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Barack Obama - Biography

As the 44th President of the United States, Obama was arguably the most charismatic leader America has had in a while

Barack Obama - Biography
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It took just one sensational speech in July 2004 to make Harvard Law graduate Barack Obama an overnight star. Just three years later the Democratic senator launched his campaign to become first black president of the US. Described by Oprah Winfrey as having a "tongue dipped in the unvarnished truth", the son of a former Kenyan goat-herder has come to embody the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans.

Mr Obama's inspirational rhetoric at the 2004 Democrat Convention, where he called for party unity and emphasised the traditional American ideals of self-reliance and aspiration, proved to be the making of him. "Through hard work and perseverance my father got a scholarship to study in a magical place - America - which stood as a beacon of freedom and opportunity to so many that had come before," he told the convention. The Illinois politician had good reason to appreciate the possibilities he saw the US as representing. 

Early life

Unlike members of the Bush family and the Kennedy clan, he had no privileged background or natural springboard into politics. His father, Barack Obama Sr, grew up in Kenya herding goats, and met his mother, Ann Dunham, when he won a university scholarship to study in Hawaii where they were both students. 

They married, and Barack Jr was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu. While he was still a toddler his father left the family to study at Harvard. Barack Sr later returned to Kenya where, having divorced Ann, he remarried and worked as a government economist. The couple would meet only once again before he died in a car crash. 

When her son was six, Kansas-born Ann married Indonesian Lolo Soetoro and relocated the family to Jakarta where the youngster lived for four years before moving back to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend school. A bright, intelligent student he excelled academically and was accepted to study political science at Columbia University in New York after which he put further education on hold while he moved to Chicago in 1985. 

There the future president worked for non-profit groups helping to improve living conditions in poor neighbourhoods. The committed Christian realised if he really wanted to change the lives of the less fortunate then he would have to get involved at a higher level, however. He went on to earn a law degree from Harvard in 1991, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, and returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer and teach constitutional law. 

It was at the Chicago branch of law firm Sidley Austin that he met his future wife and fellow Harvard law graduate Michelle - the daughter of a secretary and a petrol pump attendant - who was his mentor at the company. They married in 1992 and are parents to two daughters Mali and Sasha whom they raised in the family home on Chicago's South Side. 

In 1995 the politician published his autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story Of Race And Inheritance. It tells the story of his mixed-race heritage, how he first became aware of racism and what it means to be an African-American. It ends with an emotional visit to the grave of his father and paternal grandfather. He later made an audio version of the book which earned him a 2006 Grammy Award for best spoken word album. 

Political career

His political career took off in 1996 when he won an Illinois state senate seat. Eight years later came the leap to Washington with a place in the US Senate. Despite being a rank outsider, his straight-talking style won over the voters; he was also helped by the fact that his Republican opponent had been brought down by a sex scandal. That fateful July 2004 address at the Democrat Convention sparked Obama mania. 

By the following year Time magazine was hailing him as one of the world's 100 most influential people. Thanks in part to his movie-star good looks, wit and beaming smile, the 6ft 2in politician became an instant media darling. He won over some of the entertainment industry's biggest players, including Oprah Winfrey, George Clooney and Halle Berry, all of whom declared he would have their support if he ran for the presidency in 2008. 

On February 10, 2007, he announced he would run for the White House, against fellow Democrats Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. And, in a rousing speech evoking the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, he called for unity within the nation. As an addition to that message embodied by his mixed-race background - he spoke of the need for universal health care, ending poverty in America and tackling the nation's dependence on oil. 

An early critic of the Iraq War, he also announced his intention to bring the troops home and care for war veterans. Critics expressed doubts over his relative inexperience compared to fellow Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton. Such issues seemed to have shrunk into the background, however, when on January 3, 2008, Barack took his first significant step on the road to the Oval Office by winning the Iowa Democratic caucuses. 

He led the field with 38 per cent of the votes ahead of fellow Democrat challengers John Edwards, with 30 per cent, and Hillary Clinton with 29 per cent. On November 4, buoyed up by a record turn-out of the like not seen the election of John F Kennedy in 1960, the man who once referred to himself as "the skinny kid with a funny name" was chosen as the 44th president of the United States.

But Obama would find presidency difficult, as he inherited the repercussions of the financial crisis and the Iraq war. His first actions involved a major stimulus package to recover from the Great Recession. He reformed health care with the Affordable Care Act, informally called Obamacare, and ended major U.S. military presence in Iraq. He famously ordered the counterterrorism raid which killed Osama Bin Laden, which he was lauded for, but was criticised for his use of drone strikes and air strikes early on.

Obama was re-elected in 2013 for a second term, where he aimed to combat climate change. He also negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran and worked to resolve relations with Cuba which had been hostile for 54 years at the time. One of the biggest successes of his second term was the work he did to include LGBTQ+ Americans, as the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional in Obergefell v. Hodges.

As Obama left his presidency, with Donald Trump set to take over in 2017, he held a 60 percent approval rating, yet his legacy grew complicated over time as people reflected on the longevity of his work (much of which Donald Trump attempted to repeal), and his Human Rights record.


Obama set up the Obama Foundation and carried on acting as a public figure after his presidency. He released his presidential memoir, A Promised Land, in 2020.

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