Image: Barack Obama and family
This 1970s photo provided by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows Obama, 9, right, with his mother, Ann Dunham, his Indonesian step-father, Lolo Soetoro, and his infant sister Maya Soetoro in Jakarta, Indonesia.
updated 6/3/2008 9:48:21 PM ET 2008-06-04T01:48:21

He arrived in the city more than two decades ago, a young idealist with an ambition to help the poor — and maybe, to become a writer.

Barack Obama knew nothing of the city's bare-knuckle politics, but he was a good listener and a quick learner. And he liked to talk about social change.

He entered politics on the very bottom rung of the ladder. As a low-paid community organizer, he agitated for jobs in a depressed steel community, better city services, anything that would help poor people improve their lives.

Now, Barack Obama, the one-time outsider who not long ago was knocking on doors and pounding the pavement just to get heard, is making history — the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and first black candidate representing a major party.

It is a giant leap in his already improbable journey from the exotic corners of Hawaii and Indonesia to the halls of privilege of Cambridge, Mass., the poverty-wracked streets of Chicago and finally, the corridors of power on Capitol Hill.

But it is here in Chicago that Obama learned to put together coalitions, understand the value of compromise and the need to bridge gaps — all things he says will work in the White House.

It was here that Barack Obama, activist, became Barack Obama, politician.

He did it by relying on his experience as an outsider, always finding ways to meld with worlds that were not his own.

"He was a stranger but he made his way," says Mike Kruglik, who worked with Obama as an organizer. "He could see himself in other people."

From the very beginning, Barack Obama has blended cultures.

His father, also named Barack Obama, was a black scholarship student who traveled from his small village in Kenya to attend the University of Hawaii. His mother, Stanley Ann Dunham (her father always wanted a son), was white and just 18 when they met.

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Barack — "blessed" in Arabic — was born on Aug. 4, 1961. His parents' marriage was short-lived.

His father left his family to study at Harvard when his son was 2, returning just once eight years later.

Superdelegate samplingBy then, Obama had already lived in Indonesia — homeland of his stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, another university student his mother had met in Hawaii. For the young Obama, it was an early exposure to the harsh realities of Third World poverty.

After four years, Obama returned to Hawaii, first living with his mother, then with his maternal grandparents, all transplants from Kansas.

Today, Maya Soetoro-Ng sees traces of all three family members in her half-brother.

From their mother, she says, "he gets his ability to build bridges, to keep an open mind ... his taste for adventure, his curiosity and his compassion."

From their grandmother, Madelyn: "his pragmatism, his levelheadedness, his ability to stay centered in the eye of the storm."

From their grandfather, Stanley: "his love of the game. My grandfather ... pursued life with great zest and enthusiasm and a great sense of possibility."

'Barry O'Bomber'
In Hawaii, Obama was typical. And atypical.

He was a scholarship student at the prestigious Punahou School, a private academy in Honolulu.

The chubby kid who collected Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics grew into a teen who listened to jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and Earth, Wind & Fire, tooled around in Gramps' old Ford Granada, golfed, played poker, sang in the choir and joined the school's literary journal.

Obama also loved basketball (he was dubbed "Barry O'Bomber") and during his senior year, the varsity team captured the state championship.

There also was an introspective side to Obama, the outsider grappling with his biracial roots.

Though he had a diverse group of friends, he and two others among Punahou's few black students met weekly for what became known as "ethnic corner."

"It was more about learning from one another, other than it's the only place we feel safe," says Tony Peterson, one of the three. They discussed interracial dating, education — and, he says, probably "whether we would see a black president in our lifetime."

Peterson and other buddies say Obama never spoke of the turmoil he revealed in his memoir, "Dreams from My Father," in which he wrote about wrestling with his racial identity and using drugs — including marijuana and cocaine — to "push questions of who I was out of my mind."

After high school, Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles. He later transferred to Columbia University, graduated and held a few jobs, including writing for a business newsletter.

Then he found a new job in a city that would shape his life.

A negotiator
Obama arrived in Chicago in 1985 with a map of the city and a new job — community organizer.

Starting salary: Just over $10,000 plus enough money to buy a beat-up Honda.

Obama was a stranger to Chicago, but living abroad gave him experience as an outsider and a natural empathy for people without money and power, says Gerald Kellman, the man who hired him.

Working for the Developing Communities Project, Obama organized black churches on the industrial South Side, an area crippled by the loss of steel mills and factories.

"He had no trouble challenging power and challenging people on issues," Kellman says. "When it came to face-to-face situations, he valued civility a great deal. ... When it came to negotiating conflict, he was very good at that."

'Baby-faced Obama'
Obama became close to many of those he organized — women old enough to be his mother.

"This kid was so bright — I shouldn't say kid, this man was so bright, but he didn't hit you over the head with it," recalls Loretta Augustine-Herron, a founding member of the communities project. "He explained things so nobody would be offended."

The women nicknamed him "baby-face Obama." They chided him when he would eat just a spinach salad for lunch, laughed when he showed off his dance moves and joked about his seriousness.

Obama also was honing his writing skills, crafting vivid short stories inspired by his Chicago experiences. He showed them to fellow organizer Kruglik, who was impressed by how he had captured the feel of the streets. "I couldn't figure out how he had the time and energy to do it," he says.

In three years as an organizer, Obama became more pragmatic, thinking of his father, a civil servant in Africa.

"He had this sense of his dad being too idealistic ... and not accomplishing what he wanted," Kellman adds. (Obama later wrote that his father — who was killed in an automobile accident — had died "a bitter man.")

Obama was ready to move on — to Harvard Law School.

But he promised he'd return.

Self-effacing and the first
Obama entered Harvard older than many classmates, stepping into an incubator for America's elite — future Supreme Court justices, Fortune 500 leaders, U.S. senators and presidents.

Former classmates and professors remember him as an intellect with mature judgment, a conciliator who could see both sides of an issue.

The law school had plenty of achievers trying to edge out their competition but that wasn't Obama's style, says Laurence Tribe, a professor who hired him as a research assistant.

"He was not at all about credit but results," Tribe says. "He would often give credit to others that he did the work for."

Obama had two pivotal moments during his Harvard years: One came during his first summer when he worked at a Chicago corporate law firm and met another Harvard law graduate, Michelle Robinson, who would become his wife and the mother of their two daughters, Malia and Sasha.

The other was a professional triumph: Obama made headlines when he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, perhaps the most prestigious legal journal in the nation.

"He did not take that pound-on-my-chest attitude, 'Look at me, I'm the first one,'" says Earl Martin Phalen, a black classmate. "He was conscious of the historical significance but understood ... there was a responsibility."

With graduation, high-powered job offers flooded in. Obama chose another direction.

Back in Chicago, Obama joined a small civil rights firm, ran a voter registration drive and lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.

In 1996, he won a state Senate seat representing Hyde Park — the South Side neighborhood that encompasses the prestigious university as well as pockets of deep inner-city poverty.

He became known as a pragmatist who'd cross party lines, working with Republicans and other Democrats.

Obama helped change laws governing the death penalty, ethics and racial profiling, and he won tax credits for the working poor. But he failed in his campaign for universal health care.

As a newcomer in the clubby atmosphere of Springfield, Obama also encountered cold shoulders. Some lawmakers initially thought he was a bit arrogant.

Obama's roots and his style — he avoids the racially tinged rhetoric some black politicians use — have long stirred debate about his racial identity. Some black leaders and commentators have questioned whether he is "black enough."

Obama says there never has been any question about his being black.

"If you look at African-American in society, you're treated as an African-American," he said in a CBS "60 Minutes" interview last year. "And when you're a child in particular that is how you begin to identify yourself."

The issue of race, took center stage this spring after incendiary remarks by Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, threatened to derail his campaign. In a pivotal speech in Philadelphia, Obama addressed the controversy in broader terms, calling on the nation to break the "racial stalemate we've been stuck in for years."

Three years into his legislative career, Obama, both restless and ambitious, challenged U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, a veteran with deep roots in the community.

Obama was trounced. But he wasn't deterred.

Two years later, he began plotting his next move — a campaign for the U.S. Senate.

'Change we believe in'
Obama launched his national political career with a stirring keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

The buzz began that very night. Commentators and politicians touted him as a possible White House contender.

Four months later, Obama, buoyed by some lucky breaks, won the U.S. Senate seat in a landslide.

He seemed to have the Midas touch: Two best-selling books, two Grammy awards for recording them, magazine covers, TV appearances, invitations galore.

After first saying he had no intention of running for president, he changed his mind and announced his candidacy in February 2007 on the steps of the Old Capitol in Springfield.

And so began a 16-month endurance test.

He filled giant arenas on the campaign trail, wooing voters with his soaring oratory, message of "change we can believe in" and vows to end the war in Iraq.

He racked up large majorities among black, young and college-educated voters but had a much harder time winning over seniors, working-class voters and some women.

Mr. President?
Along the way, his campaign collected nearly $265 million — an unprecedented amount — from about 1.5 million contributors, most of them ponying up small amounts online.

But Obama stumbled, too. He faced repeated questions about his judgment because of his association with his controversial former pastor and finally denounced Wright's comments as "divisive and destructive." And he had to backtrack when he called small-town residents bitter — comments his critics said were elitist.

By May, his campaign was back on track and Obama visited the floor of U.S. House.

He was swarmed by well-wishers, shaking his hand, patting him on the back.

Some were even calling him "Mr. President."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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