CHICAGO — It was just before midnight last November when Barack Obama stepped on stage in a darkened auditorium in Iowa, trailing in the polls, taking on one of the biggest names in Democratic politics and facing a make-or-break moment.
His star-making appearance at the Democratic National 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 — or the beginning.
The Democrats had gathered that night for the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines. Less than two months before the crucial first-in-the nation Iowa caucuses, the event could be pivotal for presidential hopefuls, a moment to outshine their opponents and wow the party faithful.
Good buzz, like a good Broadway review, travels fast.
And Barack Obama, savvy politician and skilled orator, was ready for his debut.
As the last candidate to speak, Obama, considered by some as too cool and cerebral, turned up the heat with a passionate appeal. He condemned the same “old Washington textbook campaigns,” chided fellow Democrats — 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 all fundraising records with a campaign that has collected more than $640 million, swatted away the he’s-too-inexperienced mantra voiced by seasoned rivals and made history by becoming the first black presidential nominee of a major party and the first African American president-elect.
His 22-month journey, improbable or not, ended with him in the White House.
Barack Obama’s life story has been unconventional from the start.
His biography — 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 — 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 close 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 of America. He has fended off countless rumors that he’s Muslim — for the record, he’s Christian — and this summer, he told the crowd at a Missouri fundraiser that 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.
By now, though, the first pages of Obama’s life story are well-known.
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 — “blessed” in Arabic — 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 Soetoro; 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. “He wasn’t part of student government. … He was a young man concerned with … hanging out with his buddies, playing basketball, body surfing and eating in excess.”
When his mother’s work as an anthropologist took her back to Indonesia, Obama — then known as Barry — stayed behind in Hawaii for high school, living with his maternal grandparents, Madelyn, known as Toot, short for tutu (Hawaiian for grandparent), and Stanley, or Gramps.
He played golf and poker, sang in the choir, wrote for the literary journal and listened to the music of Earth Wind & Fire. Most of all, he lived for basketball. He kept a photo of his hero, pro star Julius Erving, on his bedroom wall, played on the high school team (his nickname was Barry O’Bomber) and practiced his left-handed shot into the night, his grandmother watching from their 10th-floor apartment window.
For Obama — 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.”
His life was shaped by his circumstances: growing up without a father, and with a mother who was often far away.
“He ended up being the kind of man who would solve problems on his own,” Soetoro-Ng says. “He always has been a lone traveler. He’s a gregarious guy and he loves people, but … he doesn’t expect those closest to him to be all things to him.”
Some have suggested Obama’s cool demeanor may be a bit too chilly, but his half-sister rejects that notion.
“He understands what it means to be a regular guy,” Soetoro-Ng explains. “He is equal portions laid-back and deeply focused. He has a sense of humor. It’s not all fire inside of him. There are wide pools of water as well.”
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 was confident and casual on campus — he favored flip-flops, shorts and a trim Afro — and not one to dominate dorm discussions about political issues such as the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan.
“He didn’t get in people’s faces,” says Ken Sulzer, a dorm-mate who is now a California lawyer. “He wasn’t trying to get people’s goats or get a rise out of them.”
But Occidental was a small liberal arts college, and Obama wanted broader horizons. So he moved across the country to attend Columbia University in New York.
Obama graduated with a political science degree and held a few jobs in New York. It was there that he received a call from an aunt notifying him that his father had been killed in an auto accident. The news eventually led Obama on a journey to Kenya and a tearful visit to his father’s grave.
After New York, Obama moved to Chicago. He knew no one in the city and was stepping into a low-paying job with a formidable mission: motivating poor people to participate in a political system that had traditionally shut them out.
Chicago proved to be a much smarter move than it looked at first.(p2)
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