Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States and the first African-American to be elected. During his campaign, he frequently referred to his inheritance of rewards earned from the work and sacrifices of his family and past leaders. Recognizing his success as a step forward in a journey begun long ago, supporters often recited the phrase, “Rosa sat so Martin could walk. Martin walked so Obama could run. Obama runs so our children can fly.” In an open letter he wrote to his own children, daughters Malia and Sasha, Obama expressed his vision for a nation that reaches “beyond the divides of race and region, gender and religion that keep us from seeing the best in each other.” His victory and vast appeal may represent the dawn of that vision; one shared by millions. It is the culmination of a dream of generations. He was born August 4, 1961 in Honolulu, Hawaii, to Ann Dunham. He was named Barack Hussein Obama II, after his father, who was from Nyang’oma Kogelo, Nyanza Province, Kenya.
As a child, Barack was known as “Barry” and attended schools in Hawaii, and in Jakarta, Indonesia. Following high school, he moved to Los Angeles to attend Occidental College. Two years later, he transferred to Columbia University in New York City, and majored in political science and international relations. In 1983, he graduated with a B.A. Five years later, he entered Harvard Law School, and was selected as an editor of the Harvard Law Review at the end of his first year, the first African American to hold the post. The following year, he was elected president of the journal. During his summers, he worked as a summer associate at two Chicago law firms. At the law firm of Sidley Austin, Obama met his wife, Michelle Robinson, in 1989.
In 1991, he graduated from Harvard magna cum laude with a Juris Doctor, and returned to Chicago to work as a community organizer. The same year, he became engaged to Michelle. They married on October 3, 1992. While he practiced as a civil rights attorney, he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004. From 1997 to 2004, he served in the Illinois Senate. The Obamas welcomed their first daughter, Malia Ann, in 1998. In 2000, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives but lost. His daughter Natasha was born in 2001. In July 2004, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention and months later, was elected to the Senate.
As a Democratic member of the 109th Congress, Obama helped create laws restricting guns and upholding public accountability for federal funds. During the 110th Congress, he helped create environmental legislation, laws addressing lobbying and electoral fraud, and post-combat care for U.S. military personnel. Obama was the junior U.S. Senator from the 13th district of Illinois from January 3, 2005.
But Obama’s hope for change and ambition were greater: On February 10, 2007, at the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois, where in 1858, Abraham Lincoln made his “House Divided” speech, Barack Obama announced his candidacy for President. With the Montana and South Dakota primaries on June 3, 2008, Obama secured enough delegates to earn the nomination of the Democratic Party. On August 23, the Obama campaign announced that Senator Joe Biden of Delaware would be the Vice Presidential nominee. Four days later, Obama became the official nominee of the Democratic Party for the 2008 election, the first African American in American history to run on a major party ticket.
His campaign emphasized his patriotism and hope for just change, and it was marked by integrity and resistance to running negative ads. During the summer of 2008, the campaign trail took him to Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. He met with several international leaders, including Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, King Abdullah II of Jordan, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. In Germany, he met Chancellor Angela Merkel and at Berlin’s Victory Column, spoke to a crowd of more than 200,000 people.
On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the general election with 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173. He won 53 percent of the popular vote, and became the first Democrat to carry the state of Virginia since 1964. Many cities throughout the nation, as well as internationally, responded to his election with celebrations. Here in Richmond, Broad Street filled with revelers who sang and cheered in celebration. Obama delivered his victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, joined by his family. Hundreds of thousands who’d gathered cheered his declaration: “Change has come to America.”
—by Cesca Janece Waterfield