GLOBAL ICON

Barack Obama at 60: A life arc that echoes global change and the building of a new national fabric

By J Brooks Spector 3 August 2021

Former US president Barack Obama waves to the press on the South Lawn as he returns from a weekend at Camp David to the White House on 2 August 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Mike Theiler-Pool / Getty Images)

As Barack Obama enters his seventh decade, we take a look back and, like various former members of his administration (and himself through the first half of his memoirs), try to weigh the impact of his time in office.

J Brooks Spector

Former US president Barack Obama turns 60 today (Wednesday, 4 August). Amazing, he’s only turning 60 now. Following a career as a community activist, law student, Illinois state legislator, US Senator, two-term president, and best-selling author – and more recently as a documentary film producer and now as a partner with the National Basketball Association’s efforts in Africa – it can be startling to realise he is younger than either of the two men who followed him into the White House after 2016. The arc of his life echoes many of the influences and changes in the US that have come to be since he was born, most especially in terms of who is now part of the national fabric. 

To his legions of admirers at home and abroad (he had drawn huge crowds in Europe in 2008, even before he was elected), he offered a pathway beyond the racial and political impasses of contemporary US life; even as critics on both the left and the right might see in him many of the flaws, foibles, and fallacies of 20th century US come to life. At home, he laboured to save the economy and resuscitate the national health care system. Abroad, his policies often seemed a mix of caution and enthusiasm. And he drew his exemplars from an eclectic mix of American heroes, from whose histories and inspirations, ranging from Abraham Lincoln to the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, as he worked to shape his own trajectory and destiny.

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii in 1961, a place that had only recently become a full-fledged US state two years earlier, after it had been annexed as a US territory in 1898. His mother’s parents had, like so many others, made the trek westward from the US heartland, but they had not come to rest in California, continuing onward to Hawaii instead. His mother had gone to the University of Hawaii where she had met her exotic prince, a Kenyan student at the same university, there on a scholarship. They married, and their son, the future president, was born shortly thereafter.

Soon enough, Obama’s father departed for postgraduate study and Harvard University (the young Obama would only meet his father one more time). Obama’s grandfather became his surrogate father figure, along the way, introducing him to African Americans in and around the military bases on the island of Oahu, determined to raise a child with at least some grounding in a culture that matched the boy’s outward appearance and his partially African heritage – and that, in any case, most people would assume was his anyway, regardless of his family history.

Based on his academic potential, he was admitted to the prestigious private junior and senior Punahou School on a scholarship, where “Barry” Obama became a steady, if unspectacular, member of the school’s basketball team. It left him with a lifelong love for the sport, a basketball player’s loping stride, and his enthusiasm for regular pick-up games with friends and staff members.

But, well before all that, his mother, now divorced from her Kenyan spouse, had remarried, this time to an Indonesian geo-engineering student, Lolo Soetoro, whom she accompanied to Jakarta, teaching English and beginning her anthropological PhD field work in the world of women’s small-scale economic life. It was a topic that became her life’s passion, even as her second marriage ended.

The Soetoro family lived in a modest Jakarta neighbourhood and Obama attended a Catholic elementary school and then, later, a public school in Jakarta, with all of his education in the language of Bahasa Indonesia, while his mother also used the Calvert School homeschooling programme to build his skills in English. By then, his mother had decided he needed to return to the US for the sake of his education, and so he ended up in Hawaii in the care of his maternal grandparents. This combined Indonesian/Hawaiian upbringing helped nurture an individual who would be the first authentic Pacific Basin-oriented president – someone with a visceral sense about that part of the world – even as his own future would bring him eastward to New York City, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Chicago, and, eventually, of course, Washington, DC. 

Taken together, this eclectic – even unique – mix of influences had created Obama’s core, even before he headed to Los Angeles for university first, and then to Columbia University in New York City and then, eventually, Harvard Law School. There, he did well academically and became the first black head of the prestigious student publication Law Review. Along with his Columbia and Harvard educations, he had also taken time off from academia to work as a community organiser in one of Chicago’s poor, black neighbourhoods, where he practised the kind of social activism that had been advocated by social activist and theorist Saul Alinsky. By now, this added mixture of influences had helped make Barack Obama that much more complex, with a growing sense of balancing idealism and more gritty reality.

Eventually, after law school, he interned at an upscale Chicago power law firm, where his in-house mentor was another young black attorney, Michelle Robinson. Her family were solidly working-class Chicago African Americans, and she has admitted that it took some time for her to warm to this seemingly exotic character, but as they drew together, her own personal background helped give him roots. As they settled into life as a family, he became increasingly drawn into Chicago’s African American community, to the Rev Jeremiah Wright’s mega-church, and – eventually – on to his first political campaigns. He successfully became an Illinois state legislator, unsuccessfully ran for Congress, and then successfully as one of Illinois’ two senators in the US Senate.

Along the way, as part of his personal search for his own “origin story” and the larger meaning of things, together with what were becoming the defining threads of his life, he wrote his first book, Dreams From My Father, a volume that became a major bestseller. It effectively announced that a new political voice had arrived on the US landscape. A second volume, The Audacity of Hope, a more overtly political book that spoke to Obama’s thinking about US politics and his country’s place in an evolving world, also did well, and this second book could almost be read as a manifesto announcing an upcoming race for the presidency.

By now, his rhetorical gifts had become increasingly well-recognised as well, sufficiently so that his electrifying speech at the Democratic Party’s presidential nominating convention of 2004, where he had declared the deeper, essential unity of Americans, rather than a nation fatally riven by narrower political-tribal loyalties (there are no red states or blue states, just the United States), effectively turned him into a major political presence and a possible presidential candidate in his own right for the next cycle.

The 2008 Democratic Party’s race for the nomination soon effectively pitted Obama against New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She had been systematically cultivating the party’s core interest groups for years, including black women, and many of those were hesitant about this exotic fellow, Barack Obama, rhetorically asking themselves if he was black enough personally, or authentically enough tied to the country’s African American communities and population to have earned their loyalty.

In the midst of this contest, for Obama, though, a defining challenge arose in the person of his longtime spiritual adviser, Wright, a crisis that helped recalibrate and redefine Obama’s connections to African Americans – and beyond. A video of one of Wright’s sermons from a few years ago came to public light in which he, despite being a decorated Marine Corps veteran, had vitriolic things to say about the government and white people more generally – forcing Obama to decide if he would embrace his mentor and friend or separate from him.

Obama used that defining moment to deliver a speech in Philadelphia that both embraced the reality of racial injustice and the possibilities of healing, even as the speech carved a significant distance for him from Wright. The speech was like turning on the electric current for Obama’s candidacy, and it helped presage so much of his later messaging on race and healing.

By the time of the convention, the nomination was his and, in selecting Delaware Senator Joe Biden, a man a generation older and with a reputation as a creature of the Senate and the Democratic Party’s establishment, Obama’s message was that while his candidacy was revolutionary in a personal sense, and would capture the enthusiasm of voters eager for the new to replace the flailing George W Bush presidency, his candidacy should not be entirely read as an effort to sweep away everything that was tried and the trusted. So far, in his political career, Obama had never really run as an all-out insurgent against the political centre in policy terms.

By the autumn of 2008, the fates intervened again, this time in the form of a disastrous collapse of US financial markets that had been built upon a deeply speculative, unstable bubble of housing mortgage bonds, and that crisis was threatening to carry the country into full-scale economic collapse. Meanwhile, the Bush administration hesitated and equivocated on its responses, and the Republican’s 2008 presidential candidate, Arizona Senator John McCain, soon demonstrated through his public comments a particular type of financial policy confusion that was in stark contrast to Obama’s reassuring stance that political leadership must do things quickly, but they must do the right things. And this became the defining difference between the two candidates. Obama won a convincing victory in the election, as it quickly became clear the economic crisis was not about to end.

Once the Obama administration took over, the new president pressed Congress for passage of a range of financial relief packages for ordinary citizens, but most especially for wobbling financial houses and corporations that were, collectively, poised to collapse. Allowed to go unchecked, that could easily have compromised the entire national (and international) financial system. Some of these measures were especially hard-fought over in Congress, even as virtually everyone agreed the crisis was severe.

The fact the Obama family comprised a thoughtful, engaged, articulate first lady and two entirely normal children provided a portrait of African American success that many could see as a compelling vision of future possibilities. Even White House cultural evenings and entertainment outings by the first couple were used to highlight the nation’s cultural diversity, rather than the old standard.

Meanwhile, in order to fulfil a major campaign promise, the Obama administration also moved hard for passage of a major expansion of government-backed healthcare insurance – popularly dubbed Obamacare. The administration’s acceptance of a variety of compromises to make it more palatable to wavering legislators allowed the measure to pass, but the bitterness of this legislative battle also helped nurture greater opposition to any future initiatives from the Obama administration. 

Crucially, this expansion of government activities helped fuel a conservative voters’ revolt, the “tea party rebellion”. Enough conservative Republicans entered Congress in support of such ideas that the passage of future Obama spending and expanded government proposals became increasingly problematic throughout the remainder of his time in office.

In international affairs, the Obama administration undertook a number of noteworthy initiatives, recognising broader global concerns as well as efforts to turn old antagonisms towards potential stable – or even normal – relations. Preeminent among them were the successful reestablishment of formal diplomatic relations with Cuba and the achievement of the six-party nuclear agreement with Iran that effectively froze Iranian advances in the development of nuclear weaponry for years into the future. The successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Accord similarly represented a realisation of campaign pledges from the Obama candidacy, even as Republican dissatisfaction with this agreement became yet another item on the anti-Obama checklist among many Republicans. An agreement with Russia, jointly to draw down on deployed nuclear weapons was also achieved. Importantly, disapproval of the enabling legislation for the Iran accord was not a legislative success for Republicans. The even more controversial Paris accord was not a formal treaty, per se, and so it did not require a formal Senate vote; otherwise it might well have been defeated by Senate Republicans.

In other areas, however, the Obama administration seemed to hold to a more conservative approach, largely preferring to continue – with some qualifications – his predecessor’s policies in overseas military deployments. Some of this natural restraint was termed “constrainment” by some of Obama’s more conservative critics, who defined the policy as a kind of informal reluctance to engage in new military initiatives, leading from the rear, and trying, instead, to wind down the ongoing US engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the civil and military failure by the governments in both states led instead to a surge in military engagement rather than the hoped-for winding down. Meanwhile, during the Obama presidency, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the man who had planned the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001 that killed thousands and destroyed the World Trade Center in New York City, was finally located and killed, an act of revenge widely applauded globally, if not universally. 

Concurrently, the Obama administration, almost against its natural preferences, found itself helping lead support to the rebel groups in Libya that eventually led to the death of Muammar Gaddafi (and criticism in various quarters in the world which had otherwise found hope in the rise of Obama as a special kind of politician). This Libyan adventure had come in the midst of the “Arab Spring,” that unexpected set of uprisings across the North African landscape and beyond that caught the Obama administration, and almost everyone else, largely off guard. These events had given Obama’s Republican critics yet another stick with which to beat Obama and his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, presumably for their inability to protect US interests from things not yet in evidence.

Nevertheless, despite such disappointments, the Obama presidency also gave real voice to the idea internationally that a new generation of leaders was beginning to come to the fore, and that support for and adherence to democratic ideals truly mattered. Staking out this position, in his first Africa trip as president, Obama told his Accra audience – and thus everyone else – that the era of the authoritarian “big man in Africa” was over. And it seemed, at least at first, that foreign governments were beginning to take such admonitions to heart. To put some modest meat on the bones of that proposition, the Obama administration launched a new exchange programme specifically targeting Africa’s cohort of young, impatient leadership in waiting, many of whom were no longer wedded to the old verities of African politics and economics. (This programme has developed a sufficient following that Obama’s successor chose to continue it rather than abolish it, despite his gutter language about Africa.)

Domestically, from Obama’s presence and speeches there was also the conscious idea that the nation’s leadership must draw from a larger, more diverse pool of people than had been the case in the past. In that sense, for many African Americans and members of other minority groups, the Obama administration seemed to be the beginning of real sea change in who would be included inside the circle of influence. 

The fact the Obama family comprised a thoughtful, engaged, articulate first lady and two entirely normal children provided a portrait of African American success that many could see as a compelling vision of future possibilities. Even White House cultural evenings and entertainment outings by the first couple were used to highlight the nation’s cultural diversity, rather than the old standard.

Paradoxically, of course, this very normality seemed to unhinge some critics, unable to accept an active, vigorous, thoroughly stable black family as the symbol of the nation and its first family. Racialised invective poured from critics who infested the darker, danker corners of US discourse, including a pernicious slander that the president was a political Trojan horse of a radical Muslim, born in some far-off land, and eager to betray the nation and turn it over to swarthy foreigners – a falsehood repeatedly argued by the very man who replaced him in the White House.

Nevertheless, by the time he had completed his two terms of office, after having been resoundingly re-elected in 2012, Obama’s popularity was largely intact, and the narrow defeat of his former secretary of state, Clinton, by the man who had thrown those calumnies at Obama, portended a growing portion of the electorate prepared to believe some extraordinary things about the president, about Clinton, and the shape of the world. That unlikely victory contributed significantly to the increasingly divided state of the nation and a reluctance on the part of many to believe in the ability, honesty, or values of many of the country’s leaders.

In the rear-view mirror of history, Obama’s presidency certainly did mis-analyse some aspects of the nation’s state of affairs. While pushing ahead vigorously to rescue the nation from the financial and economic collapse at the beginning of the administration, the president and his advisers can be faulted for failing to appreciate just how much – and how quickly – shifts in global manufacturing to China (and several other emerging economies) were progressively hollowing out a significant part of US manufacturing capabilities – thus eliminating the jobs that went with those capabilities. There would inevitably be a hefty political price to be paid because of that, particularly by Clinton, as well as various Democratic members of Congress in the subsequent elections of 2012, 2016, 2018 and 2020. 

Moreover, the Obama administration’s reluctance to realise just how much Vladimir Putin’s Russia had turned away from a willingness to be seen as a responsible member of the Western-style economic, political, and military post-Cold War world made it that much easier for a re-energised Russia to seize portions of Ukraine and then to back, ever more strongly, the authoritarian regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, as it battled the groups that had evolved out of the Arab Spring. (Simultaneously, the murderous religious fanatic group Isis was terrorising the northern half of Iraq as well as eastern Syria.) And in dealing with Assad’s Syria, the Obama administration hesitated, just when some judicious support for rebel groups early on might have turned the tide against Assad.

Still, the scale leans towards the Obama administration as a success. At a contentious period he and his team kept the US largely in harness with its allies in Europe and Asia, pulled the economy back from the precipice, brought forward a significant advance in universal health coverage for the country, made real contributions to an international regimen in confronting the existential crisis of climate, and helped draw down nuclear uncertainties. At a time when racial anger could have gone one way, his inclusivity as national comforter-in-chief after one of those criminal mass killings delivered some remarkable moments in national life.

The most amazing thing about Obama, perhaps, is that he may yet have still more to contribute to national and international life through the vehicles he chooses to support and endorse.

Happy birthday, Barack Obama, your well-wishers are many. DM

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