in full Barack Hussein Obama II
born Aug. 4, 1961, Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S.
44th president of the United States (2009– ) and the first African American to hold the office. Before winning the presidency, Obama represented Illinois in the U.S. Senate (2005–08). He was the third African American to be elected to that body since the end of Reconstruction (1877). In 2009 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” (On the eve of Obama’s inauguration, journalist David Mendell, author of Britannica’s biography of Obama and of the book Obama: From Promise to Power, answered a few questions about the new U.S. president on the Britannica Blog.)
Obama’s father, Barack Obama, Sr., was a teenage goatherd in rural Kenya, won a scholarship to study in the United States, and eventually became a senior economist in the Kenyan government. Obama’s mother, S. Ann Dunham, grew up in Kansas, Texas, and Washington state before her family settled in Honolulu. In 1961 she and Barack Sr. met in a Russian language class at the University of Hawaii and married less than a year later.
When Obama was age two, Barack Sr. left to study at Harvard University; shortly thereafter, in 1964, Ann and Barack Sr. divorced. (Obama saw his father only one more time, during a brief visit when Obama was 10.) Later Ann remarried, this time to another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro from Indonesia, with whom she had a second child, Maya. Obama lived for several years in Jakarta with his half sister, mother, and stepfather. While there, Obama attended both a government-run school where he received some instruction in Islam and a Catholic private school where he took part in Christian schooling.
He returned to Hawaii in 1971 and lived in a modest apartment, sometimes with his grandparents and sometimes with his mother (she remained for a time in Indonesia, returned to Hawaii, and then went abroad again—partly to pursue work on a Ph.D.—before divorcing Soetoro in 1980). For a brief period his mother was aided by government food stamps, but the family mostly lived a middle-class existence. In 1979 Obama graduated from Punahou School, an elite college preparatory academy in Honolulu.
Obama attended Occidental College in suburban Los Angeles for two years and then transferred to Columbia University in New York City, where in 1983 he received a bachelor’s degree in political science. Influenced by professors who pushed him to take his studies more seriously, Obama experienced great intellectual growth during college and for a couple of years thereafter. He led a rather ascetic life and read works of literature and philosophy by William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche, Toni Morrison, and others. After serving for a couple of years as a writer and editor for Business International Corp., a research, publishing, and consulting firm in Manhattan, he took a position in 1985 as a community organizer on Chicago’s largely impoverished Far South Side. He returned to school three years later and graduated magna cum laude in 1991 from Harvard University’s law school, where he was the first African American to serve as president of the Harvard Law Review. While a summer associate in 1989 at the Chicago law firm of Sidley Austin, Obama had met Chicago native Michelle Robinson, a young lawyer at the firm. The two married in 1992.
After receiving his law degree, Obama moved to Chicago and became active in the Democratic Party. He organized Project Vote, a drive that registered tens of thousands of African Americans on voting rolls and that is credited with helping Democrat Bill Clinton win Illinois and capture the presidency in 1992. The effort also helped make Carol Moseley Braun, an Illinois state legislator, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. During this period, Obama wrote his first book and saw it published. The memoir, Dreams from My Father (1995), is the story of Obama’s search for his biracial identity by tracing the lives of his now-deceased father and his extended family in Kenya. Obama lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago and worked as an attorney on civil rights issues.
Politics and ascent to the presidency
In 1996 he was elected to the Illinois Senate, where, most notably, he helped pass legislation that tightened campaign finance regulations, expanded health care to poor families, and reformed criminal justice and welfare laws. In 2004 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, defeating Republican Alan Keyes in the first U.S. Senate race in which the two leading candidates were African Americans. While campaigning for the U.S. Senate, Obama gained national recognition by delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in July 2004. The speech wove a personal narrative of Obama’s biography with the theme that all Americans are connected in ways that transcend political, cultural, and geographical differences. (See primary source document: Keynote Address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.) The address lifted Obama’s once obscure memoir onto best-seller lists, and, after taking office the following year, Obama quickly became a major figure in his party. A trip to visit his father’s home in Kenya in August 2006 gained international media attention, and Obama’s star continued ascending. His second book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), a mainstream polemic on his vision for the United States, was published weeks later, instantly becoming a major best seller. In February 2007 he announced at the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Ill., where Abraham Lincoln had served as a state legislator, that he would seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2008. (For coverage of the 2008 election, see United States Presidential Election of 2008.)
Obama’s personal charisma, stirring oratory, and his campaign promise to bring change to the established political system resonated with many Democrats, especially young and minority voters. On Jan. 3, 2008, Obama won a surprise victory in the first major nominating contest, the Iowa caucus, over Sen. Hillary Clinton, who was the overwhelming favourite to win the nomination. Five days later, however, Obama finished second to Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, and a bruising—and sometimes bitter—primary race ensued. Obama won more than a dozen states—including Illinois, his home state, and Missouri, a traditional political bellwether—on Super Tuesday, February 5. No clear front-runner for the nomination emerged, however, as Clinton won many states with large populations, such as California and New York. Obama produced an impressive string of victories later in the month, handily winning the 11 primaries and caucuses that immediately followed Super Tuesday, which gave him a significant lead in pledged delegates. His momentum slowed in early March when Clinton won significant victories in Ohio and Texas. Though still maintaining his edge in delegates, Obama lost the key Pennsylvania primary on April 22. Two weeks later he lost a close contest in Indiana but won the North Carolina primary by a large margin, widening his delegate lead over Clinton. She initially had a big lead in so-called superdelegates (Democratic Party officials allocated votes at the convention that were unaffiliated with state primary results), but, with Obama winning more states and actual delegates, many peeled away from her and went to Obama. On June 3, following the final primaries in Montana and South Dakota, the number of delegates pledged to Obama surpassed the total necessary to claim the Democratic nomination.
On August 27 Obama became the first African American to be nominated for the presidency by either major party and went on to challenge Republican Sen. John McCain for the country’s highest office. McCain criticized Obama, still a first-term senator, as being too inexperienced for the job. To counter, Obama selected Joe Biden, a veteran senator from Delaware who had a long resume of foreign policy expertise, to be his vice presidential running mate. Obama and McCain waged a fierce and expensive contest. Obama, still bolstered by a fever of popular support, eschewed federal financing of his campaign and raised hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it coming in small donations and over the Internet from a record number of donors. Obama’s fund-raising advantage helped him buy massive amounts of television advertising and organize deep grassroots organizations in key battleground states and in states that had voted Republican in previous presidential cycles.
The two candidates offered a stark ideological choice for voters. Obama called for a swift withdrawal of most combat forces from Iraq and a restructuring of tax policy that would bring more relief to lower- and middle-class voters, while McCain said the United States must wait for full victory in Iraq and charged that Obama’s rhetoric was long on eloquence but short on substance. Just weeks before election day, Obama’s campaign seized on the economic meltdown that had resulted from the catastrophic failure of U.S. banks and financial institutions in September, calling it a result of the Republican free-market-driven policies of the eight-year administration of George W. Bush.
Obama won the election, capturing nearly 53 percent of the popular vote and 365 electoral votes. Not only did he hold all the states that John Kerry had won in the 2004 election, but he also captured a number of states (e.g., Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia) that the Republicans had carried in the previous two presidential elections. On election night tens of thousands gathered in Chicago’s Grant Park to see Obama claim victory. (See primary source document: 2008 Victory Speech.) Shortly after his win, Obama resigned from the Senate. On Jan. 20, 2009, hundreds of thousands turned out in Washington, D.C., to witness Obama taking the oath of office as president. (See primary source document: Inaugural Address.)
The economic crisis that emerged in 2008 and prompted a rescue of the financial industry with up to $700 billion in government funds (see Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008) resulted in Obama pushing through—aided by large Democratic majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives—a $787 billion stimulus package. By the third quarter of 2009 the plan had succeeded in reversing the dramatic decline in GDP, resulting in 2.2 percent positive growth on a per annum basis. However, unemployment, which stood at 7.2 percent when Obama entered office, had risen to about 10 percent, and Republicans complained that the stimulus package cost too much, having swelled the federal deficit to $1.42 trillion.
In an effort to improve the image of the United States abroad—which many believed had been much damaged during the Bush administration—Obama took a number of steps that indicated a significant shift in tone. He signed an executive order that banned excessive interrogation techniques; ordered the closing of the controversial military detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, within a year (a deadline that was not met); proposed a “fresh start” to strained relations with Russia; and traveled to Cairo in June 2009 to deliver a historic speech in which he reached out to the Muslim world. Largely as a result of these efforts, Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. Yet some left-wing critics complained that he actually had adopted and even escalated most of the war and national security policies of his predecessor. Indeed, when Obama accepted the Nobel Prize in December, he said, “Evil does exist in the world” and “there will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.” Notwithstanding that tough talk, there were others who criticized Obama for issuing only a mild condemnation of the Iranian government’s crackdown on prodemocracy dissidents following a disputed election in June 2009. Moreover, the Obama administration’s handling of national security was questioned by some when a Nigerian terrorist trained in Yemen was thwarted in an attempt to bomb an airliner headed for Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009.
For all of Obama’s efforts at rapprochement with much of the world, he, like George W. Bush, was a wartime president. With the situation in Iraq continuing to improve and the target date for ending U.S. combat operations there approaching, in February 2009 Obama increased the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan to 68,000 troops. Throughout his presidential campaign he had argued that the focus of U.S. military efforts should be in Afghanistan rather than in Iraq, and with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan the military requested that Obama deploy an additional 40,000 troops there. After carefully weighing the situation for three months, Obama choose to send an additional 30,000 troops, a decision that was criticized by many in his party. Many columnists and political cartoonists were quick to see parallels between the potential pitfalls prolonged involvement in Afghanistan held for Obama’s ambitious plans for social legislation and the way in which the Vietnam War had undermined Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to build the Great Society.
After enjoying soaring popularity early in his term, Obama became the target of increasing criticism, largely due to the slow pace of economic recovery and continued high unemployment rates but also because of widespread opposition to Democratic efforts to reform health care insurance policy, the signature issue of the Obama presidential campaign. Obama had entered office promising to bring an end to partisan squabbling and legislative gridlock, yet, in the wake of the failure to obtain any real bipartisan cooperation, congressional Democrats, according to Republicans, had settled into governing without substantive Republican involvement. Republicans, on the other hand, according to Democrats, had become the “Party of No,” seeking to obstruct Democratic legislative initiatives without offering real alternative proposals. It was in this highly polarized environment that Obama and the Democrats attempted to enact health care insurance reform.
Health care reform, popular with Americans during the election, became less so as legislators presented the proposed changes to their constituents in town hall meetings in summer 2009 that sometimes erupted into shouting matches between those with opposing viewpoints. It was at this time that the populist Tea Party movement, comprising libertarian-minded conservatives, emerged in opposition to the Democratic health care proposals but more generally in opposition to what they saw as excessive taxes and government involvement in the private sector. Republicans across the board complained that Democratic proposals constituted a “government takeover” of health care that would prove too costly and mortgage the future of generations to come. Their opposition to the Democratic plans was virtually lockstep.
In many respects the president left the initiative for health care reform in the hands of congressional leaders. House Democrats responded in November 2009 by passing a bill that called for sweeping reform, including the creation of a “public option,” a lower-cost government-run program that would act as competition for private insurance companies. The Senate was more deliberate in its consideration. Obama seemed to let conservative Democrat Sen. Max Baucus take the lead in that body at the head of the “Group of Six,” comprising three Republican and three Democratic senators. The resulting bill that was passed by the Senate (barely surviving a filibuster attempt by Republicans by holding the allegiance of all 58 Democrats plus independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut) proved to provide far fewer changes than its House counterpart, most notably leaving out the public option. Before a compromise could be reached on the two bills, the triumph of Republican Scott Brown in a special election for the seat formerly held by Sen. Ted Kennedy destroyed the Democrats’ filibuster-proof majority. Many Democrats believed this meant that they would have to start over, as Republicans had been demanding.
Obama and other Democratic leaders, especially Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, thought otherwise and continued to push for passage. Obama went on the offensive, skillfully moderating a nationally telecast summit of Republicans and Democrats at which the pros and cons of the Democratic proposals were debated. He also took his case outside the Beltway, in speech after speech, emphasizing the message that health care was a right and not a privilege and increasingly sharpening his criticism of the insurance industry. In March 2010, in an attempt to win the support of Democrats in the House who opposed the legislation because they felt it would weaken limitations on abortion funding, Obama promised to sign an executive order guaranteeing that it would not. With that crucial group on board, Pelosi confidently brought the Senate bill to the House floor for a special vote on Sunday night March 21. The bill passed 219–212 (34 Democrats and all the Republicans voted against it) and was followed by passage of a second bill that proposed “fixes” for the Senate bill. Democrats planned to employ the relatively infrequently used procedure known as reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority for passage, to get these fixes through the Senate. Speaking on television shortly after the House vote, Obama told the country, “This is what change looks like.”
On March 23 Obama signed the bill into law. Senate Republican efforts to force another House vote on the bill of proposed fixes included the introduction of more than 40 amendments that were voted down along party lines. Ultimately, on March 25, the Senate voted 56–43 to pass the bill, which, because of procedural violations in some of its language, had to be returned to the House, where it passed again by a vote of 220–207. No Republicans in either house voted for the bill.
The legislation would, once all its elements had taken effect over the next four years, prohibit denial of coverage on the basis of preexisting conditions and extend health care to some 30 million previously uninsured Americans. The bill made the attainment of health care insurance mandatory for all citizens, but it also called for a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans that would largely bankroll subsidies for premium payments for families earning less than $88,000 per year. Moreover, the bill promised a tax credit to small businesses that provide coverage for their employees. In some corners the bill was considered an unconstitutional “government takeover” of an industry representing one-sixth of the economy, and in others it was hailed as legislation as monumental as that which had come out of the civil rights movement.
The table provides a series of photographs from Pres. Barack Obama’s inauguration.
Barack Obama: Inauguration 2009
January 18 and 19, 2009
January 20, 2009
The table provides a list of cabinet members in the administration of Pres. Barack Obama.
Cabinet of President Barack Obama
January 20, 2009–
Secretary of State
Secretary of the Treasury
Secretary of Defense
Secretary of the Interior
Secretary of Agriculture
Secretary of Commerce
Secretary of Labor
Secretary of Health and Human Services
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Secretary of Transportation
Secretary of Energy
Secretary of Education
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Secretary of Homeland Security