When Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president, it was clear that, if elected, he would make history as the first African American to hold the office. But few could have imagined that the 44th president would face our gravest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Soon after entering the White House, Obama marveled that the vexing American struggle in Iraq had come to seem the "least" of his problems.
The nation's Founding Fathers always hoped that our leadership would not be limited to Americans of wealth or family connections. Subject to the prejudices of their time—many of them owned slaves—most would not have foreseen an African American president. But there is no doubt that they would view Barack Obama's election as evidence that after more than two centuries, the American system was still open to fresh talent.
Obama's father, Barack Sr., a Kenyan economist, met his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, when both were students at the University of Hawaii. She was an idealist fascinated by other cultures; her Kansas family dated to the American Revolution. Two years after Barack Jr.'s birth in 1961, they parted. Young Barack followed his mother and her Indonesian second husband to Djakarta, then returned to Honolulu to live with his maternal grandparents and attend Punahou School on scholarship.
In his memoir Dreams from My Father (1996), Obama describes the complexities of discovering his identity in adolescence. After two years at Occidental College in Los Angeles, he transferred to Columbia University, where he studied political science and international relations. Following his graduation in 1983, Obama spent two years working in New York City, first in business and then at a public interest organization, then became a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, working with churches to improve housing conditions and set up job training programs in a community devastated by steel mill closures. In 1988, he went to Harvard Law School, where he attracted national attention as the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. Returning to Chicago, he eschewed lucrative offers and instead joined a small law firm specializing in civil rights.
In 1992, Obama married Michelle Robinson, a descendant of American slaves who had herself excelled at Princeton and Harvard Law. In 1998 and 2001 were born daughters Malia and Sasha. Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate in 1996, vainly tried for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004. At the Democratic National Convention that summer, he delivered a much-acclaimed keynote address. Pundits instantly pronounced him a future president, but most did not expect it to happen so fast.
In the Democratic primaries of 2008, Obama won a strenuous campaign against the frontrunner, New York Senator Hillary Clinton. He was strengthened by his early opposition to the unpopular war in Iraq and his promise to "turn the page on the old ways of doing business in Washington." That September came a Wall Street collapse and a world economic calamity. In three presidential debates against Senator John McCain, Obama convinced Americans that he had the leadership skills to face the deepening public dangers.
Rarely had an incoming president faced so many challenges at once—the economic freefall, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the continuing menace of terrorism. Inaugurated before a record crowd of nearly two million people, Obama proposed unprecedented federal spending to rescue the economy, as well as other domestic initiatives, and hoped to use his strong popularity abroad to renew American stature.
A few weeks later, on Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday, he reminded an audience about the Lincoln friend who had once taken credit for the election of the 16th president, and that Lincoln had laughingly told the man, "Well, it's a pretty mess you've got me into!" Obama went on to declare, "It is precisely when we are in the deepest valley . . . that Americans relearn how to take the mountaintop. . . . We will do what Lincoln called on us to do, and 'nobly save . . . the last best hope of earth.'"