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Barack Obama


Lawyer, community leader, and the first African-American US President

Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 4, 1961. His black father, Barack Obama Sr., was born and raised in a small village in Kenya, where he grew up herding goats with his own father, who was a domestic servant to the British. His white mother, Ann Dunham, grew up in small-town Kansas. Her father worked on oil rigs during the Depression, and then signed up for World War II after Pearl Harbor, where he marched across Europe in Patton's army. Her mother went to work on a bomber assembly line. After the war, they moved to Hawaii. It was there, at the University of Hawaii, where Obama's parents met. His mother was a student, and his father had won a scholarship that allowed him to leave Kenya to pursue his dreams in America.

After Obama was born, Obama's father eventually returned to Kenya and his parents divorced. His mother married Lolo Soetoro, a student from Indonesia. In 1967, the family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where Obama's half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng was born. Obama attended schools in Jakarta, where classes were taught in the Indonesian language.

Four years later when Barack (commonly known throughout his early years as "Barry") was ten, he returned to Hawaii to live with his maternal grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, and later his mother (who died of ovarian cancer in 1995).

In his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama describes how he struggled to reconcile social perceptions of his multiracial heritage. He saw his biological father (who died in a 1982 car accident) only once (in 1971) after his parents divorced.

After high school, Obama studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles for two years. He then transferred to Columbia University in New York, graduating in 1983 with a degree in political science.

Remembering the values of empathy and service that his mother taught him, Obama put law school and corporate life on hold after college and moved to Chicago in 1985, where he became a community organizer with a church-based group seeking to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods plagued with crime and high unemployment.

The group had some success, but Obama realized that in order to truly improve the lives of people in that community and other communities, it would take not just a change at the local level, but a change in laws and politics. He went on to earn his law degree from Harvard in 1991, where he became the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. Soon after, he returned to Chicago to practice as a civil rights lawyer and teach constitutional law.

Obama met his wife, Michelle, in 1988 when he was a summer associate at the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin. They were married in October, 1992 and have two daughters, Malia (born 1998) and Sasha (born 2001).

Obama's advocacy work led him to run for the Illinois State Senate, where he served for eight years. In 2004, he became the third African-American since Reconstruction to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

He gave a pivotal keynote speech in support of then Presidential candidate John Kerry at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Obama emphasized the importance of unity: "We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states, and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq, and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

Obama's approach to politics is a nonpartisan one based on commonalities. He believes in the ability to unite people around a politics of purpose – a politics that puts solving the challenges of everyday Americans ahead of partisan calculation and political gain.

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 US Senator from New York, Hillary Rodham Clinton, until he became the presumptive nominee in June, 2008. In November, 2008, after a long campaign that received world-wide attention, he won over John McCain to become President of the United States.

It's interesting that Obama was raised in Hawaii. If you go to the beach or a local fast food restaurant in Hawaii, the people you see are Chinese Americans, African Americans, semi-Southeast Asians and others who could be any of the above. Hawaii isn't really eastern or western, but a vibrant mingling of the two. Obama reflects the diversity of the world, how much it's changed over the last century. And he struggles with many of the questions that challenge the US and the world: How to make peace between the black and the white inside him (and inside American cities and the country)? How to do right by the relatives with such high expectations in Africa, where his father was born, without dishonoring the grandparents from Kansas who helped raise him? How to bring the modest Muslim school in Indonesia together with Harvard Law School at which he got his law degree. The questions Barack Obama has been struggling with all his life are the questions the world wrestles with at this moment in history.

Obama has said he has been inspired by the work of people like Martin Luther King Jr. At a 2007 Selma Voting Rights March Commemoration he said, "I'm here because somebody marched. I'm here because you all sacrificed for me. I stand on the shoulders of giants."

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