Who Is Barack Obama?
Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States and the first African American commander-in-chief. He served two terms, in 2008 and 2012. The son of parents from Kenya and Kansas, Obama was born and raised in Hawaii. He graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was president of the Harvard Law Review. After serving on the Illinois State Senate, he was elected a U.S. senator representing Illinois in 2004. He and wife Michelle Obama have two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
Father and Mother
Early Life and Parents
Barack Hussein Obama II was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961. Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was born of Luo ethnicity in Nyanza Province, Kenya. Obama Sr. grew up herding goats in Africa and eventually earned a scholarship that allowed him to leave Kenya and pursue his dreams of going to college in Hawaii.
Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, was born on an Army base in Wichita, Kansas, during World War II. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dunham’s father, Stanley, enlisted in the military and marched across Europe in General George Patton’s army. Dunham’s mother, Madelyn, went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, the couple studied on the G.I. Bill, bought a house through the Federal Housing Program and, after several moves, ended up in Hawaii.
While studying at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Obama Sr. met fellow student Ann Dunham. They married on February 2, 1961, and Barack II was born six months later.
His father left soon after his birth, and the couple divorced two years later. In 1965, Dunham married Lolo Soetoro, a University of Hawaii student from Indonesia. A year later, the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where Obama’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro Ng, was born in 1970. Several incidents in Indonesia left Dunham afraid for her son’s safety and education so, at the age of 10, Obama was sent back to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents. His mother and half-sister later joined them.
As a child, Obama did not have a relationship with his father. When his son was still an infant, Obama Sr. relocated to Massachusetts to attend Harvard University and pursue a Ph.D. Obama’s parents officially separated several months later and ultimately divorced in March 1964, when their son was two. Soon after, Obama Sr. returned to Kenya.
Obama struggled with the absence of his father during his childhood, who he saw only once more after his parents divorced when Obama Sr. visited Hawaii for a short time in 1971. “[My father] had left paradise, and nothing that my mother or grandparents told me could obviate that single, unassailable fact,” he later reflected. “They couldn’t describe what it might have been like had he stayed.”
While living with his grandparents, Obama enrolled in the esteemed Punahou Academy. He excelled in basketball and graduated with academic honors in 1979. As one of only three Black students at the school, he became conscious of racism and what it meant to be African American.
Obama later described how he struggled to reconcile social perceptions of his multiracial heritage with his own sense of self: “I noticed that there was nobody like me in the Sears, Roebuck Christmas catalog. . .and that Santa was a white man,” he wrote. “I went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking as I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me.”
Obama entered Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1979. After two years, he transferred to Columbia University in New York City, graduating in 1983 with a degree in political science. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law in 1991.
After graduating from Columbia University as an undergrad, Obama worked in the business sector for two years. He moved to Chicago in 1985, where he worked on the impoverished South Side as a community organizer for low-income residents in the Roseland and the Altgeld Gardens communities.
It was during this time that Obama, who said he “was not raised in a religious household,” joined the Trinity United Church of Christ. He also visited relatives in Kenya, and paid an emotional visit to the graves of his biological father, who died in a car accident in November 1982, and paternal grandfather.
“For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept,” Obama wrote. “I saw that my life in America — the Black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away.”
Returning from Kenya with a sense of renewal, Obama entered Harvard Law School in 1988. The next year, he met with constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe. Their discussion so impressed Tribe, that when Obama asked to join his team as a research assistant, the professor agreed.
“The better he did at Harvard Law School and the more he impressed people, the more obvious it became that he could have had anything,“ said Professor Tribe in a 2012 interview with Frontline, “but it was clear that he wanted to make a difference to people, to communities.”
In 1989, Obama joined the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin as a summer associate, where he met his future wife Michelle. In February 1990, Obama was elected the first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review.
Marriage to Michelle Obama and Daughters
Obama met Michelle Robinson, a young lawyer who was assigned to be his adviser at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin. Not long after, the couple began dating. On October 3, 1992, he and Michelle were married.
They moved to Kenwood, on Chicago’s South Side. Barack and Michelle Obama welcomed two daughters several years later: Malia (born 1998) and Sasha (born 2001).
Career in Law
After law school, Obama returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer with the firm of Miner, Barnhill & Galland. He also taught constitutional law part-time at the University of Chicago Law School between 1992 and 2004 — first as a lecturer and then as a professor — and helped organize voter registration drives during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
First Book and Grammy
Obama published his autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, in 1995. The work received high praise from literary figures such as Toni Morrison. It has since been printed in more than 25 languages, including Chinese, Swedish and Hebrew. The book had a second printing in 2004 and was adapted for a children’s version.
The audiobook version of Dreams, narrated by Obama, received a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word album in 2006.
Entry into Illinois Politics
Obama’s advocacy work led him to run for a seat in the Illinois State Senate as a Democrat in 1996. During his years as a state senator, Obama worked with both Democrats and Republicans to draft legislation on ethics, as well as expand health care services and early childhood education programs for the poor. He also created a state earned-income tax credit for the working poor. As chairman of the Illinois Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee, Obama worked with law enforcement officials to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in all capital cases after a number of death-row inmates were found to be innocent.
In 2000, Obama made an unsuccessful Democratic primary run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat held by four-term incumbent candidate Bobby Rush. Undeterred, he created a campaign committee in 2002 and began raising funds to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate in 2004. With the help of political consultant David Axelrod, Obama began assessing his prospects for a Senate win.
Following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Obama was an early opponent of President George W. Bush’s push to go to war with Iraq. Obama was still a state senator when he spoke against a resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq during a rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza in October 2002. “I am not opposed to all wars. I’m opposed to dumb wars,” he said. “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.” Despite his protests, the Iraq War began in 2003.
Encouraged by poll numbers, Obama decided to run for the U.S. Senate open seat vacated by Republican Peter Fitzgerald in the 2004 Democratic primary. He defeated multimillionaire businessman Blair Hull and Illinois Comptroller Daniel Hynes with 52 percent of the vote.
That summer, he was invited to deliver the keynote speech in support of John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama emphasized the importance of unity and made veiled jabs at the Bush administration and the diversionary use of wedge issues.
After the convention, Obama returned to his U.S. Senate bid in Illinois. His opponent in the general election was supposed to be Republican primary winner Jack Ryan, a wealthy former investment banker. However, Ryan withdrew from the race in June 2004 following public disclosure of unsubstantiated sexual deviancy allegations by his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan.
In August 2004, diplomat and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes accepted the Republican nomination to replace Ryan. In three televised debates, Obama and Keyes expressed opposing views on stem cell research, abortion, gun control, school vouchers and tax cuts. In the November 2004 general election, Obama received 70 percent of the vote to Keyes’ 27 percent, the largest electoral victory in Illinois history. With his win, Obama became only the third African American elected to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction.
Sworn into office on January 3, 2005, Obama partnered with Republican Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana on a bill that expanded efforts to destroy weapons of mass destruction in Eastern Europe and Russia. Then, with Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, he created a website to track all federal spending. Obama also spoke out for victims of Hurricane Katrina, pushed for alternative energy development and championed improved veterans’ benefits.
Second Book: ‘The Audacity of Hope’
His second book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, was published in October 2006. The work discussed Obama’s visions for the future of America, many of which became talking points for his eventual presidential campaign. Shortly after its release, the book hit No. 1 on both the New York Times and Amazon’s best-seller lists.
2008 Presidential Election
In February 2007, Obama made headlines when he announced his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He was locked in a tight battle with former first lady and then-U.S. senator from New York Hillary Rodham Clinton. On June 3, 2008, Obama became the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee after winning a sufficient number of pledged delegates during the primaries, and Clinton delivered her full support to Obama for the duration of his campaign.
On November 4, 2008, Obama defeated Republican presidential nominee John McCain, 52.9 percent to 45.7 percent, to win election as the 44th president of the United States—and the first African American to hold this office. His running mate, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, became vice president.
Obama’s inauguration took place on January 20, 2009. When Obama took office, he inherited a global economic recession, two ongoing foreign wars and the lowest-ever international favorability rating for the United States.
He had campaigned on an ambitious agenda of financial reform, alternative energy and reinventing education and health care — all while bringing down the national debt. Because these issues were intertwined with the economic well-being of the nation, he believed all would have to be undertaken simultaneously.
During his inauguration speech, Obama summarized the situation by saying, “Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.”
First 100 Days and Nobel Peace Prize
Between Inauguration Day and April 29, 2009, the Obama administration took action on many fronts. For his efforts during his debut in office, the Nobel Committee in Norway awarded Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
In his first 100 days in office, Obama coaxed Congress to expand health care insurance for children and provide legal protection for women seeking equal pay. A $787 billion stimulus bill was passed to promote short-term economic growth. Housing and credit markets were put on life support, with a market-based plan to buy U.S. banks’ toxic assets. Loans were made to the auto industry, and new regulations were proposed for Wall Street.
Obama cut taxes for working families, small businesses and first-time home buyers. The president also loosened the ban on embryonic stem cell research and moved ahead with a $3.5 trillion budget plan.
Obama undertook a complete overhaul of America’s foreign policy. He reached out to improve relations with Europe, China and Russia and to open dialogue with Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. He lobbied allies to support a global economic stimulus package. He committed an additional 21,000 troops to Afghanistan and set an August 2010 date for withdrawal of nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq.
In more dramatic incidents, Obama ordered an attack on pirates off the coast of Somalia and prepared the nation for a swine flu outbreak. He signed an executive order banning excessive interrogation techniques and ordered the closing of the military detention facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba within a year (a deadline that ultimately would not be met).
As he did in 2008, during his campaign for a second presidential term, Obama focused on grassroots initiatives. Celebrities such as Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker aided the president’s campaign by hosting fundraising events.
“I guarantee you, we will move this country forward,” Obama stated in June 2012, at a campaign event in Maryland. “We will finish what we started. And we’ll remind the world just why it is that the United States of America is the greatest nation on Earth.”
In the 2012 election, Obama faced Republican opponent Mitt Romney and Romney’s vice-presidential running mate, U.S. Representative Paul Ryan. On November 6, 2012, Obama won a second four-year term as president by receiving nearly five million more votes than Romney and capturing more than 60 percent of the Electoral College.
Obama officially began his second term on January 21, 2013, when U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts administered the oath of office. In his inaugural address, Obama called the nation to action on such issues as climate change, health care and marriage equality to a crowd gathered in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
2014 Midterm Elections
In November 2014, Obama had to cope with new challenges on the home front. Republicans made an impressive showing on Election Day and gained a majority in the Senate, meaning that Obama would have to contend with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress for the final two years of his term.
Killing Osama bin Laden
On April 29, 2011, Obama gave the green light to a covert operation in Pakistan to track down the infamous al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks and had been in hiding for nearly 10 years. On May 2, 2011, an elite team of U.S. Navy SEALs raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and within 40 minutes killed bin Laden in a firefight. There were no American casualties, and the team was able to collect invaluable intelligence about the workings of al-Qaeda.
The same day, Obama announced bin Laden’s death on national television. “For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies. The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda,” Obama said. “As we do, we must also reaffirm that the United States is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.”
Chemical Attacks in Syria
Obama found himself grappling with an international crisis in late August and September 2013 when it was discovered that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against civilians. While saying that thousands of people, including over 400 children, had been killed in the chemical attacks, Obama called Syria’s actions “a serious national security threat to the United States and to the region, and as a consequence, Assad and Syria needs to be held accountable.”
The president worked to persuade Congress and the international community at large to take action against Syria but found a majority on Capitol Hill opposed to military involvement. Obama then announced an alternative solution on September 10, 2013, by stating that if al-Assad agreed with the stipulations outlined in a proposal made by Russia to give up its chemical weapons, then a direct strike against the nation could be avoided. Al-Assad acknowledged the possession of chemical weapons and ultimately accepted the Russian proposal.
Iran Nuclear Deal
In September 2013, Obama made diplomatic strides with Iran. He spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the phone, which marked the first direct contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 30 years.
This groundbreaking move by Obama was seen by many as a sign of thawing in the relationship between the United States and Iran. “The two of us discussed our ongoing efforts to reach an agreement over Iran’s nuclear program,” reported Obama at a press conference in which he expressed optimism that a deal could be reached to lift sanctions on Iran in return for that country’s willingness to halt its nuclear development program.
In July 2015, Obama announced that, after lengthy negotiations, the United States and five world powers had reached an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program. The deal would allow inspectors entry into Iran to make sure the country kept its pledge to limit its nuclear program and enrich uranium at a much lower level than would be needed for a nuclear weapon. In return, the U.S. and its partners would remove the tough sanctions imposed on Iran and allow the country to ramp up sales of oil and access frozen bank accounts.
As the administration began its effort to lobby Congress to endorse the deal, Obama made his first trip as president back to his father’s homeland of Kenya. In addition to having dinner with three-dozen relatives, some of whom he met for the very first time, Obama proudly proclaimed to a packed arena, “I am proud to be the first American president to come to Kenya—and of course I’m the first Kenyan-American to be president of the United States.”
President Trump’s Withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal
In 2018, President Donald Trump, Obama’s successor who was elected in November 2016, withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal put in place by Obama. He argued, with some evidence, that the country was exploiting the terms of the deal to build up its military and militias in the region, and that it would emerge with greater resources to make a nuclear weapon once the deal expired. He then began a campaign of “maximum pressure” economic sanctions to force Iran to accept permanent, comprehensive restrictions.
Iran responded by gradually increasing its uranium enrichment. In mid-2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had surpassed the uranium enrichment levels agreed on in 2015, bringing the nation closer to the development of an atomic bomb. European countries might in turn restore their own sanctions. Experts say the moves could push the U.S. and Iran closer to military confrontation.
Ukraine and Russia
Echoes of the Cold War also returned after civil unrest and protests in the capital city of Kiev led to the downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration in February 2014. Russian troops crossed into Ukraine to support pro-Russian forces and the annexation of the province of Crimea.
In response, Obama ordered sanctions targeting individuals and businesses considered by the U.S. government to be Ukraine agitators or involved in the Crimean crisis. “In 2014 we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders,” Obama stated. The president said the sanctions were taken in close coordination with European allies and gave the U.S. “the flexibility to adjust our response going forward based on Russia’s actions.”
ISIS Air Strikes
In August 2014, Obama ordered the first airstrikes against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which had seized large swathes of Iraq and Syria and conducted high-profile beheadings of foreign hostages. The following month, the U.S. launched its first attacks on ISIS targets in Syria, although the president pledged to keep combat troops out of the conflict. Several Arab countries joined the airstrikes against the extremist Islamic militant group.
“The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force,” Obama said in a speech to the United Nations. “So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”
Diplomatic Relations with Cuba
Obama flexed his presidential power in December 2014 by moving to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years. He and Cuban president Raul Castro announced the normalizing of diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961.
The policy change came after the exchange of American citizen Alan Gross and another unnamed American intelligence agent for three Cuban spies. In a speech at the White House, Obama explained that the dramatic shift in Cuban policy would “create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”
In renewing diplomatic ties with Cuba, Obama announced plans “to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba.” The long-standing U.S. economic embargo on Cuba, however, remained in effect and could only be removed with the approval of Congress. Leading Republicans—including Boehner, McConnell and Florida Senator Marco Rubio—all spoke out against Obama’s new Cuba policies.
On March 20, 2016, Obama became the first sitting American president to visit Cuba since 1928 as part of his larger program to establish greater cooperation between the two countries. Obama made the three-day visit with Michelle and their daughters Malia and Sasha.
At the top of the agenda during the milestone meeting between the two leaders were human rights, the U.S.’s economic embargo on Cuba and Guantanamo Bay. Following their first conversation at the Palace of the Revolution, Castro and Obama held a joint press conference broadcast on state television during which they fielded questions from the press. While they acknowledged its complexities, both also professed a shared optimism about the road ahead.
President Trump’s Travel Restrictions to Cuba
Travel to Cuba from the United States began to surge, with the U.S. becoming the second-largest source of travelers to the island nation behind Canada. In June 2019, President Trump banned ship and commercial airline travel into Cuba. The restrictions effectively banned all tourist travel to Cuba by prohibiting people-to-people educational travel.
The Trump administration said the move was in an effort to pressure the Cuban government to stop supporting Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro. Experts said it could cripple the economy and might therefore be an attempt to overthrow the regime of President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the hand-picked successor of Fidel Castro who took office in 2018.
India Nuclear Agreement
In 2015, Obama traveled to India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. According to several news reports, Obama and Modi had reached a “breakthrough understanding” regarding India’s nuclear power efforts.
Obama told the Indian people in a speech given in New Delhi that “we can finally move toward fully implementing our civil nuclear agreement, which will mean more reliable electricity for Indians and cleaner, non-carbon energy that helps fight climate change.” This agreement would also open the door to U.S. investment in India’s energy industry.
Meeting with Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
On March 10, 2016, Obama met at the White House with newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the first official visit by a Canadian leader in nearly 20 years.
Central among the topics addressed during their meeting—which also included trade, terrorism and border security—was climate change, with the two leaders promising a commitment to building an international “low-carbon global economy.”
Trudeau’s apparent concern for environmental issues and generally liberal agenda stand in contrast to his predecessor, Stephen Harper. Obama had strained relations with Harper due in part to Obama’s unwillingness to allow for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
President Obama’s Affordable Care Act
In spite of opposition from Congressional Republicans and the populist Tea Party movement, Obama signed his health care reform plan, known as the Affordable Care Act, into law in March 2010. The new law prohibited the denial of coverage based on pre-existing conditions, allowed citizens under 26 years old to be insured under parental plans, provided for free health screenings for certain citizens and expanded insurance coverage and access to medical care to millions of Americans.
Supreme Court Ruling on Individual Mandate
Obama gained a legal victory in June 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, which required citizens to purchase health insurance or pay a tax. In a 5-4 decision, the court decided the health care law’s signature provision fell within the taxation power granted to Congress under the Constitution.
Congressional Challenges to “Obamacare”
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act, which foes dubbed “Obamacare,” asserted that it added new costs to the country’s overblown budget, violated the Constitution with its requirement for individuals to obtain insurance and amounted to a “government takeover” of health care.
In October 2013, a dispute over the federal budget and Republican desires to defund or derail the Affordable Care Act caused a 16-day shutdown of the federal government. After a deal had been reached to end the shutdown, Obama used his weekly address to express his frustration over the situation and his desire for political reform: “The way business is done in Washington has to change. Now that these clouds of crisis and uncertainty have lifted, we need to focus on what the majority of Americans sent us here to do—grow the economy, create good jobs, strengthen the middle class, lay the foundation for broad-based prosperity, and get our fiscal house in order for the long haul.”
The Affordable Care Act continued to come under fire in October after the failed launch of HealthCare.gov, the website meant to allow people to find and purchase health insurance. Extra technical support was brought in to work on the troubled website, which was plagued with glitches for weeks.
The health care law was also blamed for some Americans losing their existing insurance policies, despite repeated assurances from Obama that such cancellations would not occur. According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama insisted that the insurance companies—and not his legislation—caused the coverage change. “Remember, before the Affordable Care Act, these bad-apple insurers had free rein every single year to limit the care that you received, or used minor pre-existing conditions to jack up your premiums, or bill you into bankruptcy,” he said.
Under mounting pressure, Obama found himself apologizing regarding some health care changes. In an interview with NBC News, he said of those who lost their insurance plans, “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.” Obama pledged to find a remedy to this problem, saying, “We are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”
In 2014, Speaker of the House John Boehner launched an effort to sue Obama for overstepping his executive powers with some of his actions regarding the Affordable Care Act.
Supreme Court Ruling on Health Care Tax Subsidies
In the summer of 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld part of the president’s Affordable Care Act regarding health care tax subsidies. Without these tax credits, buying medical insurance might have become too costly for millions of Americans.
Obamacare Repeal Attempts Under the Trump Administration
Throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, candidate Trump repeatedly promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act. In 2017, Congressional Republicans dropped the individual mandate tax penalty, which imposed a tax for not signing up for health insurance, to zero.
Texas and 17 other Republican states quickly sued to strike down the Affordable Care Act, mainly based on their opposition to its individual mandate. The 2012 Supreme Court ruling found that the individual mandate in and of itself was unconstitutional, but it could be allowed in this instance because the law as a whole was part of Congress’s right to impose taxes.