The first Hawaiian born, mixed race, African American President: Barack Obama is the Nobel Prize winning, top terrorist killing, same sex marriage supporting, two terms Republican nightmare.
KENYA MEETS KANSAS
Barack Hussein Obama was born in the two year old US state of Hawaii to a white American mother and a black Kenyan father. Obama Sr. grew up herding goats in a small Kenyan village where school was a tin-roof shack. Obama Sr. married and had one son. But in 1959, Obama Sr. left his newborn son and his again pregnant wife for a scholarship at the University of Hawaii. This would not be the last time ambition came before family. It was there that the University’s first black student met the Kansas born, Ann Dunham. Despite the differences in their personalities, Obama Sr. was an assured intellectual whereas Ann was awkward and shy, the couple married. At the time, Ann was three months pregnant. Obama Sr. lied to her that he’d divorced his African wife and mother of four of his children. Six months later, in Honolulu, on 4 August 1961, Barack Obama was born.
But Obama Sr. again put academia before his second family by leaving for a Harvard scholarship. Ann was just 20 when he left. Barack was just two. Obama Sr. and Ann soon separated and in 1964, she filed for divorce.
Ann met another student, Lolo Soetoro. They married and after two years moved to Soetoro’s native Indonesia in 1967. From the relative affluence of Hawaii, the six year old Barack was now confronted every day on his doorstep with the extreme poverty of a Third World country. Within six months, Barack was fluent in the local language. Each day started at 4am with his mother waking him to give him additional English lessons before Catholic school. His Muslim stepfather taught him everything from how to change a flat tyre to opening in chess. He imbued Barack with the values of Islam but didn’t convert him. His mother Ann was raised Christian but taught her son to be sceptical of religion.
In 1970, his mother had a daughter. When he was ten, Barack returned to Hawaii with his mother where he secured a scholarship. There was just one other black student at his school.
Barack’s father visited him just once.
DRUGS, DRINK & MALCOLM X
When Barack’s mother returned to Indonesia, her parents raised him. His grandparents tried their best during his basketball playing teenage years which often saw drinking and drug use, including marijuana and ‘blow’, American slang for cocaine. Politically, he was attracted more to Malcolm X than Martin Luther King. In 1979, Barack enrolled at college in Los Angeles. His mother divorced Soetoro.
THE STUDENT YEARS
Finally based in America, Obama transferred to New York to study political science at Columbia University. In 1982, he received news of his father’s death in a car accident in Africa. After over a year in the corporate sector, in 1985, Obama moved to Chicago and did three years as a community organiser. In a place devastated by steel plant closures, he represented the unemployed and homeless. And every year there, he saw how gun violence cost the lives of scores of children and hundreds of others.
It was there that he attended a sermon by the radical Reverend Jeremiah Wright. It caused him to weep. (Entitled ‘The Audacity to Hope’, he adapted it for his breakthrough speech at the Democratic Convention and for his second book.) At the time, Obama seriously considered becoming a preacher.
Instead, he went to Harvard Law School. He hoped it would enable him to achieve the things that grass roots activism couldn’t. Before beginning his studies, he went to Kenya to meet his father’s family and better understand his African heritage. Back in America, in 1988 he met his future wife Michelle Robinson, at that time an attorney. A descendent of slaves, she was immersed in the issue of race. And as her best friend was the daughter of the civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, she could introduce Barack to the Democratic political classes.
FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT
In 1990, Obama became President. Albeit the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. For the first time, Obama made the news nationally. In 1992, he ran a voter registration campaign which secured 100,000 new voters, mostly from the African American community. It helped elect the first female African American Senator. That same year he married Michelle. They would later have two daughters, Malia and Sasha.
In 1994, his mother Ann was diagnosed with cancer. Ann moved back to Hawaii to live near Obama’s now widowed grandmother. His grandmother buried her daughter in 1995. Ann’s difficulty in paying for her medical bills as she died directly informed her son’s later attempts to reform the American health care system. That year, on the back of his rising profile, Obama published his first book, ‘Dreams from My Father’.
RISE AND DEFEAT
In 1996, Obama was elected as State Senator for Illinois from the 13th district, which encompassed mostly impoverished areas of Chicago's south side. To secure the position, he had to defeat a former ally. Such actions showed he had the political muscle to take power. In 1999, unlike his father had done, Obama put his family first when his daughter became ill. In staying with her, he missed a crucial vote on gun control. Partly as a result of his absence, the gun control measure failed. It would cost him, and others, dearly.
In 2000, Obama took on former Black Panther, Bobby Rush, a well known fourth term incumbent, in the Democratic primaries for the US House of Representatives. Rush destroyed him. Obama later said his earlier gun vote absence had eliminated any slim chance he had of victory. Rush’s son had been shot the year before by a drug dealer. Some, however, believed Obama’s absence was career motivated. Back then, few professional American politicians progressed very far with a hard line on gun ownership. Rush would be the last politician to beat Obama in an election.
‘THERE IS THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA’
In 2003, Obama launched his campaign to be elected to the US Senate. An early opponent of the Iraq war, he impressed potential President John Kerry enough to be invited to give the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 2004. In it, the 42 year old Obama explicitly rejected the division of America into blue liberal and red conservative states. Instead of an America divided into Democrat and Republican states, he said he believed only that ‘there is the United States of America’. Obama went on to win his Senate seat by a landslide of 70 per cent against his Republican rival. Obama was sworn in as senator in 2005.
As a senator, Obama served on the Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee. One of the first laws he helps pass allows voters to go online and see where their taxes are spent.
As a candidate in the Democratic Primaries in 2007, Obama went head to head with Hillary Clinton. In 2008, he won. The Republican he then had to beat was the elderly war vet John McCain. McCain countered the novelty appeal of Obama by for the first time ever, making the Republican Vice President nominee a woman. But Sarah Palin was even more inexperienced than Obama. And Obama’s mere two years in the Senate wasn’t an issue for a young electorate weary of two terms of George W Bush.
As McCain withered, and Palin imploded, Obama gained ground. Significant victories included Ohio, a virtually all white state. The day before the Presidency was announced, Obama’s grandmother, the woman who had raised him during his difficult teenage years, died from cancer.
BYE-BYE PRESIDENT BUSH
On 4 November 2008, Obama made history. He secured 52.9 per cent of the popular vote. The new President assembled his team making his old adversary, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state.
Within days he ordered the military to start preparing to withdraw from Iraq, a war started by Bush. He also reversed Bush’s ban on federal funding to foreign establishments allowing abortion. He would also later reverse Bush’s limitations on funding stem cell research and repeal a two decade old law of 'Don't Ask Don't Tell' that banned openly gay people from the military. And in a country where many deny climate change, Obama championed alternative energy. But ever the politician, he saved the troubled car industry, securing jobs: And future votes.
‘GIVE ME YOUR TIRED, YOUR POOR...’
...is an extract from the poem engraved in the Statue of Liberty. But in the world’s wealthiest nation 49 million live below the poverty line. Nearly 1.5 million children are homeless. And almost one in seven Americans are without health insurance. Health reform, including the reduction in ballooning costs, was one of Obama’s key election promises.
In 2009, despite huge opposition, he covered an additional four million uninsured children with healthcare provisions. But in 2010 the Republicans retook the House of Representatives - where federal legislation is passed- ensuring other reforms could either be blocked or neutered.
OBAMA V OSAMA
In his first Presidential year, Obama had been named as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. And he did indeed end the American mission in Iraq. This, however, was no pacifist President.
In 2011, he ordered the revenge killing of the architect of 9/11, Osama Bin Laden. And partly through the controversial use of drone attacks, Obama would come close to strategically defeating al-Qaeda. His intervention in Libya, unlike Bush’s, had international support, and again unlike Bush, relied on air power rather than ‘boots on the ground’. It directly led to the fall of Gaddafi.
But American elections are largely decided on domestic issues, not foreign. His support of gay marriage won over many of his supporters but further alienated many Republicans. And despite inheriting the worst economic crisis since the 1929 Depression, many thought it would be the stagnating economy that would lose him the 2012 election.
Obama’s Republican rival was the business millionaire, and ex Mormon missionary, Mitt Romney. It was expected to be close. It wasn’t.
Romney’s business past proved to be a liability rather than an asset. Obama’s team painted him as part of the elite that had put the country into decline and then profited from the recession. Then there were further questions over Romney’s tax returns. And Romney was further damaged when it was alleged that he’d been connected to the outsourcing of American jobs to foreign countries. And whereas Obama sought to unite, Romney was revealed to believe in divisions with his comments that he believed nearly half the country were dependent on state aid.
In November 2012, Obama again won.
I’LL GIVE YOU MY GUN WHEN...
...you pry it from my cold, dead hands’ was a saying popularised by the hugely influential National Rifle Association. The NRA lobbies for the Second Amendments right to ‘bear arms’. In December 2012, the saying again became a grim reality after Adam Lanza shot dead 20 children, six staff, and then himself, at the suburban Sandy Hook Elementary School. The atrocity joined a long list of school spree killings.
When Obama called for gun reform the NRA responded with a call to arm teachers. Then in January 2013, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15 year old girl was shot dead near Obama’s home. The week before she’d performed at his second inauguration. Her killing highlighted the huge urban death toll from guns even in a state with some of America’s strictest gun laws. His reforms called for a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks on gun license applications.
Obama is the first President in well over a century to come from an urban background and to see gun reform through the prism of the city, rather than the countryside. But the hugely popular gun lobby argues that America protected its first families, established its independence and helped free the Western world from Nazism and totalitarian Communism, all at the point of a gun.
Obama took on healthcare reform in his first term in one of the world’s worst recessions and gun control in his second when Republicans had rarely felt so defensive. Few believed he could achieve his goals.
But it wouldn’t be the first time that America’s first African American President achieves the seemingly impossible.