three memoirs: Dreams from My Father (1995), The Audacity of Hope (2006), and A Promised Land (2020). He has also won two Grammy Awards for the audio versions of his books.
Obama is widely regarded as one of the most influential and popular presidents in U.S. history, as well as a global leader and icon. He is admired for his charisma, eloquence, intelligence, and vision, as well as for his achievements, values, and ideals. He is also praised for his grace, dignity, and humor, as well as for his devotion to his family and his country.