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Profile: U.S. President-Elect Barack Obama

  • Heather Maher

Barack Obama and his family celebrate victory in Chicago.

Barack Obama and his family celebrate victory in Chicago.

President-elect Barack Hussein Obama, who will be inaugurated on January 20, 2009, is a 47-year-old U.S. senator representing the state of Illinois.

The future 44th president of the United States was born on August 4, 1961, in Honolulu, Hawaii to parents who had met while studying at the University of Hawaii. His mother, Ann Dunham, was a white woman from Kansas, and his father, Barack Obama Sr., was a black man from Kenya.

When Obama was two, his parents split up and his father left to study at Harvard University. Obama would only seen him once more, briefly, when he was 10 years old. His mother's remarriage brought a move to Indonesia, where Obama attended elementary school. Her second divorce meant a return to Hawaii, when Obama was 10.

As a teenager, Obama was smart, but his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng has said that "he wasn't particularly driven or ambitious," instead preferring to play basketball and swim in the ocean.

When his mother's career as an anthropologist sent her back to Indonesia, Obama stayed in Hawaii to attend high school and was cared for by his maternal grandparents, Madelyn and Stanley. He has described his grandmother as "the cornerstone of my life." She died on November 2, just two days before he was elected president.

As an adolescent, Obama's interests included golf and cards, singing in the choir, but most of all, playing basketball.

In his memoir, "The Audacity Of Hope," Obama later recalled that basketball was a refuge for him -- a mixed-race teenager struggling with issues of identity.

"At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own," he wrote. "It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn't be a disadvantage."

Obama began his university studies at Occidental College in Los Angeles, where he took his first step into politics, speaking at an antiapartheid rally.

But he wanted more opportunities than the small university could offer, so he moved to New York and enrolled in Columbia University, graduating with a degree in political science. It was during these years that he has admitted using marijuana and cocaine -- drug use that he has called his "greatest moral failure."

It was also while he was living in New York that he learned that the father he had never really known had been killed in a car accident. Obama's first visit to Kenya was to visit his father's grave.

Organizing In Chicago

After New York, Obama made the decision to strike out into the unknown and take a job in Chicago as a community organizer who encouraged poor people to get involved in the political process to improve their lives.

He knew no one in Chicago and the job, on the rough, decrepit South Side of the city, paid very little.

For three years, Obama worked with church leaders and residents struggling with the loss of steel mill and factory jobs. He helped them pressure political leaders to improve public housing and fund job training. His co-workers remember him as "businesslike" and "respectful" with "incredible people skills."

The man who hired him, Gerald Kellman, remembers Obama as being "very effective at getting people who initially did not get work together and build alliances."

Obama has called his three years as a community organizer "the best education I've ever had."

Yet it also taught him that street-level victories are small compared to what he could change with more power. So he applied to, and got in, the country's most elite law school, Harvard. There, he made history as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, a distinction that brought him his first taste of publicity.

While working at a summer internship at a corporate law firm back in Chicago, Obama met his future wife, Michelle Robinson, who had graduated from Harvard Law School herself and was the daughter of working-class parents in Chicago.

They married in 1992 and have two daughters: Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

Entering Politics

As Obama was preparing to graduate from Harvard, he had his pick of lucrative jobs at law firms. He chose to return to Chicago, where he had already begun laying the groundwork for his political career.

He joined a small, politically connected law firm that specialized in civil rights issues, and he and Michelle moved to Hyde Park, a racially mixed neighborhood near the University of Chicago known for its progressive politics and intellectual spirit.

In what will no doubt be seen as a foreshadowing of his presidential campaign's get-out-the-vote success, Obama also worked for a voter-registration drive that added thousands of city residents to the voter rolls.

While he waited for an opportunity to run for elected office, Obama became a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, where he was popular with students and faculty.

He got his chance to enter politics in 1996, and won his first race: to the State Senate of Illinois. His mother didn't live long enough to see him elected; she died in 1995 of cancer.

In the statehouse, Obama made friends easily with his legislative colleagues, working well with representatives of inner-city Chicago as well as from rural parts of the state. He became known as a liberal who reached across party lines to work with conservatives.

He successfully passed legislation on ethics reform, expanding health care to poor children, and changing laws on racial profiling, the death penalty, and the interrogation of murder suspects.

National Stage

After almost eight years in state-level politics, Obama's ambition kicked in, and he began looking for an opportunity to run for national office. He found it in the 2004 race for U.S. Senate.

As he campaigned, the young, intelligent Obama began to attract the notice of prominent Democrats, including the party's presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, who asked him to deliver the keynote speech at that year's Democratic National Convention.

In Boston, Obama stunned the country with a nationally televised speech that urged Americans not to think of themselves as Republican or Democratic, conservative or liberal, but as united in love for their country and concern for each other.

"There is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there is the United States of America. There is not a black America, and a white America, and Latino America, and Asian America, there's the United States of America," he said.

"The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states -- red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats -- but I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states and we don't like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states.

"There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America."

The speech will always be remembered as Obama's "star turn" -- 17 minutes that took him from an obscure state lawmaker to a force in national politics.

He won his election to the U.S. Senate a few months later with 70 percent of the vote, and the suggestions began almost immediately that he should consider running for president.

In the Senate, where the partisan politics can be cutthroat, Obama quickly gained a reputation as a member with exceptional intelligence and an uncanny ability to bring opposing sides on an issue together.

He worked on legislation to reduce the threat from conventional weapons, to contain "loose nukes," and sponsored the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which supports divestment of state pension funds from Iran's oil and natural-gas industry. He also championed legislation to reform lobbying, reduce climate change, and improve care for military veterans.

On February 10, 2007, Obama stood on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois and announced that he was running for U.S. president. It was the same site where Abraham Lincoln delivered his historic "A House Divided Cannot Stand" speech in 1858.

And the rest, as they say, is history.