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'They Said This Day Would Never Come'

The day Barack Obama spoke of was January 3, 2008, when he won the Iowa caucuses. Ten months later, he's on his way to the White House as America's first black President. A look at Obama's journey to the Oval Office.

By Suzanne Bilyeu


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Four years ago, Barack Obama was a little-known Illinois state legislator running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. Then he delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He spoke of his African father and of his mother, who was from Kansas.

"I stand here knowing that my story is a part of the larger American story," said Obama. "In no other country on Earth is my story even possible."

The next day, as Obama moved through the meeting rooms and hallways, people whispered: Perhaps the man who had just passed by would one day be elected President. And earlier this month, he was.

His path to the White House has been an unusual one. Obama's parents met while studying at the University of Hawaii. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was an economist who grew up herding goats in his native Kenya. His mother, Ann Dunham, was an anthropologist from Kansas. Barack Jr. was born in Honolulu on August 4, 1961.

When Obama was a year old, his father left Hawaii for Harvard to study economics and then returned to Kenya, where he had another family from an earlier marriage. Obama's parents were divorced in 1964, and he only saw his father once more, in Hawaii, when he was 10. (Obama's father died in a car accident in 1982; his mother died of cancer in 1995.)

Indonesian Childhood

In 1967, Obama's mother married a man from Indonesia. The family moved to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, where Obama spent his early school years. He attended Catholic school for two years, and then a public school. (Contrary to rumors during the campaign, Obama never attended a madrassa, or Islamic religious school, nor is he Muslim; he is a Christian.) At 10, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and enroll in the Punahou School, a private school in Honolulu.

In high school, his classmates regarded "Barry" as a pleasant guy with a B average, a confident gait, and a cheerful smile, who seemed happiest on the basketball court.

"He had the exact same mannerisms then as he does now," says Eric Kusunoki, Obama's homeroom teacher at Punahou. He recalls that when Obama strode to the podium to speak at the 2004 Democratic convention, "We recognized him right away by the way he walked. He was well-liked by everybody, a very charismatic guy."

Then there was the other Barry—the one who endured whispered racial slurs, haunted by a sense of being a misfit.

"He struggled here with the idea that people were pushing an identity on him, what it meant to be a black man," says Maya Soetero-Ng, Obama's half-sister, whose father is Indonesian.

While Obama has several half-siblings from his father's other marriages, Soetero-Ng, 39, is the only sibling he spent significant time with as a child in Indonesia and Hawaii.

"There was always a joke between my mom and Barack that he would be the first black President," Soetero-Ng says. "So there were intimations of all this early on. He has always been restless. There was always somewhere else he needed to go."

Obama's life has always seemed to reflect this restlessness. He graduated from high school in 1979 and moved to Los Angeles, where he attended Occidental College for two years before transferring to Columbia in New York. In 1983, he graduated from Columbia with a degree in political science. He worked for a year at Business International Corp. in New York, a research firm that assists U.S. companies operating abroad. Obama then worked in Harlem, trying, as he has recalled, "to convince the minority students at City College about the importance of recycling."

On the Move

In 1985, Obama moved to Chicago, where he spent the next three years as a community organizer for the Developing Communities Project, a church-based group, helping residents of public housing projects deal with issues like contaminated water and asbestos removal. It was also the first time that Obama had lived and worked extensively in the black community, and he's called it "the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School."

It was at Harvard that Obama first made national headlines, when in 1990 he became the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. "The fact that I've been elected shows a lot of progress," Obama told The New York Times. "But it's important that stories like mine aren't used to say that everything is OK for blacks. You have to remember that for every one of me, there are hundreds or thousands of black students with at least equal talent who don't get a chance."

The following year, Obama graduated magna cum laude from Harvard. He turned down a clerkship with a federal judge and moved back to Chicago, where he directed Project Vote, a grass-roots campaign that registered nearly 150,000 black voters for the 1992 elections.

In 1992, Obama married Michelle Robinson, a fellow Harvard Law School graduate who worked at a Chicago law firm before becoming vice president of community relations at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Obama and his wife settled in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood. They have two daughters, Malia, 9, and Sasha, 7. Both girls attend the University of Chicago Lab School, a private school.

Obama joined a Chicago law firm in 1993, handling mostly employment-discrimination claims and voting-rights cases. He also joined the University of Chicago Law School faculty as a part-time professor of constitutional law.

Obama's first bid for public office came in 1996, when he won a seat in the Illinois State Senate in Springfield, where he served for eight years. Obama helped deliver what is said to have been the first significant campaign finance reform law in Illinois in 25 years, and helped bring about passage of the state's first racial-profiling law.

He was also criticized for avoiding taking a stance on some issues by voting "present" (instead of "yes" or "no") nearly 130 times. And some colleagues thought he seemed in too much of a hurry to run for higher office. When he tried to unseat an incumbent Democratic Congressman from Chicago's South Side in 2000, he was trounced in the primary.

Eyes on Washington

But Obama continued to look beyond Springfield. In 2002, he gave a speech in Chicago against going to war in Iraq, declaring his opposition to a "war based not on reason, but on politics." In the Democratic primaries this year, he used that position to great advantage, although several of his opponents noted that it's a lot easier to give a speech than to actually vote on going to war—which several of them did as U.S. Senators.

In 2004, Obama made it to Washington, winning a seat in the U.S. Senate. He defeated his Republican opponent, who was also black, with 70 percent of the vote.

As the junior Senator from Illinois, Obama's most important accomplishment was his work on congressional ethics reform. But like most freshman Senators, he didn't play a significant role as a legislator.

In 2007—only two years after arriving in Washington—Obama announced that he was running for President. He kicked off the 2008 primary season by winning the Iowa caucuses in January. "They said this day would never come," he said in his victory speech.

The field of eight Democratic candidates soon narrowed to an intense, often bitter, battle between Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Controversial remarks on race and U.S. policies made by Obama's longtime pastor—the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago—haunted his campaign. Obama eventually wound up renouncing Wright and leaving his church.

After officially winning the nomination at the Democratic convention in Denver in August, Obama faced Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee, in three debates in which the candidates battled over issues of experience and judgment. But as the financial crisis worsened, the economy came to dominate the race, eclipsing national security and the war in Iraq, issues that had played to McCain's strengths.

In the days after the election, it appeared that a combination of economic concerns and a desire for a change from the Bush administration and its policies led to Obama's historic victory.

But whoever they voted for, Americans seemed to recognize the significance of sending a man to the White House who could have been owned as a slave just 143 years ago. The President-elect certainly did.

"If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer," Obama said on election night in Chicago.

"It's been a long time coming," he added, "but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America."