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Election: Barack Obama: ‘Improbable’ journey into history

By Sharon Cohen
Associated PressCHICAGO ó It was just before midnight last November when Barack Obama stepped on stage in an auditorium in Iowa, trailing in the polls, taking on one of the biggest names in Democratic politics
His star-making turn when he had introduced himself to America at the Democratic convention in 2004 was a fading memory, his 9-month-old presidential campaign had been lackluster at times. Iowa, he knew, could be the end ó or the beginning.
Democrats had gathered that night for the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. And Barack Obama, savvy politician and skilled orator, was ready for his debut.
As the last candidate to speak, Obama turned up the heat. He condemned the same “old Washington textbook campaigns,” chided fellow Democrats ó and even took an indirect swipe at then-frontrunner Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“I am not in this race to fulfill some long-held ambitions or because I believe it’s somehow owed to me,” he declared. “I never expected to be here. I always knew this journey was improbable. I’ve never been on a journey that wasn’t.”
The crowd of thousands stood and cheered. He was on his way.
In the year since, Obama, a freshman U.S. senator, has vanquished a Democratic powerhouse, shattered fundraising records, swatted away the he’s-too-inexperienced mantra and made history by becoming the first black nominee of a major party.
His 22-month journey has put him within reach of the White House.
From the start
Barack Obama’s life story has been unconventional from the start.
His biography ó white mother, African father, a childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia, working in one of the nation’s poorest communities, studying and teaching at some of America’s most prestigious universities ó is unlike that of any other presidential candidate.
“He has this unusual combination of life experiences that don’t fit in any stereotype,” says Valerie Jarrett, his friend and adviser. “He has something in common with everyone.”
If his eclectic background has fueled his extraordinary rise, his foreign-sounding name and race also have made his candidacy a tough sell in some corners. He has fended off rumors that he’s Muslim (he’s Christian) and he has said he knows it’s “a leap” electing a black man with his name.
His wife, Michelle, recently echoed that on CBS’ “Early Show.”
“A guy named Barack Obama, who is a young, beginning-to-be-known candidate is always an underdog,” she said.
The first pages of Obama’s life story are well-known by now. His Kansas-born mother, Stanley (her father wanted a boy) Ann Dunham. His Kenyan-born father, Barack Obama Sr. Their meeting at the University of Hawaii, their marriage, the birth of Barack ó “blessed” in Arabic ó on Aug. 4, 1961. The father’s departure two years later to study at Harvard, his return just once when his son was 10.
The exotic childhood in Indonesia, homeland of his stepfather, Lolo Soetero; the exposure to Third World poverty, disease and beggars.
And then, after his mother’s second marriage broke up, the return to Hawaii. There was little hint then that politics was his destiny.
As a teen, Obama was smart and well-read, but “he wasn’t particularly driven or ambitious,” says his half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng.
When his mother’s work as an anthropologist took her back to Indonesia, Obama ó then known as Barry ó stayed behind for high school, living with his grandparents.
He played golf and poker, sang in the choir, wrote for the literary journal and listened to Earth Wind & Fire. Most of all, he lived for basketball. He played on the high school team (“Barry O’Bomber”) and practiced his left-handed pump shot into the night. For a biracial kid struggling with his identity, basketball was a refuge.
“At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own,” Obama later wrote. “It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage.”
After high school, Obama entered Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he started using his birth name, Barack, and took his first plunge into politics, speaking at an anti-apartheid rally.
Obama wanted broader horizons, so he moved across the country to attend Columbia University in New York. He graduated with a political science degree.
After New York, Obama moved to Chicago. He stepped into a low-paying job with a formidable mission: motivating poor people to participate in a political system that had traditionally shut them out.
Mobilize people
Obama had a beat-up Honda and a city map to navigate the streets as a community organizer on the South Side, a cluster of poor neighborhoods ravaged by the loss of steel mills and factory jobs.
Working for the Developing Communities Project, Obama met with black pastors and tried to mobilize people to agitate for themselves ó whether it was lobbying for a job training center or cleaning up public housing.
He quickly won over skeptics, says Loretta Augustine-Herron, one of the project founders. “He looked so young and tender,” she recalls. “But he was very businesslike, very respectful..”
He joined Trinity United Church of Christ and became friends with its pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose comments about race and America would later raise questions about Obama’s judgment. (Obama no longer attends the church.)
Obama took a giant leap from the South Side to the heady atmosphere of Harvard Law School. He made history as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.
Obama worked one summer at a law firm in Chicago where his adviser was Michelle Robinson, another Harvard law graduate.They later married and had two daughters. As Obama prepared to leave Harvard, job offers poured in. But he would return to Chicago for a political career.
State lawmaker
He joined a small, politically connected law firm that did civil rights litigation. He and Michelle lived in Hyde Park, the racially mixed neighborhood around the University of Chicago.
He made many acquaintances in Hyde Park, but none proved more troublesome during the campaign than Bill Ayers, a professor who was co-founder of the Weather Underground, an anti-Vietnam war group that claimed responsibility for bombing government buildings.
The two served on the boards of two civic organizations, and Ayers hosted a meet-the-candidate session during Obama’s first legislative race. That connection has prompted repeated attacks from Republicans, who claim it demonstrates flaws in Obama’s character. By all accounts, the two men are not close, and Obama has condemned his radical past.
Obama became a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. In 1996, when Obama was elected to the state Senate, some lawmakers dismissed him as an ivory tower liberal.
He had several legislative successes after his party took control of the Senate. He passed measures that limited lobbyists’ gifts to politicians, helped expand health care to poor children and changed laws governing racial profiling, the death penalty and the interrogation of murder suspects.
Obama stumbled badly, though, in 2000 when he challenged Rep. Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther with deep roots in the community. Rush crushed him in the primary.
Two years later, Obama eyed another office: U.S. Senate. He won a crowded primary and emerged as a rising star, impressing Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, who tapped him for the keynote speech at the 2004 convention.
Oratorical sizzleIn 22 months on the campaign trail, Obama has walked a fine line, presenting himself to America as a fresh face and an outsider ó but with the knowledge and mettle needed for the White House.
He has rallied huge crowds with inspiring words and vows to bring change to the calcified ways of Washington, even as critics have tried to cast him as a celebrity whose oratorical sizzle conceals a thin resume.
But in a series of debates ó including three with McCain ó Obama proved adept and skilled at answering questions and offering proposals about health care, the financial bailout and Iraq, among other issues.
And his approach to dealing with the Wall Street meltdown earned a much ballyhooed endorsement from Colin Powell, the former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, who praised Obama’s “steadiness … (and) depth of knowledge.”

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