An improbable journey to the White House

Wed, Jan 21, 2009, 00:00

The new US President has a background rich in diversity, education, activism and achievement, writes Jonathan Freedland

‘WHO IS BARACK OBAMA?” In the last, desperate weeks of the election campaign, that question became the rallying cry of John McCain and Sarah Palin, as they sought to persuade Americans that they knew too little about the man who was elected the 44th president. It was a rhetorical question, but sometimes brought swift and harsh answers. “Who is the real Barack Obama?” McCain asked at a rally in Albuquerque last month. “A terrorist!” shouted at least one man in the crowd.

But that was only the crudest response. In the 21 months after Obama first launched what he called his “improbable” bid for the White House, his opponents had sought to fill in the blank of his identity with a series of bogeymen. Obama was a Muslim and a Marxist. He was a conviction liberal and a believe-in-nothing celebrity. He was an ivory-tower professor and a crooked Chicago pol. He was an elite Ivy Leaguer and the product of a madrasa. He was an East Coast snob and an exotic quasi-foreigner. By the end, the McCain campaign and its allies, seeking to hurl every pot and pan in the kitchen sink at Obama, claimed all those things about the Democrat – often at the same time.

The notion that there was something mysterious or alien about Obama had been running all year. Mark Penn, one-time chief strategist to Hillary Clinton, suggested his boss pose as the “American” candidate: “All of these articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared towards showing his background is diverse, multicultural and putting that in a new light. Save it for 2050. It also exposes a strong weakness for him – his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited. I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and in his values.”

That advice was later taken up with zeal by the Republicans. In the weeks before the election, Palin told a rally in Clearwater, Florida: “This is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.”

On one level this was simply a form of racial code, a way of nudging white voters to see that the first African-American nominee of a major party was not “one of us”.

But that’s not the whole picture. For the truth is that America’s next president does indeed have a biography that is worlds apart – and, yes, more exotic – than his fellow citizens. It is rooted in the mud-hutted villages of Kenya and the flat cornfields of Kansas. It jumps from the endless summers of Hawaii to the ferment of 1960s Indonesia, from the gilded seminar rooms of Harvard to the broken streets of Chicago’s south side.

It is a strange and confusing enough tale that Obama himself had to work hard to untangle it, eventually shaping it into a coherent narrative in the lyrical, moving memoir authored when he was just 33 and now an international bestseller: Dreams from My Father. That book, and its successor, The Audacity of Hope, mean that Obama’s story is hardly a mystery. What’s more, the narrative of his own life has lain at the heart of his political message.

He has offered his “improbable journey” as testament to the enduring power of the American dream: the belief that, in the United States, truly anyone can make it. But he has also suggested that his own hybridity – the child of a white mother and a black father – is a harbinger of a wider reconciliation in America itself. That his roots across several continents make him the right man for a new and globalised age.

“I think that in a sense Barack is the personification of his own message for the country,” David Axelrod, chief strategist for the Obama campaign, told the New York Timeslast year. “He is his own vision.”

But the Obama biography translates into more than a campaign theme. It provides crucial clues as to how the new president thinks, what drives him and how he will operate. To understand the man you need to know where he came from and the path travelled.

America’s next president is the son of a man who once herded goats in a remote village in Africa. He is the grandson of a man who grew up among people who wore animal skins, in a village where no white man had ever set foot. That grandfather went on to become a cook for the British army and later a domestic servant, while his son finished secondary school by correspondence course, had four wives and eight children and died an early death, caused by drink and depression.

The grandfather, Hussein Onyango Obama, is the source of the new president’s middle name – the one that gave him so much trouble in the campaign. Though he is said to have been born in 1870, one of his three wives still lives. They call her “Mama Sarah” and she is now, aged 86, the step-grandmother of the most powerful man in the world. You find her by taking the 90-minute drive north of Lake Victoria to the remote Kenyan village of Kogelo. At the end of the tarmac, a sign for the Senator Obama Secondary School points the way along a red dirt road. You find a small house, three rooms under a pale-blue corrugated iron roof. There is a water pump in the front garden and a huge mango tree.

She’s happy to talk over the noise of the chickens that come running when she calls. She still works, rising at dawn on a typical day and heading barefoot into her vegetable garden, where she grows maize, sweet potatoes, beans and cassava. At nine, she makes breakfast, returning to the fields until noon.

She has a TV set now, a gift from a local airline executive, but she always used to follow the radio news in Swahili or Luo. And she has met her step-grandson only a few times. The first encounter came when he visited Kenya in the 1980s: they had no language in common but she can’t forget his voice. So much like his father’s, she says: “It made me think that his father had come back from the dead.”

Her living room is decorated with family photos, including a shot of Barack on one visit, carrying a sack of vegetables. She is proud of Barack, though she doesn’t consider what he has achieved anything too special. When asked about the prospect of him becoming president, she described it as “just a job”. But she was determined to fly to Washington to see him inaugurated. It won’t be her first trip to the United States. She saw Barack sworn in as a senator. She said that the US was “very interesting” – but “very cold”.

Obama’s father – also called Barack Hussein Obama – had once caused her pride too, but just as much consternation. He was bright, yet easily bored. He won a place in secondary school, but was expelled for behaving badly. He eventually finished his schooling by correspondence course, but not before he had married a young woman called Kezia and had a son and daughter.

Once the course was complete, he met two American women in Nairobi who told him he should apply for a scholarship to study in the US. He wrote to dozens of US universities and one eventually replied: the University of Hawaii. He had no idea where Hawaii was but snapped up the offer. Leaving his son and pregnant wife with Mama Sarah, he flew to Honolulu. There he would meet a woman who was the product of the same urge he had felt – the urge to move westward and start over.

STANLEY ANN DUNHAM was named after a father who had yearned for his first child to be a boy. Dunham, the new president’s other grandfather, had been born into small-town, Depression-era Kansas, but he dreamed bigger. Wild in his youth, “dabbling in moonshine, cards and women”, according to Obama’s memoir, Dunham would not be contained by Wichita. He eloped with his sweetheart, Madelyn, enlisted after Pearl Harbour and fought in Patton’s army in France before heading westward, hoping for something better, from Texas to California and finally, when offered a job as a furniture salesman in America’s newest state, to Hawaii.

These, then, were the backstories of the young African man and the 18-year-old girl who would meet on a Russian language course in Hawaii.

He was a son of the Luo tribe who, when not in school, had herded his father’s goats; she was the daughter of white Protestant prairie folk from the American heartland. And yet they fell in love. They married and in 1961 they had a child, Barack Hussein Obama.

The marriage did not last. Obama snr took up a scholarship in Harvard – alone – and eventually went back to Africa. He would go on to marry two other women, one of them American, and have a total of seven other children. He would return to Hawaii to see his son and namesake only once – a month-long visit when Obama jnr was 10 years old.

In Kenya, Obama snr landed a senior post in the ministry of economic planning in Jomo Kenyatta’s government. Tribalism hindered his progress: the Obamas are Luos, while Kikuyus had a tight grip on political power. But that was not the whole of it. According to those who knew him at the time, Obama snr grew too fond of Scotch, loudly boasting of his brains and talent before going home drunk every night. Towards the end of his life Obama snr had spent most of his savings. He became depressed, pushing most of his children away. In 1982 he died in the last of a series of serious car accidents.

The second Barack Hussein Obama came into the world on August 4th, 1961, at the Kapi’olani Medical Center for Women and Children in Honolulu. By the time he was two his father had gone, and his father’s place in his mother’s affections was soon replaced by another foreign student at the University of Hawaii, an Indonesian named Lolo. Always restless, Ann Dunham and her son, now barely six, would set off to be with her new husband.

She arrived in Indonesia in a spirit of blissful “innocence” that her son would later marvel at with something less than admiration. Ann seemed only vaguely aware that the country was in turmoil, that just a few months earlier a coup attempt had been thwarted after which hundreds of thousands of people had been killed. Ever wide-eyed and hopeful, she believed individuals could shape their own future, regardless of whatever barriers history and geography might put in the way.

By all accounts the young Obama – Barry Soetoro as he was then, taking the name of his new stepfather – embraced his new surroundings with enthusiasm. Instead of napping after school, he would sneak out to play in the muddy lanes of Jakarta, stopping for a swim with the local boys in the dirty pond known as the empang.

Former classmates and teachers describe “Berry” – Barry with an Indonesian lilt – as inquisitive and fun-loving, even then displaying a precocious talent for leadership.

At St Franciskus Assisi Catholic school, his teacher Israella Pereira Darmawalla (64) spotted it immediately. “He was a natural leader,” she says. “Before the children would come into class they would line up. Berry would inspect them and make sure they were straight, giving orders in Indonesian. No one told him to do it.”

Those who remember him talk of a boy full of energy, building up a sweat as he hared around the playground, teasing girls, attracting attention not only because of his dark skin and curly hair but because he was also left-handed – an extreme oddity in the ultra-conservative Indonesia of the 1960s.

“Berry really stood out,” said Ati Kisyanto, 46, a classmate at the Basuki government elementary school. “He was much bigger than us. All the Indonesian kids were skinny and small. Berry was very chubby and had long, curly eyelashes. But from the start he fitted right in.”

Sword fights with bamboo sticks and football were favourite pastimes in the lanes outside Obama’s first home. There he and Lolo kept turtles, a monkey and even a baby crocodile – once deployed by Berry to scare off some local boys who were causing trouble.

Instruction came from his stepfather. Berry once sustained an egg-sized lump on his head, thanks to a stone hurled at him after he’d chased a boy who ran off with his ball. Lolo promptly produced a pair of boxing gloves, as he prepared to teach Berry that he had to be strong to survive. “Men take advantage of weakness in other men,” Lolo told Berry, according to Dreams from My Father. “They’re just like countries in that way. Better to be strong.”

By the third year, Obama, now registered as a Muslim after his stepfather’s religion – but educated in a non-religious school, not the madrasa that would later be claimed – gave another glimpse of his embryonic ambition. Darmawalla asked her pupils each to write a poem entitled My Dreams. “The others said they wanted to be doctors, nurses or soldiers,” the former teacher says now. “Berry wrote that he wanted to be a president one day.”

By the time he was 10, Barack Obama was back in Hawaii. His mother had decided he needed to go to an American school and she sent him back to live with his grandparents. She would follow the next year.

MICHELLE OBAMA SAYS that the adolescence her husband experienced in Honolulu holds the key to his personality. “You can’t really understand Barack until you understand Hawaii,” she told biographer David Mendell.

Some speculate that it’s Hawaii that explains the languid cool that is so striking in Obama. Visit his favourite eating spot, the beachside Hau Tree Lanai, where diners sit on a terrace under a canopy of low trees soaking up the evening sun – and where surfers and canoeists paddle past, the bright lights of Waikiki flickering a mile away – and it’s easy to see how anyone raised in such a holiday paradise would grow up permanently laid-back.

Yet his own account describes an upbringing that was not all placid serenity. His grandfather, outwardly easygoing, was frustrated with a luckless career as an insurance salesman: the young Obama would hear him making cold calls that hit a dead end. His mother was absent, eventually returning to Indonesia – even though her second marriage was now falling apart – to do field work on her doctoral dissertation in anthropology: a 1,045-page tome entitled Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia.

It fell to Obama’s grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, to provide some constancy. The woman he called Toot, who died just days before the election, was a model of Kansas solidity. While Stanley’s career sputtered, she held down a senior job in banking, then all but unknown for a woman, which paid for Obama to be educated, privately and expensively.

He went to Punahou school, a 17-acre oasis of calm, order and privilege tucked behind a low stone wall topped with cacti. But in Obama’s own telling, this was a period of unease, a time when the inner wrestling with race and his identity began in earnest, as he sought to understand his place as a black youth raised by whites in a far-flung corner of the US with few African-Americans.

He has described his longing to feel like a black American, watching the grainy TV in his grandparents’ 10th-floor, two-bedroom apartment so that he could copy the dance steps on Soul Trainor lap up Richard Pryor’s stand-up act. Bedtime reading was Malcolm X and James Baldwin.

A photograph in the yearbook for 1979, Obama’s final year at Punahou, shows a young man who has shed the puppy fat of seven years earlier. Around him his classmates vamp it up for the camera, dressed in their finery, lounging on sofas in the palatial home of one of the students. Obama is at the back. Dressed in a white suit over a wide-lapel shirt, his hand poised on his breast, he stands a head above his classmates, and not just because of his resplendent afro.

A few pages on, his personal entry has a photo of him playing basketball with his motto for life: “We go play hoop”. The teenage Obama also left a self-composed photograph titled Still Life, featuring a turntable, a beer bottle, a basketball figure, a matchbook and a packet of Zig Zag cigarette papers. Alongside the photograph he gives thanks to “Tut, Gramps, Choom Gang and Ray for all the good times”. Tut for his grandmother, Ray is Keith Kakugawa, another mixed-race child, and Choom Gang is Hawaiian slang for marijuana.

Was Obama consciously trying to play up to a stereotype of the young black man? Eric Kusunoki, Obama’s class teacher during his final four years at school, didn’t see any of the alienation Obama discusses in his memoir. “He didn’t seem to be an outsider. He was well-known, popular, active in student activities.”

Other contemporaries also recall a relaxed, happy young man. Perhaps, they wonder, he was keeping his turmoil inside. Perhaps it was no more than “teen angst”. But Obama himself has described these years – drinking and using marijuana and cocaine while at high school – as his greatest moral failure.

Once high school was over, Barack Obama began his own journey. But where his parents had headed west, he now headed east, first to Occidental College in Los Angeles, then to Columbia University in New York, and finally to the very place from which his mother’s parents had escaped: the American midwest.

Having bounced from Hawaii to Indonesia and back before he was 10, he apparently longed for the sense of being anchored that comes with roots and memories that predate your own life. “I made a chain between my life and the faces I saw, borrowing other people’s memories,” he wrote. According to the New Yorkermagazine, “he wanted to be bound”.

The quest for steadiness seems to have begun immediately, whatever Obama would say later about his “dissolute” youth. His fellow students at Occidental have described young Barry Obama as a man who even then showed some of the discipline that has been on display over the past two years. He jogged in the mornings and studied hard, even if he did allow himself the odd joint here and there. “Not even close to being a party animal,” one friend said.

Later, at Columbia, his mother confessed herself worried by the barrenness of his quarters: she told him he was living like a “monk”.

Once he had graduated with a degree in political science, specialising in international relations, he stayed in New York, casting around for a career. He wrote to various civil rights organisations and black politicians, but none wrote back.

IN 1985 BARACK OBAMA was unemployed. Eventually he answered an ad for a community organiser in Chicago, working with those on the south side of the city laid off by the shuttering of the steel industry. The Developing Communities project, inspired by the writings of social thinker Saul Alinsky, was looking for a black organiser who could work with the black unemployed.

When Obama’s application arrived, his future employer worried that this Obama of Hawaii might actually be Japanese. Once reassured, he offered him the job – on $10,000 a year, with $2,000 to buy a car.

He began work amid what he later described in Dreams from My Fatheras “the boarded-up homes, the decaying storefronts, the ageing church rolls, kids from unknown families who swaggered down the streets”.

But Obama encountered scepticism among the neighbourhood’s entrenched powers: church ministers and city bigwigs who clung to their turf, wary of the college-educated outsider.

Still, he was a good listener, often spending hours with individuals at a time to hear the full story of their lives. It was as if he wanted to learn from them as much as to help them, to learn how it was to live as a black American in a black American community.

Over three years, Obama led countless meetings on street corners and school gymnasiums, pulling together a coalition of churches, struggling middle-class residents and public-housing tenants. He achieved some modest victories, putting pressure on the city to open a jobs centre in the neighbourhood, demanding action to remove asbestos from a housing estate. And he was introduced to a minister who, he was told, was keen to help Obama’s organising efforts, Rev Jeremiah Wright.

In 1988 Obama made his first journey to Africa, visiting the relatives and half-siblings he had never known, taking several weeks to travel around Kenya with his half-sister Auma. “It was like going through a secret garden,” Auma said. “Discovering a new plant here, a new plant there and watching it bloom.”

Obama listened for hours to Mama Sarah tell her stories, then stopped at the graves of his father and grandfather. “I saw that my life in America . . . all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away,” he wrote later. He sat at the double graveside and wept for a long time, before feeling a “calmness wash over me”.

Back in the US, and after three years of pounding the streets of Chicago – writing short stories on the people he met that were, according to one who read them, “beautifully crafted” – Obama won a place at the very top: Harvard law school. It was there that the first outlines of what would become Obama’s distinctive political style began to form, or at least become apparent.

During his first year he became an editor on the Harvard Law Review– a publication whose prestige has no equivalent outside the US. The foremost jurists in the land submit their writings to a panel of students for acceptance or rejection – and these students then edit the work of their elders. Obama excelled at it. In his second year, he stood for election and became the first African-American president of the Law Review.

He won, thanks, in part, to the votes of conservatives on the review. They did not agree with him on the issues, but they were impressed that he truly listened to them, that he seemed to take them seriously.

On one occasion, he made a speech defending affirmative action that effectively articulated the objections to it. Right-wingers believed Obama had shown them deep understanding and respect. It was a mode of discourse that Obama would employ again and again (most notably in May 2008, when he sought to stem the bleeding caused by his association with the fire-breathing Rev Wright, with a speech that demonstrated empathy for white as well as black resentments). A former teacher at Harvard, Martha Minow, has said that “he spoke with a kind of ability to rise above the conversation and summarise it and reframe it”.

IN THE BREAKS from Harvard, Obama would return to Chicago, increasingly regarding the city as his true home. It was after his first year, in 1989, that he took a summer job at a prominent law firm now called Sidley Austin. There he met Michelle Robinson, a young lawyer at the firm assigned as his mentor.

She was wary at first, a fact she likes to retell: “He grew up in Hawaii! Who grows up in Hawaii? Who names their child Barack Obama?” He seems to have had many fewer doubts about her. She had everything he did not: a solid, stable family rooted in a black American community. Obama soon decided he did not want a career in corporate law and that he wanted to make a life with Michelle.

When he returned to Chicago after graduating from Harvard Law School, he found his reputation had preceded him. His election to the presidency of the Law Review had prompted a clutch of glowing press profiles. Many of the city’s top lawyers wanted to recruit him.

One civil rights lawyer, Judson Miner, had read about Obama and called Harvard to speak to him. “They said, ‘Is this a recruiting call?’ and I said, ‘I guess so,’ ” Miner recalls. “And this young lady said to me – jokingly – ‘Well, you’re going to be 643rd on the list.’ ”

But first Obama responded to a call which had come following those magazine profiles – from a literary agent suggesting he write a book. Initially conceived as a treatise on race relations, it became the deeply personal memoir Dreams from My Father.

Obama returned to Chicago in 1991, to community organising with Project Vote, a registration drive aimed at increasing African-American participation. In less than a year, Obama had hired 10 staff, recruited 700 volunteers and registered 150,000 new voters. It was good experience. Now making contacts with Chicago’s political establishment, he learned from the ground up the mechanics and importance of grassroots organisation. It was his mastery of this often neglected area of politics that would give Obama the edge over Hillary Clinton.

In October 1992, as the project wound up, Obama and Michelle married at Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ. By now Obama had abandoned the agnosticism of his father and the eclectic, pick-and-mix anthropologist’s view of religion of his mother. His search for stability had, in part, led him to become a Christian.

Soon Obama was building a portfolio career. He worked at a law firm renowned for civil rights advocacy and its efforts to improve deprived neighbourhoods. In one case, he represented community organisation Acorn in a successful suit accusing the state of Illinois of failing to help the poor to register to vote.

In another, Obama represented a non-profit economic development group working with landlord Tony Rezko to provide better housing for working-class Chicago residents.

Both those associations would hurt Obama in the 2008 campaign. Republicans accused Acorn of involvement in voter fraud, while Rezko, who later donated money to Obama, was this year convicted on corruption charges.

And Obama was teaching at the University of Chicago. Douglas Baird, the professor who recruited him, recalls a popular lecturer. In addition to Obama’s charisma, Baird says students were drawn to his ability to present ideologically charged subjects such as race, voting rights and constitutional law without thrusting his own beliefs on them.

The Obamas were now living in Hyde Park, an uber-liberal neighbourhood of Chicago dominated by the university. Politically it was idiosyncratic, a middle-class island within the less affluent and largely African-American south side, racially mixed in a city that is still heavily segregated. It always kept a distance from the legendary Chicago Democratic Party machine.

Obama’s thoughts were increasingly focused on elected politics. His years as a community organiser had persuaded him that he couldn’t do enough at grassroots level: the big decisions were taken by elected politicians.

In 1995 he saw his chance. Alice Palmer, a popular African-American member of the Illinois state senate, was vacating her seat, which included Hyde Park, so that she could run for the US Congress. Obama would aim to succeed her.

Baird was horrified. “Our basic view was that he was a very talented man who was squandering his future,” he said. Baird urged him not to waste his intellect on petty state politics but to join the University of Chicago law faculty as a full professor. Obama said no: he was running.

As events unfolded, Obama would show the steel that has been revealed repeatedly in the 2008 campaign and which confounded those who believed he would be too professorial for the hardball of politics. Palmer backed Obama to succeed her but when she lost her congressional race she changed her mind: she wanted to keep her state senate seat. Having built a campaign apparatus, attending countless get-togethers, some tiny, in people’s homes – including one where he met the former Weather Underground militant William Ayers – Obama refused.

Palmer rushed to obtain enough petition signatures to win a spot on the ballot. Obama supporters mounted a legal challenge to the validity of her signatures and had some of them thrown out by a judge. While he was at it, the Obama team spotted irregularities on the rest of his opponents’ forms too. By the time he was done, Obama’s was the only name left on the ballot.

He arrived in the state senate in Springfield, Illinois, facing hostility, especially from some African-American colleagues who had been fond of Palmer. Two men in particular constantly ribbed Obama, interrupting and heckling him while he spoke. They called him a “white man in blackface”, rifling through his autobiography to find more ammunition to hurl, taunting him for being raised by a white woman. One favourite line, according to the Washington Post, was: “You figure out whether you’re white or black yet, Barack, or still searching?”

With his wife and, later, two daughters back home in Chicago, it was a solitary life. He lived in the Renaissance Inn on the edge of downtown, playing basketball at the YMCA in the morning and watching sports on TV at night. The highlight was an hour-long phone call with his wife every evening.

But Obama learned a crucial lesson in Springfield, that progress wouldn’t come through smart policy papers or stirring speeches. Relationships were the key. He had to win the trust and support of his colleagues.

He headed for the golf course, realising that was where the old boys were doing much of the business. When a first round proved a disaster, he took lessons. He joined the senators’ poker game – “with more skill than luck,” says one former player, more “cerebral” than instinctive – faithfully bringing a six-pack of beers to each game. His poker buddies were all over 50 – and all white.

Obama had an aide advise him in the science of being a regular guy. Among the lessons: order regular mustard, not Dijon, and no more button-down shirts.

Soon he was earning respect. Obama made a point of cultivating Emil Jones, a veteran African-American member of the senate who emerged as a key mentor – one of several older men in Obama’s career who, amateur psychology would suggest, served as surrogate fathers. As Obama eyed an even greater prize – a seat in the US Senate – he became utterly open in his ambition, explaining to Jones that he wanted to pass enough important bills to build a record on which he could run for higher office. Eight years after his arrival as a novice, Obama was becoming one of Springfield’s senior players. The wordy speeches were gone, replaced by rare, concise interventions reserved only for topics of sufficient weight.

Crucial in this transformation was the same knack he had shown at Harvard for bringing conservatives on board, even for liberal initiatives.

A showcase for that talent was a proposed crackdown on police guilty of stopping more black drivers than white. Republicans opposed the move, seeing it as an attack on the men in uniform. Patiently Obama went through the legislation, meeting specific objections one at a time. He won over the right by explaining that the new law would protect Illinois from potentially costly lawsuits for racial discrimination. Eventually, the bill passed – with both Republican and police support.

IN SPRINGFIELD, OBAMA underwent a training in the practical politics of pragmatism. Even when the greatest foreign policy issue of the age – the Iraq war – loomed, he found a way to stake out a left-of-centre position that might not alienate the right. Addressing a rally in Chicago’s Federal Plaza in October 2002, Obama delivered a stunning denunciation of the planned invasion, at a time when such a stance was not popular nationally. And yet those there were struck by Obama’s opening line, repeated several times. “I don’t oppose all wars,” he said, as if trying to bring aboard moderates who would not ordinarily join the anti-war cause.

The spell in Springfield had included only one unambiguous mistake. In 1999, Obama saw Congressman Bobby Rush, a former member of the Black Panther party, lose a challenge to Chicago mayor Richard Daley. Against the advice of a string of mentors, Obama sensed an opening and challenged Rush for his congressional seat in a primary. But he miscalculated Rush’s vulnerability, underestimating his popularity in the 70 per cent African-American district.

Rush derided Obama as a dilettante backed by well-heeled whites in Hyde Park – the first surfacing of the “not black enough” charge that would become an early worry in the battle for the Democratic nomination – and crushed him by a margin of two to one.

And yet, the defeat turned out to be the first in a series of lucky breaks for Obama. Mark Karlin, a former PR consultant, says that it forced him to broaden his political horizons. “He realised he wasn’t a ‘black candidate’, that he wasn’t going to be the voice of the black community. He’s a blend of America, and he came to see that as an asset,” Karlin says.

If Obama had won the seat in the House, it would have been too early to go for the bigger target in the Senate a couple of years later. With luck on his side, Obama saw not one but two opponents fall by the wayside, destroyed by messy divorce scandals. Boosted by a series of high-profile endorsements and a single TV ad in which Obama called for politicians to tackle problems, not each other, he won the Democratic nomination comfortably with impressive numbers of white votes. Then, in November 2004, he won the Senate seat itself with a staggering 70 per cent of the vote.

Obama’s candidacy had caught the eye of the John Kerry campaign as they sought a keynote speaker for the Democratic national convention in the summer of 2004. The Senate candidate in Illinois was not only young but he had a remarkable, uplifting story to tell. And Kerry wanted his convention to be positive.Although then still a mere state senator his message – there were no red states, no blue states, only the United States – struck such a chord that Obama literally became famous overnight. Dreams from My Fatherwas reissued and became a huge bestseller. He was not just a celebrity, but a phenomenon. The buzz about a presidential candidacy began before he had even been sworn into the Senate in January 2005.

That posed a challenge for the freshman senator. Mindful of the resentments he could stir, he vowed to earn the respect of his colleagues. He refused national media interviews, devoting his time instead to getting to know the state he now represented in Washington. In his first nine months in office, he travelled to the remote corners of Illinois nearly 40 times, holding constituency surgeries in out-of-the-way libraries and village halls.

He avoided glamorous assignments, speaking in the Senate on workaday topics like roads and dams. He would make a point of deferring to longer-serving colleagues. Crowds may have mobbed his office, hoping for a glimpse or an autograph, but he preferred to put in 12-hour days, eating take-away food at his desk.

This time, he did not even attempt the clubbable chumminess he had affected in Springfield. Perhaps sensing there was no time for that, he focused only on the work. Solitary while most senators are social, and with his wife and daughters still in Chicago, he returned to the monastic habits of his student days. He leased a one-bedroom apartment, in a neighbourhood filled by people half his age who kept him up at night. Friends would receive draft sections of his second book, The Audacity of Hope, that had been e-mailed at 3 or 4am. Work and exercise, that was Obama’s Washington life. Then, when the legislative session was over each week, he would rush to the airport to fly home – economy class – to see his family.

AT LEAST ONE aspect of Obama’s modus operandi should travel with him into the White House. By all accounts, it’s the same working method he employed at the Harvard Law Review.

He would ask his policy advisers to convene the top experts in a given field for a dinner. Obama would make introductory remarks, then sit back and listen – hard. Similarly, when convening his own staff for a key decision, he might stretch out on a couch on his office, his eyes closed, listening. According to one account, “he asked everybody in the room to take turns sharing their advice, insisting on the participation of even his most quiet, junior staffers”. He particularly encouraged internal argument.

After eight years of a president who ostracised those advisers who dared to tell him what he did not want to hear, the Obama style will mark quite a change.

America’s new president arrives with a distinction shared by perhaps none of his predecessors. Barack Obama’s most unique feature may well be his self-awareness. He is someone who has reflected on himself and his background with often brutal clarity: Dreams from My Fatheris searingly honest. The result of that process of introspection is a man who has come to terms with himself, a man unusually comfortable in his own skin.

This might explain the preternatural calm Obama has displayed through the last two years. He says of himself that he does not get too high and does not get too low. Journalists who have followed him describe his “inner gyroscope”, his almost freakish ability to stay steady – like a man able to lower his blood pressure at will.

It should not be underestimated how rare this is in a first-rank politician.

Many, if not most, are driven by some kind of neediness: Bill Clinton craved the love of a crowd. But Obama seems to need nothing, except maybe solitude: spells in the gym or time on his campaign plane, left alone with only his iPod for company.

The upshot of all this is that Obama can seem aloof. Some Democrats always feared Obama was too chilly to connect with poorer, blue-collar voters. And it can translate into arrogance. During his Senate campaign, he confided to longtime family friend Valerie Jarrett his ambition to be president. “He said, ‘I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn’t it be a shame to waste them.’ He said, ‘You know, I just think I have something.’ ”

Such inner confidence is a strength. He won, in part, because he ran a campaign that was as steady and unruffled as he is. Its motto: no leaks, no drama. His second book makes plain that Obama can see the absurdities of political life; he is able to write about politics with an ironic, amused detachment. By keeping some part of himself outside the hurly-burly – viewing the conversation from above, as his former Harvard tutor put it – he avoids drowning in the immediate, the day-to-day. He can see the bigger picture.

Even if Barack Obama had lost the election, you would say he has had a remarkable life and that his is an extraordinary story. It is rooted in two faraway continents and began on an island in the distant Pacific. It involved a struggle to reconcile black and white within the soul of a single man, a quest to find the solid after a childhood in which too much had been fleeting. And now it has seen the son of a goatherd in Africa and a young mother from Kansas ascend to the most powerful office in the world.

Incredible as it seems, all that is mere prologue. The story’s most remarkable chapter starts today.

– ( Guardianservice)

Additional reporting: Daniel Nasaw, Xan Rice, Dan Glaister and Ian McKinnon