Few Americans have risen to prominence in American politics as quickly or as dramatically as Barack Hussein Obama, the forty-fourth president of the United States. Fewer still have become instant lightning rods for the tensions and frustrations underlying and nominally dividing America's political culture. Indeed, most Americans' perspectives on the deepening partisan and cultural divisions in the second decade of the twenty-first century are shaped and informed largely by reactions, either favorable or unfavorable, to Barack Obama the man and his policies. “I serve as a blank screen,” he acknowledged in the preface to The Audacity of Hope (2006), “on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.”
Entering the presidency amid enormous expectations but facing a daunting phalanx of seemingly overwhelming problems, Obama responded within the tradition of America's activist presidents, in the style of both Roosevelts and John F. Kennedy, exhorting with elegant rhetoric and utilizing the powers of the office proactively, often boldly, yet generally for moderate, centrist purposes.
Obama is America's first president of African American descent, and his early life and his meteoric rise to political prominence were anything but conventional. Describing himself in his 2004 address to the Democratic National Convention as “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas,” Obama asserted “that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” Born in Hawaii in 1961, Obama was abandoned soon after by his father and namesake, and reared partly by his compassionate mother, Ann Dunham, a peripatetic scholar activist who stressed learning and tolerance, but mostly by his white grandparents. Early in life he faced a struggle to authenticate his biracial identity, ultimately more fully embracing his African American, rather than his European American, heritage.
Leaving Hawaii after high school, Obama enrolled at Occidental College and then transferred to Columbia University in New York where he earned a degree in political science. In 1985, after a short stint in the business world and as a volunteer consumer and community activist in New York City, Obama met Marty Kaufman, a particularly persuasive community organizer, who convinced him to move to Chicago and to become a community organizer for low-income residents on the South Side. In 1988 Obama entered Harvard Law School and was elected the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review, where, according to peers and professors, his extraordinary intelligence and his skills at conflict resolution shone.
Returning to Chicago, Obama practiced law and taught at the University of Chicago Law School. His propensity for advocacy and his eagerness to serve his community soon drew him into politics, winning election to the Illinois State Senate as a Democrat in 1996 but losing a bid for a congressional seat in 2000. There followed, however, an astonishing string of glittering personal successes that led to the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008.
Obama's political ascent is explained in part by his impact as a writer and orator. His much-acclaimed autobiography, Dreams from My Father (1995) received high praise from literary figures. A second book, The Audacity of Hope (2006), containing Obama's vision for America, reached number one on best seller lists. His vocal opposition to President George W. Bush's rush to war with Iraq brought an invitation to deliver the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. His eloquence and dynamic presence before a national television audience instantly elevated him into the party pantheon. That November he won election to the U.S. Senate by the largest plurality (70 percent) in Illinois history.
Barack Obama's political career received a boost from a widely publicized June 2006 keynote address before a Washington, D.C., conference of progressive Christians sponsored by Sojourners magazine. Focusing on religion and politics, Obama spoke of the vital role that “values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems” and he urged “an injection of morality in our political debate.” Unafraid to face America's most sensitive social issues, Obama tackled the most daunting—namely race—in a historic speech, titled “A More Perfect Union,” delivered in March 2008 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Called to comment on the incendiary remarks of his minister, Jeremiah Wright, Obama used the occasion to link his candidacy to the history of the civil rights movement and to disavow extremist rhetoric of all stripes.
Obama's expressiveness and high-minded approach to politics awakened in many Americans a sense of civic engagement dormant since the late 1960s. Harvard philosopher Michael J. Sandel, writing in Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? (2009), favorably compared Obama to Robert F. Kennedy. Each, he wrote, “tried to summon the nation to more demanding moral and civic ideals.” During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama frequently observed that the American people “want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives.”
Obama's campaign theme in 2008 of “hope and change” resonated with a clear majority (52.9 percent) of the electorate, buttressed by the historically largest African American turnout, strong support among younger voters, and substantial gains among wealthy white, suburban voters. In his campaign against Republican Arizona senator John McCain, Obama, according to Sandel, “tapped Americans' hunger for a public life of large purpose and articulated a politics and moral and spiritual aspiration.” During a time of economic distress and American vulnerability, the electorate welcomed a reexamination of America's creedal passions.
Once in office, Obama's higher expectations often were thwarted by the practical necessity of dealing with the issues he inherited—two wars, the collapse of major financial institutions, high unemployment, and the onset of a deep recession—compounded by unrelenting partisan opposition intent on denying him victories.
President Obama facilitated several major initiatives during the first months of his administration. To help the economy recover from the worldwide recession Obama quickly pushed through a $787 billion economic stimulus package, a plan to buy up depreciated real estate assets, and a program to assist the ailing automobile industry, including a highly popular rebate system called “Cash for Clunkers.” In 2010 he reached an accord with congressional Republicans to extend Bush-era tax rates, give workers a payroll tax reduction, and continue unemployment benefits. But his disagreement with Republicans on how to reduce the steadily growing government debt nearly led to an unprecedented government default on its obligations in the summer of 2011.
By far Obama's proudest accomplishment was the enactment of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010, known derisively by his opposition as “Obamacare.” The Obama administration argued that the comprehensive health insurance law contains many needed reforms to prevent denials of coverage or overcharging of sick patients. Its most controversial provision, requiring every American to carry health insurance, faced immediate legal challenge that went before the Supreme Court. In a historic decision on June 28, 2012, the Court upheld the provision with the interpretation that it fell under the Congress's power to levy taxes. Obama also attracted controversy with his decisions to lift a ban on stem-cell research and repeal “Don't Ask, Don't Tell” to permit homosexuals to openly serve in the armed forces. In May 2012, he publicly announced a change of his position on the issue of marriage rights for same-sex couples from support of civil unions to allowing marriage for homosexuals.
Obama exercised a series of steps enhancing America's prestige and influence abroad, announcing a “new era” in U.S. foreign relations with Russia and Europe, offering a “reset” of the Bush policies. His positive declarations of American foreign policy intentions at the outset of his presidency earned Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” Obama called for “a new beginning” in relations between the Islamic world and the United States, ending the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and clarifying the U.S. role in Afghanistan, setting a timeline for a steadily diminishing U.S. military presence. In May 2011, on direct orders from Obama, U.S. forces tracked down al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and killed the mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
Obama's cerebral leadership style relies heavily on extensive study and lengthy deliberation to evaluate all sides of an issue and find consensus through compromise. He believes the electorate put him in office to create national unity, not division. Obama's writings and speeches, as James Kloppenberg persuasively posits in Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (2011), reflect a “principled aversion to absolutes that derives from sustained engagement with American democratic thought” and are shaped by a profound awareness of the substantial influences of philosophical pragmatism on the American political tradition.
In a political culture that tolerates negative attack-style politics, Obama has refused to rebuke his race-baiting opponents or to resort to name calling or vitriolic exchanges with opponents, despite numerous provocations. He is aware that sociological scholarship has frequently pointed out that as a black man in America he cannot show anger without arousing anxiety and alarm, but of greater importance is Obama's abiding belief in the efficacy of the traditional democratic principles of conciliation, compromise, and comity.
For many, Barack Obama's election in 2008 offered the promise of a new postracial order, one where the realities of the multiethnic, multicultural America overwhelmed racial prejudice. Yet it is also a reality, as historian Thomas Sugrue has written in Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (2010), that “Obama lives in an America where the principle of hypodescent—the one-drop rule—still shapes perceptions of those of African heritage.” Despite Obama's profound appreciation for America's history of racial relations and his strides toward breaking down remaining barriers, American Studies commentators have noted that those perceptions cannot be changed by one man, one president.
After absorbing an admitted “shellacking” in the 2010 midterm elections, where his party lost sixty-three seats and control of the House of Representatives, Obama's approval ratings rebounded in early 2012 thanks largely to an improved economy and a lower unemployment rate. For his 2012 reelection campaign, Obama returned to the message of his successful 2008 campaign that revived the Democratic Party coalition, again employing his rich repertoire of proverbial rhetoric and emphasizing the progressive themes of “The American Promise” and “Forward.”
For Obama, “the defining issue of our time,” as he declared in his 2012 State of the Union Address, “is how to preserve the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.” He proposed to “reclaim” the American promise, to “restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, and everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” To do that, Obama emphasized, required investment in education, job training, and the promotion of American ingenuity. “After all,” he said, “innovation is what America has always been about.”
Republicans, initially struggling with internal divisions and conflicting objectives before settling for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney as their presidential candidate in 2012, were eager to thwart any effort to consolidate or extend Obama's first-term gains; they blamed Obama for the rising government debt, the expanded size of government, and the still-sluggish economy, accusing him of fomenting “class warfare” with his repeated calls for increasing the tax burden on the wealthiest Americans. Obama won the election with 50.79 percent of the popular vote, drawing on a coalition of young adults, minorities, and college educated women. In his victory speech, he called for bipartisanship and sounding an optimistic tone promised “that for the United States of America the best is yet to come.”
Barack Obama's historic achievement in personally surmounting America's racial barriers is striking testament to the ideal of tolerance and equality so essential to the American creed. Thus the ultimate and lasting impact of Barack Obama's presence in American politics may depend, as Obama said of Robert F. Kennedy in an address at the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award Ceremony in 2005, less on the length of his public service than on his considerable contributions to “the continued perfection of American ideals.” Obama's ability to enunciate those ideals with remarkable clarity and to shape his policies around them may be his most enduring legacy.
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