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How Barack Obama Became President

Our "Paths to the Presidency" series concludes with a look at the current occupant of the White House, Barack Hussein Obama II. Unless you're a birther, you know that Barack Obama was born at Kapiʻolani Maternity & Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Hawaii, the first President to have been born outside of the continental United States. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, was born in Wichita, Kansas, while his father, Barack Obama, Sr., was born in Kenya. Obama's parents met in 1960 in a Russian class at the University of Hawaii, where his father was a foreign student on scholarship. The couple married in Wailuku on Maui on February 2, 1961, and separated in late August 1961, just after their son's birth. Obama's mother moved with their newborn son to attend the University of Washington in Seattle for one year, while Obama, Sr. completed his undergraduate economics degree and then left to attend graduate school at Harvard University on a scholarship. Obama's parents divorced in March 1964. Obama Sr. returned to Kenya in 1964 where he remarried. He died in an automobile accident in 1982 when his son was 21 years old.


In 1963, Stanley Ann Dunham met Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student at the University of Hawaii, and the couple were married on Molokai on March 15, 1965. Lolo returned to Indonesia in 1966. Sixteen months later he was joined by his wife and stepson. The family lived in Jakarta and Barack Obama attended local Indonesian-language schools, supplemented by homeschooling by his mother.

Obama returned to Honolulu in 1971 to live with his maternal grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley Dunham, and with the aid of a scholarship attended Punahou School, a private college preparatory school. He graduated from high school in 1979. Obama stayed in Hawaii with his grandparents when his mother and sister returned to Indonesia in 1975. His mother remained in Indonesia, earning a PhD in 1992. She died in 1995 in Hawaii from ovarian cancer and uterine cancer.

In his autobiography, Obama has also written about experimenting with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine during his teenage years. After high school, Obama moved to Los Angeles in 1979 where he attended Occidental College. In mid-1981, he traveled to Indonesia to visit his mother and half-sister Maya, and visited the families of college friends in Pakistan and India for three weeks. In the fall of 1981, he transferred as a junior to Columbia College, Columbia University in New York City, where he majored in political science with a specialty in international relations. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1983 and worked for a year at the Business International Corporation and then at the New York Public Interest Research Group.

In 1985 Obama was hired as director of the Developing Communities Project, a Chicago church-based community organization covering eight Catholic parishes in Chicago's South Side. He worked as a community organizer from June 1985 to May 1988. He also worked as a consultant and instructor for the Gamaliel Foundation, a community organizing institute. In mid-1988, he traveled to Europe for three weeks and then for five weeks in Kenya, where he met many of his paternal relatives.

Obama entered Harvard Law School in the fall of 1988. He was chosen as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year, president of the journal in his second year, and research assistant to the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe for two years. During his summers, he returned to Chicago, where he worked as an associate at the law firms of Sidley Austin in 1989 and Hopkins & Sutter in 1990. He graduated from Harvard with a J.D. magna cum laude in 1991, and returned to Chicago. His election as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review gained national media attention. Obama signed a publishing contract for a book about race relations. The book ultimately became his memoir entitled Dreams from My Father.

In 1991, Obama accepted a two-year teaching position at the University of Chicago Law School. He then taught constitutional law there for twelve years, first as a Lecturer from 1992 to 1996, and then as a Senior Lecturer from 1996 to 2004. From April to October 1992, Obama directed Illinois's Project Vote, a voter registration campaign. The program met its goal of registering 150,000 of 400,000 unregistered African Americans in the state.

Obama joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a 13-attorney law firm specializing in civil rights litigation. He was an associate with the firm for three years from 1993 to 1996, then he was listed as "of counsel" from 1996 to 2004. From 1994 to 2002, Obama served on the boards of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago, a foundation that funded the Developing Communities Project. He also served on the board of directors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge from 1995 to 2002, as founding president and chairman of the board of directors from 1995 to 1999.

Obama was ran for and was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996, as Senator from Illinois's 13th District. His district spanned Chicago South Side neighborhoods from Hyde Park to South Shore and west to Chicago Lawn. In 2001, he was a co-chairman of the bipartisan Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, and supported Republican Governor Ryan's predatory mortgage lending regulations aimed at averting home foreclosures. He was reelected to the Illinois Senate in 1998, and again in 2002. In 2000, he lost a Democratic primary race for Illinois's 1st congressional district in the United States House of Representatives to four-term incumbent Bobby Rush by a margin of two to one.

In January 2003, Obama became chairman of the Illinois Senate's Health and Human Services Committee. He sponsored bipartisan passage of legislation to monitor racial profiling by requiring police to record the race of drivers they detained, as well as legislation making Illinois the first state to require videotaping of homicide suspect interrogations. Obama resigned from the Illinois Senate in November 2004 following his election to the U.S. Senate.

In May 2002, Obama began raising funds for a 2004 United States Senate race. He lined up political media consultant David Axelrod and formally announced his candidacy in January 2003. Obama was an early opponent of the George W. Bush administration's 2003 invasion of Iraq. On October 2, 2002, the day President Bush and Congress agreed on the joint resolution authorizing the Iraq War, Obama spoke out against the war at a large Chicago anti-Iraq War rally. The primary contest involving a large number of candidates. But in the March 2004 primary election, Obama won in an unexpected landslide.

In July 2004, Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. The speech was well received and was viewed by a television audience of 9.1 million viewers. The speech elevated his profile within the Democratic Party.

Obama's expected opponent in the general election, Republican primary winner Jack Ryan, withdrew from the race in June 2004. Ryan was replaced by Alan Keyes, an African-American conservative Republican. Obama prevailed in the November 2004 senate election, winning 70 percent of the vote.

Obama was sworn in as a senator on January 3, 2005. He became the only Senate member of the Congressional Black Caucus. While in the Senate, Obama cosponsored the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act. He introduced the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act of 2006, which establised USAspending.gov, a web search engine on federal spending. On June 3, 2008, Senators Barack Obama, Tom Carper, Tom Coburn, and John McCain introduced the Strengthening Transparency and Accountability in Federal Spending Act of 2008. He also sponsored legislation that would have required nuclear plant owners to notify state and local authorities of radioactive leaks, but the bill failed to pass in the Senate. He voted for the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005 and the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which grants immunity from civil liability to telecommunications companies complicit with NSA warrantless wiretapping operations. Senator Obama also introduced two unsuccessful bills: the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act to criminalize deceptive practices in federal elections, and the Iraq War De-Escalation Act of 2007. He sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act supporting divestment of state pension funds from Iran's oil and gas industry, which was did not get out of committee.

Obama held assignments on the Senate Committees for Foreign Relations, Environment and Public Works and Veterans' Affairs through December 2006. In January 2007, he left the Environment and Public Works committee and took additional assignments with Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. He also became Chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on European Affairs. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Obama made official trips to Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa. He met with Mahmoud Abbas before Abbas became President of the Palestinian National Authority, and gave a speech at the University of Nairobi in which he condemned corruption within the Kenyan government.

On February 10, 2007, Obama announced his candidacy for President of the United States. He made the announcement in front of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, where Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic "House Divided" speech in 1858. Obama emphasized issues of rapidly ending the Iraq War, increasing energy independence, and reforming the health care system.

A large number of candidates entered the Democratic Party presidential primaries, but the field ultimately narrowed to a duel between Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The race remaining close throughout the primary process but with Obama gaining a steady lead in pledged delegates. On June 7, 2008, Clinton ended her campaign and endorsed Obama.

On August 23, Obama announced his selection of Delaware Senator Joe Biden as his vice presidential running mate. At the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, Hillary Clinton called for her supporters to endorse Obama, and she and Bill Clinton gave convention speeches calling for support for Obama. His acceptance speech, delivered at Invesco Field at Mile High to a crowd of over 75,000, was viewed by over 38 million people worldwide.

During both the primaries and the general election, Obama's campaign set fundraising records, particularly in the quantity of small donations. On June 19, 2008, Obama became the first major-party presidential candidate to turn down public financing in the general election since the system was created in 1976.


Arizona Senator John McCain was nominated as the Republican candidate. The two candidates engaged in three presidential debates in September and October 2008. McCain's campaign was hamstrung by a financial crisis in October, although Obama had led opinion polls throughout the race. On November 4, Obama won the presidency with 365 electoral votes to 173 for McCain. Obama received 52.9% of the popular vote, compared to 45.7% for McCain. Barack Obama became the first African American to be elected president. He delivered his victory speech before hundreds of thousands of supporters in Chicago's Grant Park.


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