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. 

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.”

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.”

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.

Illinois Senator

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.

Inauguration

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.