Biography of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States

Barack Obama

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Barack Obama (born August 4, 1961) is an American politician who served as the 44th president of the United States, the first Black man to do so. Prior to that, he was a civil rights lawyer, constitutional law professor, and U.S. senator from Illinois. As president, Obama oversaw the passage of several notable pieces of legislation, including the Affordable Care Act (also known as "Obamacare") and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Fast Facts: Barack Obama

  • Known For: Obama was the 44th president of the United States
  • Born: Aug. 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii
  • Parents: Barack Obama Sr. and Ann Dunham
  • Education: Occidental College, Columbia University (B.A.), Harvard University (J.D.)
  • Awards and Honors: Nobel Peace Prize
  • Spouse: Michelle Robinson Obama (m. 1992)
  • Children: Malia, Sasha
  • Notable Quote: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America."

Early Life

Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii, to a White mother and a Black father. His mother Ann Dunham was an anthropologist, and his father Barack Obama Sr. was an economist. They met while studying at the University of Hawaii. The couple divorced in 1964 and Obama Sr. returned to his native Kenya to work for the government. He rarely saw his son after this separation.

In 1967, Barack Obama moved with his mother to Jakarta, where he lived for four years. At the age of 10, he returned to Hawaii to be raised by his maternal grandparents while his mother completed fieldwork in Indonesia. After finishing high school, Obama went on to study at Occidental College, where he gave his first public speech—a call for the school to divest from South Africa in protest of the country's system of apartheid. In 1981, Obama transferred to Columbia University, where he graduated with a degree in political science and English literature.

In 1988, Obama began studying at Harvard Law School. He became the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990 and spent his summers working at law firms in Chicago. He graduated magna cum laude in 1991.

Marriage

Michelle and Barack Obama

Michelle Obama / Twitter

Obama married Michelle LaVaughn Robinson—a lawyer from Chicago he met while he was working in the city—on October 3, 1992. Together they have two children, Malia and Sasha. In her 2018 memoir "Becoming," Michelle Obama described their marriage as "a full-on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one, with the well-being of a family taking precedence over any one agenda or goal.” Barack supported Michelle when she chose to leave private law for public service, and she supported him when he decided to enter politics.

Career Before Politics

Upon graduating from Columbia University, Barack Obama worked at Business International Corporation and then at the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonpartisan political organization. He then moved to Chicago and became director of the Developing Communities Project. After law school, Obama wrote his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," which was widely acclaimed by critics and other writers, including Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.

Obama worked as a community organizer and taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School for 12 years. He also worked as a lawyer during this same period. In 1996, Obama made his foray into political life as a member of the Illinois State Senate. He supported bipartisan efforts to improve health care and increase tax credits for child care. Obama was reelected to the State Senate in 1998 and again in 2002.

U.S. Senate

In 2004, Obama launched a campaign for U.S. Senate. He positioned himself as a progressive and an opponent of the Iraq War. Obama won a decisive victory in November with 70% of the vote and was sworn in as a U.S. senator in January 2005. As a senator, Obama served on five committees and chaired the European Affairs subcommittee. He sponsored legislation to expand Pell grants, provide support for victims of Hurricane Katrina, improve the safety of consumer products, and reduce homelessness among veterans.

By now, Obama was a national figure and a rising star in the Democratic Party, having delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. In 2006, Obama released his second book, "The Audacity of Hope," which became a New York Times bestseller.

2008 Election

michelle obama dress and jewelry election night
President elect Barack Obama and wife Michelle at his victory speech during an election night gathering in Grant Park on November 4, 2008 in Chicago, Illinois.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Obama began his run for U.S. president in February 2007. He was nominated after a very close primary race against key opponent Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. senator from New York and a future U.S. secretary of state, who was also the wife of former president Bill Clinton. Obama chose then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden to be his running mate. The two campaigned on a platform of hope and change; Obama made ending the Iraq War and passing health care reform his primary issues. His campaign was notable for its digital strategy and fundraising efforts. With support from small donors and activists across the nation, the campaign raised a record $750 million. Obama's main opponent in the presidential race was Republican Sen. John McCain. In the end, Obama won 365 electoral votes and 52.9% of the popular vote.

First Term

obama-bush.jpg
Former U.S. President George W. Bush walks on the colonnade with then President-elect Barack Obama at the White House on November 10, 2008.

Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Within the first 100 days of his presidency, Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a piece of legislation designed to address the worst effects of the Great Recession. The Recovery Act was a stimulus package that injected about $800 billion into the economy through tax incentives for individuals and businesses, infrastructure investment, aid for low-income workers, and scientific research. Leading economists broadly agreed that this stimulus spending helped reduce unemployment and avert further economic challenges.

Obama's signature achievement—the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as "Obamacare")—was passed on March 23, 2010. The legislation was designed to ensure that all Americans have access to affordable health insurance by subsidizing those who meet certain income requirements. At the time of its passage, the bill was quite controversial. In fact, it came before the Supreme Court, which ruled in 2012 that it was not unconstitutional.

By the end of 2010, Obama had also added two new judges to the Supreme Court—Sonia Sotomayor, who was confirmed on August 6, 2009, and Elena Kagan, who was confirmed on August 5, 2010. Both are members of the court's liberal wing.

On May 1, 2011, Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, was killed during a Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan. This was a major victory for Obama, winning him praise across party lines. "The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda," Obama said in a public address to the nation. "Today’s achievement is a testament to the greatness of our country and the determination of the American people."

2012 Reelection

Obama launched his campaign for reelection in 2011. His main challenger was Republican Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts. To make use of growing social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the Obama campaign hired a team of tech workers to build digital campaign tools. The election centered on domestic issues, including health care and Social Security, and in many ways was a referendum on the Obama administration's response to the Great Recession. In November 2012, Obama defeated Romney with 332 electoral votes and 51.1% of the popular vote. Obama called the victory a vote for "action, not politics as usual," and promised to work on bipartisan proposals to improve the American economy.

Second Term

President Barack Obama takes his second-term oath of office
President Barack Obama takes his second-term oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts. First Lady Michelle Obama holds two Bibles, one from Martin Luther King, Jr., the other from Abraham Lincoln.

Sonya N. Hebert / The White House

During his second term as president, Obama focused on new challenges facing the country. In 2013, he organized a group to begin negotiations with Iran. An agreement was reached in 2015 in which the United States would lift sanctions and steps would be taken to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, Obama signed a series of executive orders designed to reduce gun violence. He also voiced support for more comprehensive background checks and a ban on assault weapons. In a press conference at the White House, Obama said, "If there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we've got an obligation to try."

In June 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that marriage equality is protected under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This was a major milestone in the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. Obama called the ruling a "victory for America."

In July 2013, Obama announced that the United States had negotiated plans to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba. The following year, he became the first American president to visit the country since Calvin Coolidge did so in 1928. The shift in U.S.-Cuba relations—dubbed the Cuban thaw—was met with approval by many political leaders around the world.

Obama also had a number of accomplishments in climate change and environmentalism in general. The Environmental Defense Fund noted his top accomplishments, stating that Obama:

  • Made progress on the national climate: "His Clean Power Plan was the first-ever national limit on
    carbon pollution from its largest source," the EDF stated.
  • Completed an international climate agreement: "(His) work with China led to a long-sought global agreement among 195 nations to reduce climate pollution," according to the EDF.
  • Mandated cleaner cars and trucks: "Obama’s EPA moved on in his second term to tackling truck emissions, reining in methane leaks from the oil and gas industry and updating energy efficiency standards for home appliances," Marianne Lavelle wrote in a 2016 article published on the website Inside Climate News.

Additionally, the EDF noted, Obama mandated pollution limits on power plants, made clean-energy investments (such as in wind and solar power technology and companies); signed "the first major environmental law in two decades, passed with bipartisan support, fixing our broken chemical safety system;" established systems to increase sustainable agriculture, western water, and protect endangered species; implemented laws that reduced overfishing and led to a rebound of fisheries in U.S. waters; and designated 19 national monuments—"more than any of his predecessors"—thus preserving "260 million acres for future generations."

Facing Racism

In "A Promised Land," a 768-page autobiography (the first volume in a planned two-volume set) published in November 2020, which covers his early years through most of his first term as president, Obama wrote surprisingly little about the racism he personally faced growing up and during his political career—except as it was experienced by Michelle and his daughters. But, reflecting on his experiences as a young man, Obama wrote that at one point in his presidency he reflected on:

"The multiple occasions when I'd been asked for my student ID while walking to the library on (Columbia University's) campus, something that never seemed to happen to my white classmates. The unmerited traffic stops while visiting certain 'nice' Chicago neighborhoods. Being followed around by department store security guards while doing my Christmas shopping. The sound of car locks clicking as I walked across the street, dressed in a suit and tie, in the middle of the day.
"Moments like these were routine among Black friends, acquaintances, guys in the barbershop. If you were poor, or working-class, or lived in a rough neighborhood, or didn't properly signify being a respectable Negro, the stories were usually worse."

Just a few of countless examples of racism that Obama faced over the years include:

The birther debate: Obama was dogged throughout his presidency by rumors that he was not an American by birth. Indeed, Donald Trump boosted his own rise to power by fueling this discredited rumor. The “birthers”—as the people spreading this rumor are known—say that he was born in Kenya. Although Obama’s mother was a White American and his father was a Black Kenyan national. His parents, however, met and married in the United States, which is why the birther conspiracy has been deemed equal parts silly and racist.

Political caricatures: Before and after his presidential election, Obama was depicted as subhuman in graphics, email, and posters. He was portrayed as a shoeshine man, an Islamic terrorist, and a chimp, to name a few. The image of his altered face has been shown on a product called Obama Waffles in the manner of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben.

The “Obama is a Muslim” conspiracy: Much like the birther debate, the debate over whether Obama is a practicing Muslim appears to be racially tinged. While the president did spend some of his youth in the predominantly Muslim country of Indonesia, there’s no evidence that he has practiced Islam. In fact, Obama has said that neither his mother nor his father was particularly religious.

The racist tropes morphed into concerns over potential threats of physical violence and even assassination when Obama ran for president in 2008. "There were concerns about his security that were very real and very dark," David M. Axelrod, chief strategist for Obama's presidential campaigns said, referring to the increased racism and threats Obama faced after he won the Iowa Caucus in 2008 and become the frontrunner for the 2008 presidential nomination.

In the first installment of a television documentary series called "First Ladies," which covered the experiences of Michelle Obama, CNN noted that Obama and his family were "given a security detail earlier than any other presidential candidate in history." In that same segment, Van Jones, a CNN political commentator, stated:

"There was a resignation in the Black community, that you cannot rise up without being chopped down... Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.), if you come from the Black community, almost every hero you read about was killed."

And, it wasn't only Barack who came under attack. After Michelle began to campaign for her husband, she had to withstand withering racist tropes—along with Barack. After the couple did a fist bump during one campaign stop, a number of people in the media, according to CNN, began to call the couple "jihadists," a derogatory term for a Muslim who advocates for or participates in a holy war waged on behalf of Islam. One television network began to refer to Michelle as Barack Obama's "baby mama," according to the CNN report. Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor at Georgetown University, noted:

"Michelle Obama was met with every single stereotype about African-American women magnified by a million."

According to the CNN report, and Michelle Obama, herself, in her autobiography, "Becoming," many people and those in the media began to use the "easy trope of the angry Black woman" to try to humiliate her. As Michelle Obama wrote about her experience on the campaign trail and after becoming first lady:

"I've been held up as the most powerful woman in the world and taken down as an 'angry black woman.' I've wanted to ask my detractors which part of that phrase matters to them the most—is it 'angry' or 'black' or 'woman?'"

And the family only suffered more racism and threats once Obama was president. As Obama told NPR in 2015 referring to the racism he faced once he held the nation's highest office:

"If you are referring to specific strains in the Republican Party that suggest that somehow I’m different, I’m Muslim, I’m disloyal to the country, etc., which unfortunately is pretty far out there and gets some traction in certain pockets of the Republican Party, and that have been articulated by some of their elected officials, what I’d say there is that that’s probably pretty specific to me and who I am and my background, and that in some ways I may represent change that worries them."

Michelle Obama was more direct in describing the intense, daily onslaught of racism and threats the family faced during Barack's presidency. Michelle, and Barack in his biography "A Promised Land," talked about the sometimes daily threats and racist insults the family experienced, but Michelle was a particular target, singled out for insults. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported in 2017 on what Michelle Obama told a crowd of 8,500:

"Asked which of the falling glass shards cut the deepest, she said: 'The ones that intended to cut,' referencing an incident in which a West Virginia county employee called her an 'ape in heels,' as well as people not taking her seriously because of her colour. 'Knowing that after eight years of working really hard for this country, there are still people who won’t see me for what I am because of my skin colour.'”

Key Speeches

Barack Obama giving a speech

Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Obama gave a number of important speeches during his two terms as president, Mark Greenberg and David M. Tait reprinted some of the key speeches, in the book, "Obama: The Historic Presidency of Barack Obama: 2,920 Days":

Victory speech: Obama told a crowd in Grant Park In Chicago on November 4, 2008, during his election night victory speech: "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible...tonight is your answer."

Inaugural address: Obama told a record 1.8 million people gathered in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2009: "(O)ur patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth."

On the death of Osama bin Laden: Obama announced bin Laden's death at the White House on May 3, 2011, stating: "On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood....On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family." Obama also announced: "Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against (a) compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan (where bin Laden was living)....After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body."

On marriage equality: Obama spoke in the White House rose garden on July 26, 2015, stating: "This morning, the Supreme Court recognized that the Constitution guarantees marriage equality." On the POTUS Twitter account, Obama added; "Gay and lesbian couples now have the right to marry, just like everyone else."

On the Affordable Care Act: Obama addressed a crowd at Miami Dade College on October 20, 2016, six years after the passage of the act, telling listeners, "...never in American history has the uninsured rate been lower than it is today....It's dropped among women, among Latinos and African Americans, (and in) every other demographic group. It's worked."

On climate change: In a speech Obama gave at Georgetown University in June 2013, the president declared: "I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why, today, I'm announcing a new national climate action plan, and I'm here to enlist your generation's help in keeping the United States of America a leader—a global leader—in the fight against climate change. This plan builds on the progress that we've already made. Last year, I took office—the year that I took office, my administration pledged to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions by about 17 percent from their 2005 levels by the end of this decade. And we rolled up our sleeves and we got to work. We doubled the electricity we generated from wind and the sun. We doubled the mileage our cars will get on a gallon of gas by the middle of the next decade."

On the Shoulders of Others

President Barack Obama remembering Bloody Sunday in Selma.
President Barack Obama commemorates the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday on March 7, 2015, in Selma, Alabama.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Obama is the first Black man to not only be nominated by a major political party but also to win the presidency of the United States. Though Obama was the first to win the office, there were many other notable Black men, and women, who sought the office. US News & World Report compiled this list of just a few of the contenders:

Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress and represented the 12th congressional District of New York for seven terms. She ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, becoming the first Black person and the first Black woman to run for the office on a major party ticket, as well as the first woman to win delegates for a presidential nomination by a major party.

Rev. Jesse Jackson ran for president in the Democratic primary in 1984, becoming the second Black person to do so (after Chisholm), winning one-fourth of the votes and one-eighth of the convention delegates before losing the nomination to Walter Mondale. Jackson ran again in 1988 ran again, receiving 1,218 delegate votes but lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis. Though unsuccessful, Jackson's two presidential campaigns laid the groundwork for Obama to become president two decades later.

Lenora Fulani "ran as an independent (in 1988) and was the first Black woman to appear on presidential ballots in all 50 states. She also ran in 1992," US News noted.

Alan Keyes "served in the (Ronald) Reagan administration (and) campaigned for the Republican nomination in 1996 and 2000," according to US News, adding that he "also lost to Barack Obama in their race for a Senate seat in 2004."

Carol Moseley Braun, a U.S. senator, "briefly sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004," US News wrote.

Rev. Al Sharpton, a "New York-based activist campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination" in 2004, US News reported.

Additionally, Frederick Douglass, a North American 19th-century Black activist and advocate for women's rights, ran for president in 1872 on the Equal Rights Party ticket.

Legacy

A Promised Land

Amazon

Obama, in his run, campaigned as an agent of change. It may be too early to fully discuss Obama's legacy as of January 2021—more than four years after he left office. Elaine C. Kamarck, the director of the Center for Effective Public Management at the Brookings Institution, a liberal think tank based in Washington, D.C., was not glowing in her review of Obama, published in 2018:

"It becomes clearer every day that Barack Obama, a historic president, presided over a somewhat less than historic presidency. With only one major legislative achievement (Obamacare)—and a fragile one at that—the legacy of Obama’s presidency mainly rests on its tremendous symbolic importance and the fate of a patchwork of executive actions."

But historians note that the very fact that Obama was the first Black man to hold the office of president of the United States, was a huge door-opener for the country. H.W. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, stated:

"The single undeniable aspect of Obama’s legacy is that he demonstrated that a Black man can become president of the United States. This accomplishment will inform the first line in his obituary and will earn him assured mention in every American history textbook written from now to eternity."

However, there were negative, or unanticipated, consequences of Obama's election as the first Black U.S. president. Several studies have shown that as a result of Obama's election the public's perception of racism in the U.S. dropped, which, in turn, may have made it more difficult to approve funding or gain support for much-needed social programs. A study published in May 2009 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found:

"Americans may also use Obama’s victory as a justification for further legitimizing the current status hierarchy and for blaming Black Americans for their disadvantaged position in society....These justifications may result in the failure to examine structural aspects of society that lead to profound disadvantages for minorities (e.g., failing schools in predominately minority neighborhoods)."

A similar study, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, in May 2011, stated:

"A representative panel study of Americans interviewed immediately before and after the (2008) election reveals a roughly 10 percent decline in perceptions of racial discrimination. About one quarter of respondents revised their perceptions of discrimination downward."

Indeed, in the area of race in the United States, Obama has faced criticism that he did not do as much as he should, or could, have. Michelle Alexander in "The New Jim Crow, 10th Anniversary Edition," published in January 2020, said that Obama was:

"...a man who embraced the rhetoric (though not the politics) of the Civil Rights movement.... (and) it sometimes appeared that Obama was reluctant to acknowledge the depth and breadth of the structural changes required to address police violence and the prevailing systems of racial and social control."

Alexander noted that while Obama was the first sitting president to visit a federal prison and "oversee a drop in the federal prison population" (which she said is disproportionately represented by Black people, particularly Black men), he greatly increased deportations of undocumented immigrants and his administration oversaw a large expansion of facilities to detain these immigrants.

In response to these criticisms, Obama acknowledged the need for reforms in the criminal justice system and on racial equality in general. He told NPR's Steve Inskeep in 2016:

 "I—what I would say is that the Black Lives Matter movement has been hugely important in getting all of America to—to see the challenges in the criminal justice system differently. And I could not be prouder of the activism that has been involved. And it's making a difference."

But in terms of his own legacy on these issues, Obama argued the importance of understanding political realities when pushing for change:

"I'm constantly reminding young people, who are full of passion, that I want them to keep their passion, but they've got to gird for the fact that it takes a long time to get stuff done in this democracy."

Other historians note that Obama "brought stability to the economy, to the job market, to the housing market, to the auto industry and to the banks," as Doris Kearns Goodwin, presidential historian and author of bestselling biographies, noted in an article in Time magazine. Kearns also said that Obama brought "tremendous progress" to the LGBTQ+ community, and helped initiate an era of cultural change—which is a major legacy in and of itself.

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Voting America.” Presidential Elections 1972 - 2008, dsl.richmond.edu.

  2. Osama Bin Laden Dead.” National Archives and Records Administration.

  3. Glass, Andrew. “Obama Handily Wins a Second Term: Nov. 6, 2012.” POLITICO, 6 Nov. 2015.

  4. “Remarks by the President on the Supreme Court Decision on Marriage Equality.” National Archives and Records Administration, 26 June 2015.

  5. Greenberg, Mark and Tait, David M. Obama: the Historic Presidency of Barack Obama - 2,920 Days. Sterling Publishing Co., 2019

  6. Kamarck, Elaine. “The Fragile Legacy of Barack Obama.” Brookings, Brookings, 6 Apr. 2018.

  7. Staff, TIME. “President Barack Obamas Legacy: 10 Historians Weigh In.” Time, Time, 20 Jan. 201.

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Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States." ThoughtCo, Oct. 18, 2021, thoughtco.com/barack-obama-president-of-united-states-104366. Kelly, Martin. (2021, October 18). Biography of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/barack-obama-president-of-united-states-104366 Kelly, Martin. "Biography of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/barack-obama-president-of-united-states-104366 (accessed October 21, 2021).