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A riveting, deeply personal account of history in the making—from the president who inspired us to believe in the power of democracy In the stirring, highly anticipated first volume of his presidential memoirs, Barack Obama tells the story of his improbable odyssey from young man searching for his identity to leader of the free world, describing in strikingly personal detail both his political education and the landmark moments of the first term of his historic presidency—a time of dramatic transformation and turmoil. Obama takes readers on a compelling journey from his earliest political aspirations to the pivotal Iowa caucus victory that demonstrated the power of grassroots activism to the watershed night of November 4, 2008, when he was elected 44th president of the United States, becoming the first African American to hold the nation’s highest office. Reflecting on the presidency, he offers a unique and thoughtful exploration of both the awesome reach and the limits of presidential power, as well as singular insights into the dynamics of U.S. partisan politics and international diplomacy. Obama brings readers inside the Oval Office and the White House Situation Room, and to Moscow, Cairo, Beijing, and points beyond. We are privy to his thoughts as he assembles his cabinet, wrestles with a global financial crisis, takes the measure of Vladimir Putin, overcomes seemingly insurmountable odds to secure passage of the Affordable Care Act, clashes with generals about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, tackles Wall Street reform, responds to the devastating Deepwater Horizon blowout, and authorizes Operation Neptune’s Spear, which leads to the death of Osama bin Laden. A Promised Land is extraordinarily intimate and introspective—the story of one man’s bet with history, the faith of a community organizer tested on the world stage. Obama is candid about the balancing act of running for office as a Black American, bearing the expectations of a generation buoyed by messages of “hope and change,” and meeting the moral challenges of high-stakes decision-making. He is frank about the forces that opposed him at home and abroad, open about how living in the White House affected his wife and daughters, and unafraid to reveal self-doubt and disappointment. Yet he never wavers from his belief that inside the great, ongoing American experiment, progress is always possible. This beautifully written and powerful book captures Barack Obama’s conviction that democracy is not a gift from on high but something founded on empathy and common understanding and built together, day by day.
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Winston Moore
I have read couple or books but Obama's collection gave me deep reflection about life, heritage, personality and living a normal way of life and I act upon the audacity of Hope" to be a modest human being and a patriot to my country and to love my fellow man irrespective or color, race and ethnicity....
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A promise land
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Follow me on Goodreads @:Ink&Paper

I knew this was one of those books. The kind which enables the readers to stand up a little straight, talk a bit more loud and express your opinions with an honesty that surprises others. The kind of book that gives away confidence to light up a room, imparting wisdom, and making anyone a better person.

In 2009, I saw in the news that America had a new president, and I specifically remember my grandparents telling me that change was about to be brought. Being really young at that time, I didn't know what it meant. After 4 years, the same president was again re-elected, and at that point I knew that Barack Obama was someone who was different, someone who upheld his promises.
Mr. Obama's legacy still continues, the memory of the change that he brought is still imprinted on the minds of Americans, immigrants, and people all over the world.
A Promised Land, has one of the most beautiful prefaces that I have ever read. Hope and beauty was interlaced within the words of the former president of America. He invites the youth to join hands and make this world a better place.

But the idea of America, the promise of America, this I clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even me. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal"-that was my America.

The passion that he had to serve his country is deeply reflected in these words, as well the whole book. Any profession, done with sincerity amounts to produce successful results, but when it is done with passion, it becomes extraordinary. The example of the 44th U.S president is the evidence for that.
Obama starts the book with descriptions from his childhood. How he was ignorant at first, playing basketball, getting loaded, trying to impress girls, and reading books by great authors which was above his level of understanding. But he is certain now that his amount of reading actually served his way to become a great orator. The love and support that he received from his mother and grandmother is fondly looked back upon by him too, which makes the readers smile.
He entered the political arena as the senator of Illinois, and later embarked on the race to be president. During this time, he had to compromise on many things. Michelle Obama showed a reluctance to his decision to become president, knowing that it was exhausting. But he nonetheless became the president.

In life, every man has twin obligations — obligations to his family, to his parents, to his wife and children; and he has an obligation to his people, his community, his country. In a civil and humane society, each man is able to fulfil those obligations according to his own inclinations and abilities.
-Nelson Mandela

Just like this quote by Mandela, Obama was able to fulfill both his duties, the one to his country as well his family. But he recalls that he was never able to spend time as he wanted with his two daughters and his wife as he pleased, given his hectic work schedule. His work demanded a significant part of him, which was bittersweet.
The role of media, how they twist the words that one speaks, and how as a person he had to be cautious about it, was well described by him. Often, he was labelled as a foreigner, because he had a Muslim name, had Indonesian and Hawaiian roots. Despite the challenges thrown at him, he overcame all of them with his determination and dedication.

Now, how did I read this book, which was 700 pages long? To be honest, the book was a bit too much for a young girl like me, and at certain points, I was tempted to skim. But I honestly did not, knowing that this book was something special. I had to look up a lot of words, as my vocabulary is very limited. The candid descriptions of the author actually provided a steady path for me, which was why I was able to finish the book.
Obama made a promise that he would serve his country to his full potential, and he certainly did. For me, he is the great leader who contributed so much which resulted in the U.S becoming
'A Promised Land'. Just like the meaning of his name, he certainly is blessed.

And so the world watches America-the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice-to see if our experiment in democracy can work.

( I could quote the whole book if I wanted to, as the lines that Obama has written are profoundly moving)

There are a lot of things left unsaid in this review, and recounting all of them would ruin the effect of the book, so, my humble opinions have to be stopped here.

More than anyone, this book is for those young people-an invitation to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us

As I clutched this book to my chest, the wind whispered, "Inspiring"....
14 January 2021 (14:23) 
Thanks for this. I have been looking for this one
05 March 2021 (17:22) 
A delusional narcissist in his own right. His true legacy is Trump.
10 March 2021 (02:33) 

28 June 2021 (13:15) 

28 June 2021 (13:16) 
Wow, what an assclown. Hey start any wars lately barry
08 September 2021 (23:38) 
the "drone warrior in chief" live to tell his life story but forgot to tell the story of thousands yemeni, iraqi, afgans he killed with his "drone program"
09 October 2021 (05:05) 
Media created, media protected, and truly an empty suit. Like a Hollywood set or façade. Looks good on the outside, but no depth or substance beyond that. I almost got Diabetes reading excerpts of the book. A marvelous exercise in narcissistic pathology. Remember Hope & Change? What that really meant was: After he finished his turn as President, you only Hope you had any Change left in your pockets. He raped this nation and created more division than many before him.
15 November 2021 (17:30) 

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A Promised Land

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Gem of Gravane

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Dreams from My Father

The Audacity of Hope

Copyright © 2020 by Barack Obama

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

CROWN and the Crown colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

The letter from Nicole Brandon on this page has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Hardback ISBN 9781524763169

Deluxe Edition ISBN 9780593239049

Ebook ISBN 9781524763183

Photograph credits appear on this page.

Book design by Elizabeth Rendfleisch, adapted for ebook

Cover design: Christopher Brand

Cover photograph: Pari Dukovic


To Michelle—my love and life’s partner


Malia and Sasha—whose dazzling light makes everything brighter

O, fly and never tire,

Fly and never tire,

Fly and never tire,

There’s a great camp-meeting in the Promised Land.


Don’t discount our powers;

We have made a pass

At the infinite.











































IBEGAN WRITING THIS BOOK shortly after the end of my presidency—after Michelle and I had boarded Air Force One for the last time and traveled west for a long-deferred break. The mood on the plane was bittersweet. Both of us were drained, physically and emotionally, not only by the labors of the previous eight years but by the unexpected results of an election;  in which someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for had been chosen as my successor. Still, having run our leg of the race to completion, we took satisfaction in knowing that we’d done our very best—and that however much I’d fallen short as president, whatever projects I’d hoped but failed to accomplish, the country was in better shape now than it had been when I’d started. For a month, Michelle and I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock, replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act. And by the time I was ready to get back to work and sat down with a pen and yellow pad (I still like writing things out in longhand, finding that a computer gives even my roughest drafts too smooth a gloss and lends half-baked thoughts the mask of tidiness), I had a clear outline of the book in my head.

First and foremost, I hoped to give an honest rendering of my time in office—not just a historical record of key events that happened on my watch and important figures with whom I interacted but also an account of some of the political, economic, and cultural crosscurrents that helped determine the challenges my administration faced and the choices my team and I made in response. Where possible, I wanted to offer readers a sense of what it’s like to be the president of the United States; I wanted to pull the curtain back a bit and remind people that, for all its power and pomp, the presidency is still just a job and our federal government is a human enterprise like any other, and the men and women who work in the White House experience the same daily mix of satisfaction, disappointment, office friction, screw-ups, and small triumphs as the rest of their fellow citizens. Finally, I wanted to tell a more personal story that might inspire young people considering a life of public service: how my career in politics really started with a search for a place to fit in, a way to explain the different strands of my mixed-up heritage, and how it was only by hitching my wagon to something larger than myself that I was ultimately able to locate a community and purpose for my life.

I figured I could do all that in maybe five hundred pages. I expected to be done in a year.

It’s fair to say that the writing process didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. Despite my best intentions, the book kept growing in length and scope—the reason why I eventually decided to break it into two volumes. I’m painfully aware that a more gifted writer could have found a way to tell the same story with greater brevity (after all, my home office in the White House sat right next to the Lincoln Bedroom, where a signed copy of the 272-word Gettysburg Address rests beneath a glass case). But each time that I sat down to write—whether it was to describe the early phases of my campaign, or my administration’s handling of the financial crisis, or negotiations with the Russians on nuclear arms control, or the forces that led to the Arab Spring—I found my mind resisting a simple linear narrative. Often, I felt obliged to provide context for the decisions I and others had made, and I didn’t want to relegate that background to footnotes or endnotes (I hate footnotes and endnotes). I discovered that I couldn’t always explain my motivations just by referencing reams of economic data or recalling an exhaustive Oval Office briefing, for they’d been shaped by a conversation I’d had with a stranger on the campaign trail, a visit to a military hospital, or a childhood lesson I’d received years earlier from my mother. Repeatedly my memories would toss up seemingly incidental details (trying to find a discreet location to grab an evening smoke; my staff and I having a laugh while playing cards aboard Air Force One) that captured, in a way the public record never could, my lived experience during the eight years I spent in the White House.

Beyond the struggle to put words on a page, what I didn’t fully anticipate was the way events would unfold during the three and a half years after that last flight on Air Force One. As I sit here, the country remains in the grips of a global pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis, with more than 178,000 Americans dead, businesses shuttered, and millions of people out of work. Across the nation, people from all walks of life have poured into the streets to protest the deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of the police. Perhaps most troubling of all, our democracy seems to be teetering on the brink of crisis—a crisis rooted in a fundamental contest between two opposing visions of what America is and what it should be; a crisis that has left the body politic divided, angry, and mistrustful, and has allowed for an ongoing breach of institutional norms, procedural safeguards, and the adherence to basic facts that both Republicans and Democrats once took for granted.

This contest is not new, of course. In many ways, it has defined the American experience. It’s embedded in founding documents that could simultaneously proclaim all men equal and yet count a slave as three-fifths of a man. It finds expression in our earliest court opinions, as when the chief justice of the Supreme Court bluntly explains to Native Americans that their tribe’s rights to convey property aren’t enforceable since the court of the conqueror has no capacity to recognize the just claims of the conquered. It’s a contest that’s been fought on the fields of Gettysburg and Appomattox but also in the halls of Congress, on a bridge in Selma, across the vineyards of California, and down the streets of New York—a contest fought by soldiers but more often by union organizers, suffragists, Pullman porters, student leaders, waves of immigrants, and LGBTQ activists, armed with nothing more than picket signs, pamphlets, or a pair of marching shoes. At the heart of this long-running battle is a simple question: Do we care to match the reality of America to its ideals? If so, do we really believe that our notions of self-government and individual freedom, equality of opportunity and equality before the law, apply to everybody? Or are we instead committed, in practice if not in statute, to reserving those things for a privileged few?

I recognize that there are those who believe that it’s time to discard the myth—that an examination of America’s past and an even cursory glance at today’s headlines show that this nation’s ideals have always been secondary to conquest and subjugation, a racial caste system and rapacious capitalism, and that to pretend otherwise is to be complicit in a game that was rigged from the start. And I confess that there have been times during the course of writing this book, as I’ve reflected on my presidency and all that’s happened since, when I’ve had to ask myself whether I was too tempered in speaking the truth as I saw it, too cautious in either word or deed, convinced as I was that by appealing to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature I stood a greater chance of leading us in the direction of the America we’ve been promised.

I don’t know. What I can say for certain is that I’m not yet ready to abandon the possibility of America—not just for the sake of future generations of Americans but for all of humankind. For I’m convinced that the pandemic we’re currently living through is both a manifestation of and a mere interruption in the relentless march toward an interconnected world, one in which peoples and cultures can’t help but collide. In that world—of global supply chains, instantaneous capital transfers, social media, transnational terrorist networks, climate change, mass migration, and ever-increasing complexity—we will learn to live together, cooperate with one another, and recognize the dignity of others, or we will perish. And so the world watches America—the only great power in history made up of people from every corner of the planet, comprising every race and faith and cultural practice—to see if our experiment in democracy can work. To see if we can do what no other nation has ever done. To see if we can actually live up to the meaning of our creed.

The jury’s still out. By the time this first volume is published, a U.S. election will have taken place, and while I believe the stakes could not be higher, I also know that no single election will settle the matter. If I remain hopeful, it’s because I’ve learned to place my faith in my fellow citizens, especially those of the next generation, whose conviction in the equal worth of all people seems to come as second nature, and who insist on making real those principles that their parents and teachers told them were true but perhaps never fully believed themselves. More than anyone, this book is for those young people—an invitation to once again remake the world, and to bring about, through hard work, determination, and a big dose of imagination, an America that finally aligns with all that is best in us.

August 2020




OF ALL THE ROOMS and halls and landmarks that make up the White House and its grounds, it was the West Colonnade that I loved best.

For eight years that walkway would frame my day, a minute-long, open-air commute from home to office and back again. It was where each morning I felt the first slap of winter wind or pulse of summer heat; the place where I’d gather my thoughts, ticking through the meetings that lay ahead, preparing arguments for skeptical members of Congress or anxious constituents, girding myself for this decision or that slow-rolling crisis.

In the earliest days of the White House, the executive offices and the First Family’s residence fit under one roof, and the West Colonnade was little more than a path to the horse stables. But when Teddy Roosevelt came into office, he determined that a single building couldn’t accommodate a modern staff, six boisterous children, and his sanity. He ordered construction of what would become the West Wing and Oval Office, and over decades and successive presidencies, the colonnade’s current configuration emerged: a bracket to the Rose Garden north and west—the thick wall on the north side, mute and unadorned save for high half-moon windows; the stately white columns on the west side, like an honor guard assuring safe passage.

As a general rule, I’m a slow walker—a Hawaiian walk, Michelle likes to say, sometimes with a hint of impatience. I walked differently, though, on the colonnade, conscious of the history that had been made there and those who had preceded me. My stride got longer, my steps a bit brisker, my footfall on stone echoed by the Secret Service detail trailing me a few yards back. When I reached the ramp at the end of the colonnade (a legacy of FDR and his wheelchair—I picture him smiling, chin out, cigarette holder clenched tight in his teeth as he strains to roll up the incline), I’d wave at the uniformed guard just inside the glass-paned door. Sometimes the guard would be holding back a surprised flock of visitors. If I had time, I would shake their hands and ask where they were from. Usually, though, I just turned left, following the outer wall of the Cabinet Room and slipping into the side door by the Oval Office, where I greeted my personal staff, grabbed my schedule and a cup of hot tea, and started the business of the day.

Several times a week, I would step out onto the colonnade to find the groundskeepers, all employees of the National Park Service, working in the Rose Garden. They were older men, mostly, dressed in green khaki uniforms, sometimes matched with a floppy hat to block the sun, or a bulky coat against the cold. If I wasn’t running late, I might stop to compliment them on the fresh plantings or ask about the damage done by the previous night’s storm, and they’d explain their work with quiet pride. They were men of few words; even with one another they made their points with a gesture or a nod, each of them focused on his individual task but all of them moving with synchronized grace. One of the oldest was Ed Thomas, a tall, wiry Black man with sunken cheeks who had worked at the White House for forty years. The first time I met him, he reached into his back pocket for a cloth to wipe off the dirt before shaking my hand. His hand, thick with veins and knots like the roots of a tree, engulfed mine. I asked how much longer he intended to stay at the White House before taking his retirement.

“I don’t know, Mr. President,” he said. “I like to work. Getting a little hard on the joints. But I reckon I might stay long as you’re here. Make sure the garden looks good.”

Oh, how good that garden looked! The shady magnolias rising high at each corner; the hedges, thick and rich green; the crab apple trees pruned just so. And the flowers, cultivated in greenhouses a few miles away, providing a constant explosion of color—reds and yellows and pinks and purples; in spring, the tulips massed in bunches, their heads tilted toward the sun; in summer, lavender heliotrope and geraniums and lilies; in fall, chrysanthemums and daisies and wildflowers. And always a few roses, red mostly but sometimes yellow or white, each one flush in its bloom.

Each time I walked down the colonnade or looked out the window of the Oval Office, I saw the handiwork of the men and women who worked outside. They reminded me of the small Norman Rockwell painting I kept on the wall, next to the portrait of George Washington and above the bust of Dr. King: five tiny figures of varying skin tones, workingmen in dungarees, hoisted up by ropes into a crisp blue sky to polish the lamp of Lady Liberty. The men in the painting, the groundskeepers in the garden—they were guardians, I thought, the quiet priests of a good and solemn order. And I would tell myself that I needed to work as hard and take as much care in my job as they did in theirs.

With time, my walks down the colonnade would accumulate with memories. There were the big public events, of course—announcements made before a phalanx of cameras, press conferences with foreign leaders. But there were also the moments few others saw—Malia and Sasha racing each other to greet me on a surprise afternoon visit, or our dogs, Bo and Sunny, bounding through the snow, their paws sinking so deep that their chins were bearded white. Tossing footballs on a bright fall day, or comforting an aide after a personal hardship.

Such images would often flash through my mind, interrupting whatever calculations were occupying me. They reminded me of time passing, sometimes filling me with longing—a desire to turn back the clock and begin again. This wasn’t possible on my morning walk, for time’s arrow moved only forward then; the day’s work beckoned; I needed to focus on only those things to come.

The night was different. On the evening walk back to the residence, my briefcase stuffed with papers, I would try to slow myself down, sometimes even stop. I’d breathe air laced with the scent of soil and grass and pollen, and listen to the wind or the patter of rain. I sometimes stared at the light against the columns, and the regal mass of the White House, its flag aloft on the roof, lit bright, or I’d look toward the Washington Monument piercing the black sky in the distance, occasionally catching sight of the moon and stars above it, or the twinkling of a passing jet.

In moments like these, I would wonder at the strange path—and the idea—that had brought me to this place.

* * *


I DON’T COME from a political family. My maternal grandparents were midwesterners from mostly Scots-Irish stock. They would have been considered liberal, especially by the standards of the Depression-era Kansas towns they were born in, and they were diligent about keeping up with the news. “It’s part of being a well-informed citizen,” my grandmother, whom we all called Toot (short for Tutu, or Grandma, in Hawaiian), would tell me, peering over the top of her morning Honolulu Advertiser. But she and my grandfather had no firm ideological or partisan leanings to speak of, beyond what they considered to be common sense. They thought about work—my grandmother was vice president of escrow at one of the local banks, my grandfather a life insurance salesman—and paying the bills, and the small diversions that life had to offer.

And anyway, they lived on Oahu, where nothing seemed that urgent. After years spent in places as disparate as Oklahoma, Texas, and Washington State, they’d finally moved to Hawaii in 1960, a year after its statehood was established. A big ocean now separated them from riots and protests and other such things. The only political conversation I can recall my grandparents having while I was growing up had to do with a beachside bar: Honolulu’s mayor had torn down Gramps’s favorite watering hole in order to renovate the beachfront at the far end of Waikiki.

Gramps never forgave him for it.

My mother, Ann Dunham, was different, full of strong opinions. My grandparents’ only child, she rebelled against convention in high school—reading beatnik poets and French existentialists, joyriding with a friend to San Francisco for days without telling anyone. As a kid, I’d hear from her about civil rights marches, and why the Vietnam War was a misguided disaster; about the women’s movement (yes on equal pay, not as keen on not shaving her legs) and the War on Poverty. When we moved to Indonesia to live with my stepfather, she made sure to explain the sins of government corruption (“It’s just stealing, Barry”), even if everyone appeared to be doing it. Later, during the summer I turned twelve, when we went on a month-long family vacation traveling across the United States, she insisted we watch the Watergate hearings every night, providing her own running commentary (“What do you expect from a McCarthyite?”).

She didn’t just focus on headlines either. Once, when she discovered I had been part of a group that was teasing a kid at school, she sat me down in front of her, lips pursed with disappointment.

“You know, Barry,” she said (that’s the nickname she and my grandparents used for me when I was growing up, often shortened to “Bar,” pronounced “Bear”), “there are people in the world who think only about themselves. They don’t care what happens to other people so long as they get what they want. They put other people down to make themselves feel important.

“Then there are people who do the opposite, who are able to imagine how others must feel, and make sure that they don’t do things that hurt people.

“So,” she said, looking me squarely in the eye. “Which kind of person do you want to be?”

I felt lousy. As she intended it to, her question stayed with me for a long time.

For my mother, the world was full of opportunities for moral instruction. But I never knew her to get involved in a political campaign. Like my grandparents, she was suspicious of platforms, doctrines, absolutes, preferring to express her values on a smaller canvas. “The world is complicated, Bar. That’s why it’s interesting.” Dismayed by the war in Southeast Asia, she’d end up spending most of her life there, absorbing the language and culture, setting up micro-lending programs for people in poverty long before micro-credit became trendy in international development. Appalled by racism, she would marry outside her race not once but twice, and go on to lavish what seemed like an inexhaustible love on her two brown children. Incensed by societal constraints put upon women, she’d divorce both men when they proved overbearing or disappointing, carving out a career of her own choosing, raising her kids according to her own standards of decency, and pretty much doing whatever she damn well pleased.

In my mother’s world, the personal really was political—although she wouldn’t have had much use for the slogan.

None of this is to say that she lacked ambition for her son. Despite the financial strain, she and my grandparents would send me to Punahou, Hawaii’s top prep school. The thought of me not going to college was never entertained. But no one in my family would ever have suggested I might hold public office someday. If you’d asked my mother, she might have imagined that I’d end up heading a philanthropic institution like the Ford Foundation. My grandparents would have loved to see me become a judge, or a great courtroom lawyer like Perry Mason.

“Might as well put that smart mouth of his to use,” Gramps would say.

Since I didn’t know my father, he didn’t have much input. I vaguely understood that he had worked for the Kenyan government for a time, and when I was ten, he traveled from Kenya to stay with us for a month in Honolulu. That was the first and last I saw of him; after that, I heard from him only through the occasional letter, written on thin blue airmail paper that was preprinted to fold and address without an envelope. “Your mother tells me you think you may want to study architecture,” one letter might read. “I think this is a very practical profession, and one that can be practiced anywhere in the world.”

It was not much to go on.

As for the world beyond my family—well, what they would see for most of my teenage years was not a budding leader but rather a lackadaisical student, a passionate basketball player of limited talent, and an incessant, dedicated partyer. No student government for me; no Eagle Scouts or interning at the local congressman’s office. Through high school, my friends and I didn’t discuss much beyond sports, girls, music, and plans for getting loaded.

Three of these guys—Bobby Titcomb, Greg Orme, and Mike Ramos—remain some of my closest friends. To this day, we can laugh for hours over stories of our misspent youth. In later years, they would throw themselves into my campaigns with a loyalty for which I will always be grateful, becoming as skilled at defending my record as anyone on MSNBC.

But there were also times during my presidency—after they had watched me speak to a big crowd, say, or receive a series of crisp salutes from young Marines during a base tour—when their faces would betray a certain bafflement, as if they were trying to reconcile the graying man in a suit and tie with the ill-defined man-child they’d once known.

That guy? they must have said to themselves. How the hell did that happen?

And if my friends had ever asked me directly, I’m not sure I’d have had a good answer.

* * *


I DO KNOW that sometime in high school I started asking questions—about my father’s absence and my mother’s choices; about how it was I’d come to live in a place where few people looked like me. A lot of the questions centered on race: Why did Blacks play professional basketball but not coach it? What did that girl from school mean when she said she didn’t think of me as Black? Why were all the Black men in action movies switchblade-wielding lunatics except for maybe the one decent Black guy—the sidekick, of course—who always seemed to end up getting killed?

But I wasn’t concerned only with race. It was class as well. Growing up in Indonesia, I’d seen the yawning chasm between the lives of wealthy elites and impoverished masses. I had a nascent awareness of the tribal tensions in my father’s country—the hatred that could exist between those who on the surface might look the same. I bore daily witness to the seemingly cramped lives of my grandparents, the disappointments they filled with TV and liquor and sometimes a new appliance or car. I noticed that my mother paid for her intellectual freedom with chronic financial struggles and occasional personal chaos, and I became attuned to the not-so-subtle hierarchies among my prep school classmates, mostly having to do with how much money their parents had. And then there was the unsettling fact that, despite whatever my mother might claim, the bullies, cheats, and self-promoters seemed to be doing quite well, while those she considered good and decent people seemed to get screwed an awful lot.

All of this pulled me in different directions. It was as if, because of the very strangeness of my heritage and the worlds I straddled, I was from everywhere and nowhere at once, a combination of ill-fitting parts, like a platypus or some imaginary beast, confined to a fragile habitat, unsure of where I belonged. And I sensed, without fully understanding why or how, that unless I could stitch my life together and situate myself along some firm axis, I might end up in some basic way living my life alone.

I didn’t talk to anyone about this, certainly not my friends or family. I didn’t want to hurt their feelings or stand out more than I already did. But I did find refuge in books. The reading habit was my mother’s doing, instilled early in my childhood—her go-to move anytime I complained of boredom, or when she couldn’t afford to send me to the international school in Indonesia, or when I had to accompany her to the office because she didn’t have a babysitter.

Go read a book, she would say. Then come back and tell me something you learned.

There were a few years when I lived with my grandparents in Hawaii while my mother continued her work in Indonesia and raised my younger sister, Maya. Without my mother around to nag me, I didn’t learn as much, as my grades readily attested. Then, around tenth grade, that changed. I still remember going with my grandparents to a rummage sale at the Central Union Church, across the street from our apartment, and finding myself in front of a bin of old hardcover books. For some reason, I started pulling out titles that appealed to me, or sounded vaguely familiar—books by Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes, Robert Penn Warren and Dostoyevsky, D. H. Lawrence and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Gramps, who was eyeing a set of used golf clubs, gave me a confused look when I walked up with my box of books.

“Planning to open a library?”

My grandmother shushed him, finding my sudden interest in literature admirable. Ever practical, she did suggest I might want to focus on my class assignments before digging into Crime and Punishment.

I ended up reading all those books, sometimes late, after I got home from basketball practice and a six-pack with my friends, sometimes after bodysurfing on a Saturday afternoon, sitting alone in Gramps’s rickety old Ford Granada with a towel around my waist to avoid getting the upholstery wet. When I finished with the first set of books, I went to other rummage sales, looking for more. Much of what I read I only dimly understood; I took to circling unfamiliar words to look up in the dictionary, although I was less scrupulous about decoding pronunciations—deep into my twenties I would know the meaning of words I couldn’t pronounce. There was no system to this, no rhyme or pattern. I was like a young tinkerer in my parents’ garage, gathering up old cathode-ray tubes and bolts and loose wires, not sure what I’d do with any of it, but convinced it would prove handy once I figured out the nature of my calling.

* * *


MY INTEREST IN books probably explains why I not only survived high school but arrived at Occidental College in 1979 with a thin but passable knowledge of political issues and a series of half-baked opinions that I’d toss out during late-night bull sessions in the dorm.

Looking back, it’s embarrassing to recognize the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was attempting to get to know: Marx and Marcuse so I had something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm; Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for the smooth-skinned sociology major who never gave me a second look; Foucault and Woolf for the ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black. As a strategy for picking up girls, my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless; I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste friendships.

Still, these halting efforts served a purpose: Something approaching a worldview took shape in my mind. I was helped along by a handful of professors who tolerated my iffy study habits and my youthful pretensions. I was helped even more by a handful of mostly older students—Black kids from the inner city, white kids who had scratched their way into college from small towns, first-generation Latino kids, international students from Pakistan or India or countries in Africa that teetered on the edge of chaos. They knew what mattered to them; when they spoke in class, their views were rooted in actual communities, actual struggles. Here’s what these budget cuts mean in my neighborhood. Let me tell you about my school before you complain about affirmative action. The First Amendment is great, but why does the U.S. government say nothing about the political prisoners in my country?

The two years I spent at Occidental represented the start of my political awakening. But that didn’t mean I believed in politics. With few exceptions, everything I observed about politicians seemed dubious: the blow-dried hair, the wolfish grins, the bromides and self-peddling on TV while behind closed doors they curried the favor of corporations and other monied interests. They were actors in a rigged game, I decided, and I wanted no part of it.

What did capture my attention was something broader and less conventional—not political campaigns but social movements, where ordinary people joined together to make change. I became a student of the suffragists and early labor organizers; of Gandhi and Lech Wałesa and the African National Congress. Most of all I was inspired by the young leaders of the civil rights movement—not just Dr. King but John Lewis and Bob Moses, Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash. In their heroic efforts—going door-to-door to register voters, sitting down at lunch counters, and marching to freedom songs—I saw the possibility of practicing the values my mother had taught me; how you could build power not by putting others down but by lifting them up. This was true democracy at work—democracy not as a gift from on high, or a division of spoils between interest groups, but rather democracy that was earned, the work of everybody. The result was not just a change in material conditions but a sense of dignity for people and communities, a bond between those who had once seemed far apart.

This, I decided, was an ideal worth pursuing. I just needed focus. After my sophomore year I transferred to Columbia University, figuring it would be a new start. For three years in New York, holed up in a series of dilapidated apartments, largely shorn of old friends and bad habits, I lived like a monk—reading, writing, filling up journals, rarely bothering with college parties or even eating hot meals. I got lost in my head, preoccupied with questions that seemed to layer themselves one over the next. What made some movements succeed where others failed? Was it a sign of success when portions of a cause were absorbed by conventional politics, or was it a sign that the cause had been hijacked? When was compromise acceptable and when was it selling out, and how did one know the difference?

Oh, how earnest I was then—how fierce and humorless! When I look back on my journal entries from this time, I feel a great affection for the young man that I was, aching to make a mark on the world, wanting to be a part of something grand and idealistic, which evidence seemed to indicate did not exist. This was America in the early 1980s, after all. The social movements of the previous decade had lost their vibrancy. A new conservatism was taking hold. Ronald Reagan was president; the economy was in recession; the Cold War was in full swing.

If I were to travel back in time, I might urge the young man I was to set the books aside for a minute, open the windows, and let in some fresh air (my smoking habit was then in full bloom). I’d tell him to relax, go meet some people, and enjoy the pleasures that life reserves for those in their twenties. The few friends I had in New York tried to offer similar advice.

“You need to lighten up, Barack.”

“You need to get laid.”

“You’re so idealistic. It’s great, but I don’t know if what you’re saying is really possible.”

I resisted these voices. I resisted precisely because I feared they were right. Whatever I was incubating during those hours spent alone, whatever vision for a better world I’d let flourish in the hothouse of my youthful mind, it could hardly withstand even a simple conversational road test. In the gray light of a Manhattan winter and against the overarching cynicism of the times, my ideas, spoken aloud in class or over coffee with friends, came off as fanciful and far-fetched. And I knew it. In fact, it’s one of the things that may have saved me from becoming a full-blown crank before I reached the age of twenty-two; at some basic level I understood the absurdity of my vision, how wide the gap was between my grand ambitions and anything I was actually doing in my life. I was like a young Walter Mitty; a Don Quixote with no Sancho Panza.

This, too, can be found in my journal entries from that time, a pretty accurate chronicle of all my shortcomings. My preference for navel-gazing over action. A certain reserve, even shyness, traceable perhaps to my Hawaiian and Indonesian upbringing, but also the result of a deep self-consciousness. A sensitivity to rejection or looking stupid. Maybe even a fundamental laziness.

I took it upon myself to purge such softness with a regimen of self-improvement that I’ve never entirely shed. (Michelle and the girls point out that to this day I can’t get into a pool or the ocean without feeling compelled to swim laps. “Why don’t you just wade?” they’ll say with a snicker. “It’s fun. Here…we’ll show you how.”) I made lists. I started working out, going for runs around the Central Park Reservoir or along the East River and eating cans of tuna fish and hard-boiled eggs for fuel. I stripped myself of excess belongings—who needs more than five shirts?

What great contest was I preparing for? Whatever it was, I knew I wasn’t ready. That uncertainty, that self-doubt, kept me from settling too quickly on easy answers. I got into the habit of questioning my own assumptions, and this, I think, ultimately came in handy, not only because it prevented me from becoming insufferable, but because it inoculated me against the revolutionary formulas embraced by a lot of people on the left at the dawn of the Reagan era.

Certainly that was true when it came to questions of race. I experienced my fair share of racial slights and could see all too well the enduring legacy of slavery and Jim Crow anytime I walked through Harlem or parts of the Bronx. But, by dint of biography, I learned not to claim my own victimhood too readily and resisted the notion held by some of the Black folks I knew that white people were irredeemably racist.

The conviction that racism wasn’t inevitable may also explain my willingness to defend the American idea: what the country was, and what it could become.

My mother and grandparents had never been noisy in their patriotism. Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in class, waving small flags on the Fourth of July—these were treated as pleasant rituals, not sacred duties (their attitudes toward Easter and Christmas were pretty much the same). Even Gramps’s service in World War II was downplayed; he told me more about eating K rations—“Terrible!”—than he ever told me about the glory of marching in Patton’s army.

And yet the pride in being American, the notion that America was the greatest country on earth—that was always a given. As a young man, I chafed against books that dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism; got into long, drawn-out arguments with friends who insisted the American hegemon was the root of oppression worldwide. I had lived overseas; I knew too much. That America fell perpetually short of its ideals, I readily conceded. The version of American history taught in schools, with slavery glossed over and the slaughter of Native Americans all but omitted—that, I did not defend. The blundering exercise of military power, the rapaciousness of multinationals—yeah, yeah, I got all that.

But the idea of America, the promise of America: this I clung to with a stubbornness that surprised even me. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—that was my America. The America Tocqueville wrote about, the countryside of Whitman and Thoreau, with no person my inferior or my better; the America of pioneers heading west in search of a better life or immigrants landing on Ellis Island, propelled by a yearning for freedom.

It was the America of Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers, making dreams take flight, and Jackie Robinson stealing home. It was Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday at the Village Vanguard and Johnny Cash at Folsom State Prison—all those misfits who took the scraps that others overlooked or discarded and made beauty no one had seen before.

It was the America of Lincoln at Gettysburg, and Jane Addams toiling in a Chicago settlement home, and weary GIs at Normandy, and Dr. King on the National Mall summoning courage in others and in himself.

It was the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, crafted by flawed but brilliant thinkers who reasoned their way to a system at once sturdy and capable of change.

An America that could explain me.

“Dream on, Barack” is how those arguments with my college friends would usually end, as some smug bastard dropped a newspaper in front of me, its headlines trumpeting the U.S. invasion of Grenada or cuts in the school lunch program or some other disheartening news. “Sorry, but that’s your America.”

* * *


SUCH WAS MY state when I graduated in 1983: big ideas and nowhere to go. There were no movements to join, no selfless leader to follow. The closest I could find to what I had in mind was something called “community organizing”—grassroots work that brought ordinary people together around issues of local concern. After bouncing around in a couple of ill-fitting jobs in New York, I heard about a position in Chicago, working with a group of churches that were trying to stabilize communities racked by steel plant closures. Nothing grand, but a place to start.

I’ve recorded elsewhere my organizing years in Chicago. Victories were small and transitory in the mostly Black working-class neighborhoods where I spent my time; my organization was a bit player in its attempts to address the changes that were sweeping not just Chicago but cities across the country—the decline of manufacturing, white flight, the rise of a discrete and disconnected underclass even as a new knowledge class began to fuel gentrification in the urban core.

But if my own impact on Chicago was small, the city changed the arc of my life.

For starters, it got me out of my own head. I had to listen to, and not just theorize about, what mattered to people. I had to ask strangers to join me and one another on real-life projects—fixing up a park, or removing asbestos from a housing project, or starting an after-school program. I experienced failure and learned to buck up so I could rally those who’d put their trust in me. I suffered rejections and insults often enough to stop fearing them.

In other words, I grew up—and got my sense of humor back.

I came to love the men and women I worked with: the single mom living on a ravaged block who somehow got all four children through college; the Irish priest who threw open the church doors every evening so that kids had an option other than gangs; the laid-off steelworker who went back to school to become a social worker. Their stories of hardship and their modest victories confirmed for me again and again the basic decency of people. Through them, I saw the transformation that took place when citizens held their leaders and institutions to account, even on something as small as putting in a stop sign on a busy corner or getting more police patrols. I noticed how people stood up a little straighter, saw themselves differently, when they learned that their voices mattered.

Through them, I resolved the lingering questions of my racial identity. For it turned out there was no single way to be Black; just trying to be a good man was enough.

Through them, I discovered a community of faith—that it was okay to doubt, to question, and still reach for something beyond the here and now.

And because I heard in church basements and on bungalow porches the very same values—honesty, and hard work, and empathy—that had been drilled into me by my mother and grandparents, I came to trust the common thread that existed between people.

I can’t help but wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had stayed with organizing, or at least some version of it. Like many local heroes I’ve met over the years, I might have managed to build up an institution that could reshape a neighborhood or a portion of the city. Anchored deep in a community, I might have steered money and imagination to change not the world but just that one place or that one set of kids, doing work that touched the lives of neighbors and friends in some measurable and useful way.

But I didn’t stay. I left for Harvard Law School. And here’s where the story gets murkier in my mind, with my motives open to interpretation.

* * *


I TOLD MYSELF THEN—and like to tell myself still—that I left organizing because I saw the work I was doing as too slow, too limited, not able to match the needs of the people I hoped to serve. A local job-training center couldn’t make up for thousands of steel jobs lost by a plant closing. An after-school program couldn’t compensate for chronically underfunded schools, or kids raised by their grandparents because both parents were doing time. On every issue, it seemed, we kept bumping up against somebody—a politician, a bureaucrat, some distant CEO—who had the power to make things better but didn’t. And when we did get concessions from them, it was most often too little, too late. The power to shape budgets and guide policy was what we needed, and that power lay elsewhere.

Moreover, I came to realize that just two years before I arrived, there had been a movement for change in Chicago, one that was both social and political—a deep swift current that I had failed to fully appreciate because it hadn’t conformed to my theories. It was the movement to elect Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor.

It seemed like it sprang out of nowhere, as grassroots a political campaign as anything modern politics had ever seen. A small band of Black activists and business leaders, tired of the chronic bias and inequities of America’s most segregated big city, decided to register a record number of voters, and then drafted a rotund congressman of prodigious talent but limited ambition to run for an office that appeared well out of reach.

Nobody thought it had a chance; even Harold was skeptical. The campaign operated hand to mouth, staffed largely by inexperienced volunteers. But then it happened—some form of spontaneous combustion. People who had never thought about politics, people who had never even voted, got swept up in the cause. Seniors and schoolchildren started sporting the campaign’s blue buttons. A collective unwillingness to keep putting up with a steady accumulation of unfairness and slights—all the bogus traffic stops and secondhand textbooks; all the times Black folks walked past a Park District field house on the North Side and noticed how much nicer it was than the one in their neighborhood; all the times they’d been passed over for promotions or denied bank loans—gathered like a cyclone and toppled city hall.

By the time I arrived in Chicago, Harold was halfway through his first term. The city council, once a rubber stamp for Old Man Daley, had divided into racial camps, a controlling majority of white aldermen blocking every reform that Harold proposed. He tried to wheedle and cut deals, but they wouldn’t budge. It was riveting television, tribal and raw, but it limited what Harold could deliver for those who’d elected him. It took a federal court redrawing a racially gerrymandered aldermanic map for Harold to finally get the majority and break the deadlock. And before he could realize many of the changes he’d promised, he was dead of a heart attack. A scion of the old order, Rich Daley, ultimately regained his father’s throne.

Far from the center of the action, I watched this drama unfold and tried to absorb its lessons. I saw how the tremendous energy of the movement couldn’t be sustained without structure, organization, and skills in governance. I saw how a political campaign based on racial redress, no matter how reasonable, generated fear and backlash and ultimately placed limits on progress. And in the rapid collapse of Harold’s coalition after his death, I saw the danger of relying on a single charismatic leader to bring about change.

And yet what a force he was for those five years. Despite the roadblocks, Chicago changed on his watch. City services, from tree trimming to snow removal to road repair, came to be spread more evenly across wards. New schools were built in poor neighborhoods. City jobs were no longer subject solely to patronage, and the business community at long last started paying attention to the lack of diversity in their ranks.

Above all, Harold gave people hope. The way Black Chicagoans talked about him in those years was reminiscent of how a certain generation of white progressives talked about Bobby Kennedy—it wasn’t so much what he did as how he made you feel. Like anything was possible. Like the world was yours to remake.

For me, this planted a seed. It made me think for the first time that I wanted to someday run for public office. (I wasn’t the only one thus inspired—it was shortly after Harold’s election that Jesse Jackson would announce he was running for president.) Wasn’t this where the energy of the civil rights movement had migrated—into electoral politics? John Lewis, Andrew Young, Julian Bond—hadn’t they run for office, deciding this was the arena where they could make the most difference? I knew there were pitfalls—the compromises, the constant money chase, the losing track of ideals, and the relentless pursuit of winning.

But maybe there was another way. Maybe you could generate the same energy, the same sense of purpose, not just within the Black community but across racial lines. Maybe with enough preparation, policy know-how, and management skills, you could avoid some of Harold’s mistakes. Maybe the principles of organizing could be marshaled not just to run a campaign but to govern—to encourage participation and active citizenship among those who’d been left out, and to teach them not just to trust their elected leaders, but to trust one another, and themselves.

That’s what I told myself. But it wasn’t the whole story. I was also struggling with narrower questions of my own ambitions. As much as I’d learned from organizing, I didn’t have much to show for it in terms of concrete accomplishments. Even my mother, the woman who’d always marched to a different drummer, worried about me.

“I don’t know, Bar,” she told me one Christmas. “You can spend a lifetime working outside institutions. But you might get more done trying to change those institutions from the inside.

“Plus, take it from me,” she said with a rueful laugh. “Being broke is overrated.”

And so it was that in the fall of 1988, I took my ambitions to a place where ambition hardly stood out. Valedictorians, student body presidents, Latin scholars, debate champions—the people I found at Harvard Law School were generally impressive young men and women who, unlike me, had grown up with the justifiable conviction that they were destined to lead lives of consequence. That I ended up doing well there I attribute mostly to the fact that I was a few years older than my classmates. Whereas many felt burdened by the workload, for me days spent in the library—or, better yet, on the couch of my off-campus apartment, a ball game on with the sound muted—felt like an absolute luxury after three years of organizing community meetings and knocking on doors in the cold.

There was also this: The study of law, it turned out, wasn’t so different from what I’d done during my years of solitary musing on civic questions. What principles should govern the relationship between the individual and society, and how far did our obligations to others extend? How much should the government regulate the market? How does social change happen, and how can rules ensure that everybody has a voice?

I couldn’t get enough of this stuff. I loved the back-and-forth, especially with the more conservative students, who despite our disagreements seemed to appreciate the fact that I took their arguments seriously. In classroom discussions, my hand kept shooting up, earning me some well-deserved eye rolls. I couldn’t help it; it was as if, after years of locking myself away with a strange obsession—like juggling, say, or sword swallowing—I now found myself in circus school.

Enthusiasm makes up for a host of deficiencies, I tell my daughters—and at least that was true for me at Harvard. In my second year, I was elected the first Black head of the Law Review, which generated a bit of national press. I signed a contract to write a book. Job offers arrived from around the country, and it was assumed that my path was now charted, just as it had been for my predecessors at the Law Review: I’d clerk for a Supreme Court justice, work for a top law firm or the Office of the United States Attorney, and when the time was right, I could, if I wanted to, try my hand at politics.

It was heady stuff. The only person who questioned this smooth path of ascent seemed to be me. It had come too quickly. The big salaries being dangled, the attention—it felt like a trap.

Luckily I had time to consider my next move. And anyway, the most important decision ahead would end up having nothing to do with law.


MICHELLE LAVAUGHN ROBINSON was already practicing law when we met. She was twenty-five years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago-based firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous, and wickedly smart—and I was smitten almost from the second I saw her. She’d been assigned by the firm to look out for me, to make sure I knew where the office photocopier was and that I generally felt welcome. That also meant we got to go out for lunches together, which allowed us to sit and talk—at first about our jobs and eventually about everything else.

Over the course of the next couple of years, during school breaks and when Michelle came to Harvard as part of the Sidley recruiting team, the two of us went out to dinner and took long walks along the Charles River, talking about movies and family and places in the world we wanted to see. When her father unexpectedly died of complications arising from multiple sclerosis, I flew out to be with her, and she comforted me when I learned that Gramps had advanced prostate cancer.

In other words, we became friends as well as lovers, and as my law school graduation approached, we gingerly circled around the prospect of a life together. Once, I took her to an organizing workshop I was conducting, a favor for a friend who ran a community center on the South Side. The participants were mostly single moms, some on welfare, few with any marketable skills. I asked them to describe their world as it was and as they would like it to be. It was a simple exercise I’d done many times, a way for people to bridge the reality of their communities and their lives with the things they could conceivably change. Afterward, as we were walking to the car, Michelle laced her arm through mine and said she’d been touched by my easy rapport with the women.

“You gave them hope.”

“They need more than hope,” I said. I tried to explain to her the conflict that I was feeling: between working for change within the system and pushing against it; wanting to lead but wanting to empower people to make change for themselves; wanting to be in politics but not of it.

Michelle looked at me. “The world as it is, and the world as it should be,” she said softly.

“Something like that.”

Michelle was an original; I knew nobody quite like her. And although it hadn’t happened yet, I was starting to think I might ask her to marry me. For Michelle, marriage was a given—the organic next step in a relationship as serious as ours. For me, someone who’d grown up with a mother whose marriages didn’t last, the need to formalize a relationship had always felt less pressing. Not only that, but in those early years of our courtship, our arguments could be fierce. As cocksure as I could be, she never gave ground. Her brother, Craig, a basketball star at Princeton who had worked in investment banking before getting into coaching, used to joke that the family didn’t think Michelle (“Miche,” they called her) would ever get married because she was too tough—no guy could keep up with her. The weird thing was, I liked that about her; how she constantly challenged me and kept me honest.

And what was Michelle thinking? I imagine her just before we met, very much the young professional, tailored and crisp, focused on her career and doing things the way they’re supposed to be done, with no time for nonsense. And then this strange guy from Hawaii with a scruffy wardrobe and crazy dreams wanders into her life. That was part of my appeal, she would tell me, how different I was from the guys she’d grown up with, the men she had dated. Different even from her own father, whom she adored: a man who had never finished community college, who had been struck by MS in his early thirties, but who had never complained and had gone to work every single day and made all of Michelle’s dance recitals and Craig’s basketball games, and was always present for his family, truly his pride and joy.

Life with me promised Michelle something else, those things that she saw she had missed as a child. Adventure. Travel. A breaking of constraints. Just as her roots in Chicago—her big, extended family, her common sense, her desire to be a good mom above all else—promised an anchor that I’d been missing for much of my youth. We didn’t just love each other and make each other laugh and share the same basic values—there was symmetry there, the way we complemented each other. We could have each other’s back, guard each other’s blind spots. We could be a team.

Of course, that was another way of saying we were very different, in experience and in temperament. For Michelle, the road to the good life was narrow and full of hazards. Family was all you could count on, big risks weren’t taken lightly, and outward success—a good job, a nice house—never made you feel ambivalent because failure and want were all around you, just a layoff or a shooting away. Michelle never worried about selling out, because growing up on the South Side meant you were always, at some level, an outsider. In her mind, the roadblocks to making it were plenty clear; you didn’t have to go looking for them. The doubts arose from having to prove, no matter how well you did, that you belonged in the room—prove it not just to those who doubted you but to yourself.

* * *


AS LAW SCHOOL was coming to an end, I told Michelle of my plan. I wouldn’t clerk. Instead, I’d move back to Chicago, try to keep my hand in community work while also practicing law at a small firm that specialized in civil rights. If a good opportunity presented itself, I said, I could even see myself running for office.

None of this came as a surprise to her. She trusted me, she said, to do what I believed was right.

“But I need to tell you, Barack,” she said, “I think what you want to do is really hard. I mean, I wish I had your optimism. Sometimes I do. But people can be so selfish and just plain ignorant. I think a lot of people don’t want to be bothered. And I think politics seems like it’s full of people willing to do anything for power, who just think about themselves. Especially in Chicago. I’m not sure you’ll ever change that.”

“I can try, can’t I?” I said with a smile. “What’s the point of having a fancy law degree if you can’t take some risks? If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ll be okay. We’ll be okay.”

She took my face in her hands. “Have you ever noticed that if there’s a hard way and an easy way, you choose the hard way every time? Why do you think that is?”

We both laughed. But I could tell Michelle thought she was onto something. It was an insight that would carry implications for us both.

* * *


AFTER SEVERAL YEARS of dating, Michelle and I were married at Trinity United Church of Christ on October 3, 1992, with more than three hundred of our friends, colleagues, and family members crammed happily into the pews. The service was officiated by the church’s pastor, Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., whom I’d come to know and admire during my organizer days. We were joyful. Our future together was officially beginning.

I had passed the bar and then delayed my law practice for a year to run Project VOTE! in advance of the 1992 presidential race—one of the largest voter-registration drives in Illinois history. After returning from our honeymoon on the California coast, I taught at the University of Chicago Law School, finished my book, and officially joined Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland, a small civil rights firm that specialized in employment discrimination cases and did real estate work for affordable housing groups. Michelle, meanwhile, had decided she’d had enough of corporate law and made a move to the City of Chicago’s Department of Planning and Development, working there for a year and a half before agreeing to direct a nonprofit youth leadership program called Public Allies.

Both of us enjoyed our jobs and the people we worked with, and as time went on, we got involved with various civic and philanthropic efforts. We took in ball games and concerts and shared dinners with a widening circle of friends. We were able to buy a modest but cozy condo in Hyde Park, right across from Lake Michigan and Promontory Point, just a few doors down from where Craig and his young family lived. Michelle’s mother, Marian, still lived in the family’s South Shore house, less than fifteen minutes away, and we visited often, feasting on her fried chicken and greens and red velvet cake and barbecue made by Michelle’s Uncle Pete. Once we were stuffed, we’d sit around the kitchen and listen to her uncles tell stories of growing up, the laughter louder as the evening wore on, while cousins and nephews and nieces bounced on the sofa cushions until they were sent out into the yard.

Driving home in the twilight, Michelle and I sometimes talked about having kids of our own—what they might be like, or how many, and what about a dog?—and imagined all the things we’d do together as a family.

A normal life. A productive, happy life. It should have been enough.

* * *


BUT THEN IN the summer of 1995, a political opportunity arose suddenly, through a strange chain of events. The sitting congressman from the Second District of Illinois, Mel Reynolds, had been indicted on several charges, including allegedly having sex with a sixteen-year-old campaign volunteer. If he was convicted, a special election would be promptly held to replace him.

I didn’t live in the district, and I lacked the name recognition and base of support to launch a congressional race. The state senator from our area, Alice Palmer, however, was eligible to run for the seat and, not long before the congressman was convicted in August, she threw her hat into the ring. Palmer, an African American former educator with deep roots in the community, had a solid if unremarkable record and was well liked by progressives and some of the old-time Black activists who had helped Harold get elected; and although I didn’t know her, we had mutual friends. Based on the work I’d done for Project VOTE! I was asked to help her nascent campaign, and as the weeks went by, several people encouraged me to think about filing to run for Alice’s soon-to-be-vacant senate seat.

Before talking to Michelle, I made a list of pros and cons. A state senator wasn’t a glamorous post—most people had no idea who their state legislators were—and Springfield, the state capital, was notorious for old-style pork-barreling, logrolling, payola, and other political mischief. On the other hand, I had to start somewhere and pay my dues. Also, the Illinois state legislature was in session only a few weeks out of the year, which meant I could continue teaching and working at the law firm.

Best of all, Alice Palmer agreed to endorse me. With Reynolds’s trial still pending, it was difficult to know how the timing would work. Technically it would be possible for Alice to run for Congress while keeping the option of retaining her state seat if she lost the bigger race, but she insisted to me and others that she was done with the senate, ready to move on. Along with an offer of support from our local alderman, Toni Preckwinkle, who boasted the best organization in the area, my chances looked better than good.

I went to Michelle and made my pitch. “Think of it as a test run,” I said.


“Dipping our toes in the water.”


“So what do you think?”

She pecked me on the cheek. “I think this is something you want to do, so you should do it. Just promise me I won’t have to spend time in Springfield.”

I had one last person to check in with before I pulled the trigger. Earlier in the year, my mother had fallen sick and had been diagnosed with uterine cancer.

The prognosis wasn’t good. At least once a day, the thought of losing her made my heart constrict. I’d flown to Hawaii right after she’d gotten the news and had been relieved to find that she looked like herself and was in good spirits. She confessed she was scared but wanted to be as aggressive as possible with her treatment.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, “until you give me some grandchildren.”

She received the news of my possible state senate run with her usual enthusiasm, insisting I tell her every detail. She acknowledged it would be a lot of work, but my mother was never one to see hard work as anything but good.

“Make sure Michelle’s all right with it,” she said. “Not that I’m the marriage expert. And don’t you dare use me as an excuse not to do it. I’ve got enough to deal with without feeling like everybody’s putting their lives on hold. It’s morbid, understand?”

“Got it.”

Seven months after her diagnosis, the situation would turn grim. In September, Michelle and I flew to New York to join Maya and my mother for a consultation with a specialist at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Midway through chemo now, she was physically transformed. Her long dark hair was gone; her eyes looked hollow. Worse, the specialist’s assessment was that her cancer was at stage four and that treatment options were limited. Watching my mother suck on ice cubes because her saliva glands had shut down, I did my best to put on a brave face. I told her funny stories about my work and recounted the plot of a movie I’d just seen. We laughed as Maya—nine years younger than me and then studying at New York University—reminded me what a bossy big brother I’d been. I held my mother’s hand, making sure she was comfortable before she settled in to rest. Then I went back to the hotel room and cried.

It was on that trip to New York that I suggested my mother come stay with us in Chicago; my grandmother was too old to care for her full-time. But my mother, forever the architect of her own destiny, declined. “I’d rather be someplace familiar and warm,” she said, looking out the window. I sat there feeling helpless, thinking about the long path she had traveled in her life, how unexpected each step along the way must have been, so full of happy accidents. I’d never once heard her dwell on the disappointments. Instead she seemed to find small pleasures everywhere.

Until this.

“Life is strange, isn’t it?” she said softly.

It was.

* * *


FOLLOWING MY MOTHER’S advice, I threw myself into my maiden political campaign. It makes me laugh to think back on what a bare-bones operation it was—not much more sophisticated than a campaign for student council. There were no pollsters, no researchers, no TV or radio buys. My announcement, on September 19, 1995, was at the Ramada Inn in Hyde Park, with pretzels and chips and a couple hundred supporters—probably a quarter of whom were related to Michelle. Our campaign literature consisted of an eight-by-four-inch card with what looked like a passport picture of me, a few lines of biography, and four or five bullet points that I’d tapped out on my computer. I’d had it printed at Kinko’s.

I did make a point of hiring two political veterans I’d met working on Project VOTE! Carol Anne Harwell, my campaign manager, was tall and sassy, in her early forties and on loan from a West Side ward office. Although she came off as irrepressibly cheerful, she knew her way around Chicago’s bare-knuckle politics. Ron Davis, a big grizzly bear of a man, was our field director and petition expert. He had a gray-flecked Afro, scraggly facial hair, and thick wire-rimmed glasses, his bulk hidden by the untucked black shirt he seemed to wear every single day.

Ron proved to be indispensable: Illinois had strict ballot access rules, designed to make life hard on challengers who didn’t have party support. To get on the ballot, a candidate needed more than seven hundred registered voters who lived in the district to sign a petition that was circulated and attested to by someone who also lived in the district. A “good” signature had to be legible, accurately linked to a local address, and from a registered voter. I still remember the first time a group of us gathered around our dining room table, Ron huffing and puffing as he passed out clipboards with the petitions attached, along with voter files and a sheet of instructions. I suggested that before we talked about petitions, we should organize some meet-the-candidate forums, maybe draft some position papers. Carol and Ron looked at each other and laughed.

“Boss, let me tell you something,” Carol said. “You can save all that League of Women Voters shit for after the election. Right now, the only thing that matters is these petitions. The folks you’re running against, they’re gonna go through these things with a fine-tooth comb to see if your signatures are legit. If they’re not, you don’t get to play. And I guarantee you, no matter how careful we are, about half of the signatures will end up being bad, which is why we got to get at least twice as many as they say we do.”

“Four times as many,” Ron corrected, handing me a clipboard.

Duly chastened, I drove out to one of the neighborhoods Ron had selected to gather signatures. It felt just like my early organizing days, going from house to house, some people not home or unwilling to open the door; women in hair curlers with kids scampering about, men doing yard work; occasionally young men in T-shirts and do-rags, breath thick with alcohol as they scanned the block. There were those who wanted to talk to me about problems at the local school or the gun violence that was creeping into what had been a stable, working-class neighborhood. But mostly folks would take the clipboard, sign it, and try as quickly as possible to get back to what they’d been doing.

If knocking on doors was pretty standard fare for me, the experience was new to Michelle, who gamely dedicated part of every weekend to helping out. And while she’d often collect more signatures than I did—with her megawatt smile and stories of growing up just a few blocks away—there were no smiles two hours later when we’d get back into the car to drive home.

“All I know,” she said at one point, “is that I must really love you to spend my Saturday morning doing this.”

Over the course of several months, we managed to collect four times the number of required signatures. When I wasn’t at the firm or teaching, I visited block clubs, church socials, and senior citizen homes, making my case to voters. I wasn’t great. My stump speech was stiff, heavy on policy speak, short on inspiration and humor. I also found it awkward to talk about myself. As an organizer, I’d been trained to always stay in the background.

I did get better, though, more relaxed, and slowly the ranks of my supporters grew. I rounded up endorsements from local officials, pastors, and a handful of progressive organizations; I even got a few position papers drafted. And I’d like to say that this is how my first campaign ended—the plucky young candidate and his accomplished, beautiful, and forbearing wife, starting with a few friends in their dining room, rallying the people around a new brand of politics.

But that’s not how it happened. In August 1995, our disgraced congressman was finally convicted and sentenced to prison; a special election was called for late November. With his seat empty and the timeline officially set, others besides Alice Palmer jumped into the congressional race, among them Jesse Jackson, Jr., who had drawn national attention for the stirring introduction of his father at the 1988 Democratic National Convention. Michelle and I knew and liked Jesse Jr. His sister Santita had been one of Michelle’s best friends in high school and the maid of honor at our wedding. He was popular enough that his announcement immediately changed the dynamics of the race, putting Alice at an enormous disadvantage.

And because the special congressional election was now going to take place a few weeks before petitions for Alice’s senate seat had to be filed, my team started to worry.

“You better check again to make sure Alice isn’t going to mess with you if she loses to Jesse Jr.,” Ron said.

I shook my head. “She promised me she wasn’t running. Gave me her word. And she’s said it publicly. In the papers, even.”

“That’s fine, Barack. But can you just check again, please?”

I did, phoning Alice and once again getting her assurance that regardless of what happened with her congressional run, she still intended to leave state politics.

But when Jesse Jr. handily won the special election, with Alice coming in a distant third, something shifted. Stories started surfacing in the local press about a “Draft Alice Palmer” campaign. A few of her longtime supporters asked for a meeting, and when I showed up they advised me to get out of the race. The community couldn’t afford to give up Alice’s seniority, they said. I should be patient; my turn would come. I stood my ground—I had volunteers and donors who had already invested a lot in the campaign, after all; I had stuck with Alice even when Jesse Jr. got in—but the room was unmoved. By the time I spoke to Alice, it was clear where events were headed. The following week she held a press conference in Springfield, announcing that she was filing her own last-minute petitions to get on the ballot and retain her seat.

“Told ya,” Carol said, taking a drag from her cigarette and blowing a thin plume of smoke to the ceiling.

I felt disheartened and betrayed, but I figured all was not lost. We had built up a good organization over the previous few months, and almost all the elected officials who’d endorsed me said they’d stick with us. Ron and Carol were less sanguine.

“Hate to tell you, boss,” Carol said, “but most folks still have no idea who you are. Shit, they don’t know who she is either, but—no offense, now—‘Alice Palmer’ is a hell of a lot better ballot name than ‘Barack Obama.’ ”

I saw her point but told them we were going to see things through, even as a number of prominent Chicagoans were suddenly urging me to drop out of the race. And then one afternoon Ron and Carol arrived at my house, breathless and looking like they’d won the lottery.

“Alice’s petitions,” Ron said. “They’re terrible. Worst I’ve ever seen. All those Negroes who were trying to bully you out of the race, they didn’t bother actually doing the work. This could get her knocked off the ballot.”

I looked through the informal tallies Ron and our campaign volunteers had done. It was true; the petitions Alice had submitted appeared to be filled with invalid signatures: people whose addresses were outside the district, multiple signatures with different names but the same handwriting. I scratched my head. “I don’t know, guys…”

“You don’t know what?” Carol said.

“I don’t know if I want to win like this. I mean, yeah, I’m pissed about what’s happened. But these ballot rules don’t make much sense. I’d rather just beat her.”

Carol pulled back, her jaw tightening. “This woman gave you her word, Barack!” she said. “We’ve all been busting our asses out here, based on that promise. And now, when she tries to screw you, and can’t even do that right, you’re going to let her get away with it? You don’t think they would knock you off the ballot in a second if they could?” She shook her head. “Naw, Barack. You’re a good guy…that’s why we believe in you. But if you let this go, you might as well go back to being a professor and whatnot, ’cause politics is not for you. You will get chewed up and won’t be doing anybody a damn bit of good.”

I looked at Ron, who said quietly, “She’s right.”

I leaned back in my chair and lit a cigarette. I felt suspended in time, trying to decipher what I was feeling in my gut. How much did I want this? I reminded myself about what I believed I could get done in office, how hard I was willing to work if I got the chance.

“Okay,” I said finally.

“Okay!” Carol said, her smile returning. Ron gathered up his papers and put them in his bag.

It would take a couple of months for the process to play out, but with my decision that day, the race was effectively over. We filed our challenge with the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners and when it became clear the board was going to rule in our favor, Alice dropped out. While we were at it, we knocked several other Democrats with bad petitions off the ballot as well. Without a Democratic opponent and with only token Republican opposition, I was on my way to the state senate.

Whatever vision I had for a more noble kind of politics, it would have to wait.

I suppose there are useful lessons to draw from that first campaign. I learned to respect the nuts and bolts of politics, the attention to detail required, the daily grind that might prove the difference between winning and losing. It confirmed, too, what I already knew about myself: that whatever preferences I had for fair play, I didn’t like to lose.

But the lesson that stayed with me most had nothing to do with campaign mechanics or hardball politics. It had to do with the phone call I received from Maya in Hawaii one day in early November, well before I knew how my race would turn out.

“She’s taken a bad turn, Bar,” Maya said.

“How bad?”

“I think you need to come now.”

I already knew that my mother’s condition had been deteriorating; I’d spoken to her just a few days before. Hearing a new level of pain and resignation in her voice, I had booked a flight to Hawaii for the following week.

“Can she talk?” I asked Maya now.

“I don’t think so. She’s fading in and out.”

I hung up the phone and called the airline to reschedule my flight for first thing in the morning. I called Carol to cancel some campaign events and run through what needed to be done in my absence. A few hours later, Maya called back.

“I’m sorry, honey. Mom’s gone.” She had never regained consciousness, my sister told me; Maya had sat at her hospital bedside, reading out loud from a book of folktales as our mother slipped away.

We held a memorial service that week, in the Japanese garden behind the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. I remembered playing there as a child, my mother sitting in the sun and watching me as I tumbled in the grass, hopped over the rock steps, and caught tadpoles in the stream that ran down one side. Afterward, Maya and I drove out to the lookout near Koko Head and scattered her ashes into the sea, the waves crashing against the rocks. And I thought about my mother and sister alone in that hospital room, and me not there, so busy with my grand pursuits. I knew I could never get that moment back. On top of my sorrow, I felt a great shame.

* * *


UNLESS YOU LIVE at the southern tip of Chicago, the quickest route to Springfield is via I-55. During rush hour, heading out of downtown and through the western suburbs, traffic slows to a crawl; but once you get past Joliet things open up, a straight, smooth spread of asphalt cutting southwest through Bloomington (home of State Farm insurance and Beer Nuts) and Lincoln (named after the president, who helped incorporate the town when he was still just a lawyer) and taking you past miles and miles of corn.

For almost eight years I made this drive, usually alone, usually in about three and a half hours, trekking back and forth to Springfield for a few weeks in the fall and through much of the winter and early spring, when the Illinois legislature did the bulk of its work. I’d drive down Tuesday night after dinner and get back home Thursday evening or Friday morning. Cell phone service dropped about an hour outside of Chicago, and the only signals that registered on the dial after that were talk radio and Christian music stations. To stay awake, I listened to audiobooks, the longer the better—novels mostly (John le Carré and Toni Morrison were favorites) but also histories, of the Civil War, the Victorian era, the fall of the Roman Empire.

When asked, I’d tell skeptical friends how much I was learning in Springfield, and, for the first few years at least, it was true. Of all fifty states, Illinois best represented the demographics of the nation, home to a teeming metropolis, sprawling suburbs, farm country, factory towns, and a downstate region considered more southern than northern. On any given day, under the high dome of the capitol, you’d see a cross section of America on full display, a Carl Sandburg poem come to life. There were inner-city kids jostling one another on a field trip, well-coiffed bankers working their flip phones, farmers in seed caps looking to widen the locks that allowed industrial barges to take their crops to market. You’d see Latina moms looking to fund a new day-care center and middle-aged biker crews, complete with muttonchops and leather jackets, trying to stop yet another legislative effort to make them wear helmets.

I kept my head down in those early months. Some of my colleagues were suspicious of my odd name and Harvard pedigree, but I did my homework and helped raise money for other senators’ campaigns. I got to know my fellow legislators and their staffers not just in the senate chamber but also on the basketball court and at golf outings and during the weekly bipartisan poker games we organized—with a two-dollar, three-raise limit, the room thick with smoke, trash talk, and the slow fizz of yet another beer can being opened.

It helped that I already knew the senate minority leader, a hefty Black man in his sixties named Emil Jones. He’d come up through the ranks of one of the traditional ward organizations under Daley Sr. and represented the district where I’d once organized. That’s how we first met: I’d brought a group of parents to his office, demanding a meeting to get a college prep program funded for area youth. Rather than stiff-arm us, he invited us in.

“You may not know it,” he said, “but I been waiting for y’all to show up!” He explained how he’d never had the chance to graduate from college himself; he wanted to make sure more state money was steered to neglected Black neighborhoods. “I’m gonna leave it up to you to figure out what we need,” he told me with a slap on the back as my group left his office. “You leave the politics to me.”

Sure enough, Emil got the program funded, and our friendship carried over to the senate. He took an odd pride in me and became almost protective of my reformist ways. Even when he badly needed a vote on a deal he was cooking up (getting riverboat gambling licensed in Chicago was a particular obsession), he would never squeeze me if I told him I couldn’t do it—though he wasn’t above uttering a few choice curses as he charged off to try someone else.

“Barack’s different,” he once told a staffer. “He’s going places.”

For all my diligence and Emil’s goodwill, neither of us could change one stark fact: We were in the minority party. Republicans in the Illinois senate had adopted the same uncompromising approach that Newt Gingrich was using at the time to neuter Democrats in Congress. The GOP exercised absolute control over what bills got out of committee and which amendments were in order. Springfield had a special designation for junior members in the minority like me—“mushrooms,” because “you’re fed shit and kept in the dark.”

On occasion, I found myself able to shape significant legislation. I helped make sure Illinois’s version of the national welfare reform bill signed by Bill Clinton provided sufficient support for those transitioning to work. In the wake of one of Springfield’s perennial scandals, Emil assigned me to represent the caucus on a committee to update the ethics laws. Nobody else wanted the job, figuring it was a lost cause, but thanks to a good rapport with my Republican counterpart, Kirk Dillard, we passed a law that curbed some of the more embarrassing practices—making it impossible, for example, to use campaign dollars for personal items like a home addition or a fur coat. (There were senators who didn’t talk to us for weeks after that.)

More typical was the time, toward the end of the first session, when I rose from my seat to oppose a blatant tax giveaway to some favored industry when the state was cutting services for the poor. I had lined up my facts and prepared with the thoroughness of a courtroom lawyer; I pointed out why such unjustified tax breaks violated the conservative market principles Republicans claimed to believe in. When I sat down, the senate president, Pate Philip—a beefy, white-haired ex-Marine notorious for insulting women and people of color with remarkably casual frequency—wandered up to my desk.

“That was a hell of a speech,” he said, chewing on an unlit cigar. “Made some good points.”


“Might have even changed a lot of minds,” he said. “But you didn’t change any votes.” With that, he signaled to the presiding officer and watched with satisfaction as the green lights signifying “aye” lit up the board.

That was politics in Springfield: a series of transactions mostly hidden from view, legislators weighing the competing pressures of various interests with the dispassion of bazaar merchants, all the while keeping a careful eye on the handful of ideological hot buttons—guns, abortion, taxes—that might generate heat from their base.

It wasn’t that people didn’t know the difference between good and bad policy. It just didn’t matter. What everyone in Springfield understood was that 90 percent of the time the voters back home weren’t paying attention. A complicated but worthy compromise, bucking party orthodoxy to support an innovative idea—that could cost you a key endorsement, a big financial backer, a leadership post, or even an election.

Could you get voters to pay attention? I tried. Back in the district, I accepted just about any invitation that came my way. I started writing a regular column for the Hyde Park Herald, a neighborhood weekly with a readership of less than five thousand. I hosted town halls, setting out refreshments and stacks of legislative updates, and then usually sat there with my lonesome staffer, looking at my watch, waiting for a crowd that never came.

I couldn’t blame folks for not showing up. They were busy, they had families, and surely most of the debates in Springfield seemed remote. Meanwhile, on the few high-profile issues that my constituents did care about, they probably agreed with me already, since the lines of my district—like those of almost every district in Illinois—had been drawn with surgical precision to ensure one-party dominance. If I wanted more funding for schools in poor neighborhoods, if I wanted more access to primary healthcare or retraining for laid-off workers, I didn’t need to convince my constituents. The people I needed to engage and persuade—they lived somewhere else.

By the end of my second session, I could feel the atmosphere of the capitol weighing on me—the futility of being in the minority, the cynicism of so many of my colleagues worn like a badge of honor. No doubt it showed. One day, while I was standing in the rotunda after a bill I’d introduced went down in flames, a well-meaning lobbyist came up and put his arm around me.

“You’ve got to stop beating your head against the wall, Barack,” he said. “The key to surviving this place is understanding that it’s a business. Like selling cars. Or the dry cleaner down the street. You start believing it’s more than that, it’ll drive you crazy.”

* * *


SOME POLITICAL SCIENTISTS argue that everything I’ve said about Springfield describes exactly how pluralism is supposed to work; that the horse trading between interest groups may not be inspiring, but it keeps democracy muddling along. And maybe that argument would have gone down easier with me at the time if it weren’t for the life I was missing at home.

The first two years in the legislature were fine—Michelle was busy with her own work, and although she kept her promise not to come down to the state capital except for my swearing in, we’d still have leisurely conversations on the phone on nights I was away. Then one day in the fall of 1997, she called me at the office, her voice trembling.

“It’s happening.”

“What’s happening?”

“You’re going to be a daddy.”

I was going to be a daddy. How full of joy the months that followed were! I lived up to every cliché of the expectant father: attending Lamaze classes, trying to figure out how to assemble a crib, reading the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting with pen in hand to underline key passages. Around six a.m. on the Fourth of July, Michelle poked me and said it was time to go to the hospital. I fumbled around and gathered the bag I’d set by the door, and just seven hours later was introduced to Malia Ann Obama, eight pounds and fifteen ounces of perfection.

Among her many talents, our new daughter had good timing; with no session, no classes, and no big pending cases to work on, I could take the rest of the summer off. A night owl by nature, I manned the late shift so Michelle could sleep, resting Malia on my thighs to read to her as she looked up with big questioning eyes, or dozing as she lay on my chest, a burp and good poop behind us, so warm and serene. I thought about the generations of men who had missed such moments, and I thought about my own father, whose absence had done more to shape me than the brief time I’d spent with him, and I realized that there was no place on earth I would rather be.

But the strains of young parenthood eventually took their toll. After a blissful few months, Michelle went back to work, and I went back to juggling three jobs. We were lucky to find a wonderful nanny who cared for Malia during the day, but the addition of a full-time employee to our family enterprise squeezed the budget hard.

Michelle bore the brunt of all this, shuttling between mothering and work, unconvinced that she was doing either job well. At the end of each night, after feeding and bath time and story time and cleaning up the apartment and trying to keep track of whether she’d picked up the dry cleaning and making a note to herself to schedule an appointment with the pediatrician, she would often fall into an empty bed, knowing the whole cycle would start all over again in a few short hours while her husband was off doing “important things.”

We began arguing more, usually late at night when the two of us were thoroughly drained. “This isn’t what I signed up for, Barack,” Michelle said at one point. “I feel like I’m doing it all by myself.”

I was hurt by that. If I wasn’t working, I was home—and if I was home and forgot to clean up the kitchen after dinner, it was because I had to stay up late grading exams or fine-tuning a brief. But even as I mounted my defense, I knew I was falling short. Inside Michelle’s anger lay a more difficult truth. I was trying to deliver a lot of things to a lot of different people. I was taking the hard way, just as she’d predicted back when our burdens were lighter, our personal responsibilities not so enmeshed. I thought now about the promise I’d made to myself after Malia was born; that my kids would know me, that they’d grow up knowing my love for them, feeling that I had always put them first.

Sitting in the dim light of our living room, Michelle no longer seemed angry, just sad. “Is it worth it?” she asked.

I don’t recall what I said in response. I know I couldn’t admit to her that I was no longer sure.

* * *


IT’S HARD, in retrospect, to understand why you did something stupid. I don’t mean the small stuff—ruining your favorite tie because you tried to eat soup in the car or throwing out your back because you got talked into playing tackle football on Thanksgiving. I mean dumb choices in the wake of considerable deliberation: those times when you identify a real problem in your life, analyze it, and then with utter confidence come up with precisely the wrong answer.

That was me running for Congress. After numerous conversations, I had to concede that Michelle was right to question whether the difference I was making in Springfield justified the sacrifice. Rather than lightening my load, though, I went in the opposite direction, deciding I needed to step on the gas and secure a more influential office. Around this same time, veteran congressman Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther, challenged Mayor Daley in the 1999 election and got trounced, doing poorly even in his own district.

I thought Rush’s campaign had been uninspired, without a rationale other than the vague promise to continue Harold Washington’s legacy. If this was how he operated in Congress, I figured I could do better. After talking it over with a few trusted advisors, I had my staff jerry-rig an in-house poll to see whether a race against Rush would be viable. Our informal sampling gave us a shot. Using the results, I was able to persuade several of my closest friends to help finance the race. And then, despite warnings from more experienced political hands that Rush was stronger than he looked, and despite Michelle’s incredulity that I would somehow think she’d feel better with me being in Washington instead of Springfield, I announced my candidacy for congressman from the First Congressional District.

Almost from the start, the race was a disaster. A few weeks in, the rumblings from the Rush camp began: Obama’s an outsider; he’s backed by white folks; he’s a Harvard elitist. And that name—is he even Black?

Having raised enough money to commission a proper poll, I discovered that Bobby had 90 percent name recognition in the district and a 70 percent approval rating, whereas only 11 percent of voters even knew who I was. Shortly thereafter, Bobby’s adult son was tragically shot and killed, eliciting an outpouring of sympathy. I effectively suspended my campaign for a month and watched television coverage of the funeral taking place at my own church, with Reverend Jeremiah Wright presiding. Already on thin ice at home, I took the family to Hawaii for an abbreviated Christmas break, only to have the governor call a special legislative session to vote on a gun control measure I supported. With eighteen-month-old Malia sick and unable to fly, I missed the vote and was roundly flayed by the Chicago press.

I lost by thirty points.

When talking to young people about politics, I sometimes offer this story as an object lesson of what not to do. Usually I throw in a postscript, describing how, a few months after my loss, a friend of mine, worried that I’d fallen into a funk, insisted that I join him at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in L.A. (“You need to get back on the horse,” he said.) But when I landed at LAX and tried to rent a car, I was turned down because my American Express card was over its limit. I managed to get myself to the Staples Center, but then learned that the credential my friend had secured for me didn’t allow entry to the convention floor, which left me to haplessly circle the perimeter and watch the festivities on mounted TV screens. Finally, after an awkward episode later that evening in which my friend couldn’t get me into a party he was attending, I took a cab back to the hotel, slept on the couch in his suite, and flew back to Chicago just as Al Gore was accepting the nomination.

It’s a funny story, especially in light of where I ultimately ended up. It speaks, I tell my audience, to the unpredictable nature of politics, and the necessity for resilience.

What I don’t mention is my dark mood on that flight back. I was almost forty, broke, coming off a humiliating defeat and with my marriage strained. I felt for perhaps the first time in my life that I had taken a wrong turn; that whatever reservoirs of energy and optimism I thought I had, whatever potential I’d always banked on, had been used up on a fool’s errand. Worse, I recognized that in running for Congress I’d been driven not by some selfless dream of changing the world, but rather by the need to justify the choices I had already made, or to satisfy my ego, or to quell my envy of those who had achieved what I had not.

In other words, I had become the very thing that, as a younger man, I had warned myself against. I had become a politician—and not a very good one at that.


AFTER GETTING DRUBBED BY Bobby Rush, I allowed myself a few months to mope and lick my wounds before deciding that I had to reframe my priorities and get on with things. I told Michelle I needed to do better by her. We had a new baby on the way, and even though I was still gone more than she would have preferred, she at least noticed the effort I was making. I scheduled my meetings in Springfield so that I’d be home for dinner more often. I tried to be more punctual and more present. And on June 10, 2001, not quite three years after Malia’s birth, we experienced the same blast of joy—the same utter amazement—when Sasha arrived, as plump and lovely as her sister had been, with thick black curls that were impossible to resist.

For the next two years, I led a quieter life, full of small satisfactions, content with the balance I’d seemingly struck. I relished wriggling Malia into her first ballet tights or grasping her hand as we walked to the park; watching baby Sasha laugh and laugh as I nibbled her feet; listening to Michelle’s breath slow, her head resting against my shoulder, as she drifted off to sleep in the middle of an old movie. I rededicated myself to my work in the state senate and savored the time spent with my students at the law school. I took a serious look at our finances and put together a plan to pay down our debts. Inside the slower rhythms of my work and the pleasures of fatherhood, I began to consider options for a life after politics—perhaps teaching and writing full-time, or returning to law practice, or applying for a job at a local charitable foundation, as my mother had once imagined I’d do.

In other words, following my ill-fated run for Congress, I experienced a certain letting go—if not of my desire to make a difference in the world, then at least of the insistence that it had to be done on a larger stage. What might have begun as a sense of resignation at whatever limits fate had imposed on my life came to feel more like gratitude for the bounty it had already delivered.

Two things, however, kept me from making a clean break from politics. First, Illinois Democrats had won the right to oversee the redrawing of state districting maps to reflect new data from the 2000 census, thanks to a quirk in the state constitution that called for a dispute between the Democrat-controlled house and the Republican senate to be settled by drawing a name out of one of Abraham Lincoln’s old stovepipe hats. With this power, Democrats could reverse the Republican gerrymandering of the previous decade and vastly better the odds that senate Democrats would be in the majority after the 2002 election. I knew that with one more term, I’d finally get a chance to pass some bills, deliver something meaningful for the people I represented—and perhaps end my political career on a higher note than it was currently on.

The second factor was an instinct rather than an event. Since being elected, I’d tried to spend a few days each summer visiting various colleagues in their home districts across Illinois. Usually I’d go with my chief senate aide, Dan Shomon—a former UPI reporter with thick glasses, boundless energy, and a foghorn voice. We’d throw our golf clubs, a map, and a couple of sets of clothes in the back of my Jeep and head south or west, winding our way to Rock Island or Pinckneyville, Alton or Carbondale.

Dan was my key political advisor, a good friend, and an ideal road trip companion: easy to talk to, perfectly fine with silence, and he shared my habit of smoking in the car. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of state politics. The first time we made the trip, I could tell he was a little nervous about how folks downstate might react to a Black lawyer from Chicago with an Arab-sounding name.

“No fancy shirts,” he instructed before we left.

“I don’t have fancy shirts,” I said.

“Good. Just polos and khakis.”

“Got it.”

Despite Dan’s worries that I’d be out of place, what struck me most during our travels was how familiar everything felt—whether we were at a county fair or a union hall or on the porch on someone’s farm. In the way people described their families or their jobs. In their modesty and their hospitality. In their enthusiasm for high school basketball. In the food they served, the fried chicken and baked beans and Jell-O molds. In them, I heard echoes of my grandparents, my mother, Michelle’s mom and dad. Same values. Same hopes and dreams.

These excursions became more sporadic once my kids were born. But the simple, recurring insight they offered stayed with me. As long as the residents of my Chicago district and districts downstate remained strangers to one another, I realized, our politics would never truly change. It would always be too easy for politicians to feed the stereotypes that pitted Black against white, immigrant against native-born, rural interests against those of cities.

If, on the other hand, a campaign could somehow challenge America’s reigning political assumptions about how divided we were, well then just maybe it would be possible to build a new covenant between its citizens. The insiders would no longer be able to play one group against another. Legislators might be freed from defining their constituents’ interests—and their own—so narrowly. The media might take notice and examine issues based not on which side won or lost but on whether our common goals were met.

Ultimately wasn’t this what I was after—a politics that bridged America’s racial, ethnic, and religious divides, as well as the many strands of my own life? Maybe I was being unrealistic; maybe such divisions were too deeply entrenched. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself otherwise, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was too early to give up on my deepest convictions. Much as I’d tried to tell myself I was done, or nearly done, with pol