Obama, Barack

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Obama, Barack

Barack Obama (Barack Hussein Obama 2d), (bəräk´ hōōsān´ ōbä´mə), 1961–, 44th president of the United States (2009–), b. Honolulu, grad. Columbia (B.A. 1983), Harvard Law School (J.D. 1991). His father, a Kenyan economist, and his mother, a Kansas native, were divorced when he was two, and he spent his early childhood in Indonesia after his mother remarried. Soon after law school he moved to Chicago, where he practiced civil-rights law, lectured on constitutional law at the Univ. of Chicago, and was active in the Democratic party. He was elected to the Illinois state senate in 1996, serving until he won (2004) a U.S. Senate seat.

Hailed as a young Democratic star, he electrified the 2004 Democratic convention with his keynote address. In Feb., 2007, he became a candidate for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, ultimately securing a delegate majority after a prolonged primary contest with Senator Hillary Clinton. The first African American to be nominated for president by a major U.S. political party, he chose Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and they subsequently defeated the Republican ticket of Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin. Obama, who led the Democratic party to its largest national victory since the election of Jimmy Carter as president, became the first African American to be elected to the office.

Obama's selections for his cabinet and other high-level government posts were notable both because they were announced earlier than had been typical (in large part because economic difficulties and overseas conflicts necessitated having a cabinet in place as soon as possible) and because the persons he selected were prominent and highly experienced. His government was initially most strongly focused on measures intended to revive the U.S. financial system and economy, reeling from the most serious economic downtown since the early 1980s and the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. The measures, including a massive stimulus package and rescue plans for the financial and automobile industries and some homeowners, were projected to result in some of the largest U.S. budget deficits, as a proportion of GDP, since World War II; the 2009 deficit was $1.4 trillion.

Obama subsequently sought congressional passage of a health-care insurance overhaul, which quickly surpassed other issues to become the most politically contentious of his first year as president. Enactment of the legislation, which was designed to increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance, was finally achieved in Mar., 2010. Obama also secured passage (July, 2010) of an overhaul of the U.S. financial regulatory system; the law gave expanded tools to regulators to respond to crises similar to the those that occurred in 2008. By the end of 2010, however, the slow economic recovery and conservative reaction to his legislation had contributed to Republican victories, including winning control of the U.S. House, that promised to make the second half of his term more difficult. Nonetheless, with some Republican support he won enactment of additional legislation, including new stimulus measures, a compromise extension of the Bush tax cuts, and a food safety bill, in the lame-duck session. In 2011, however, he faced Republican demands for sizable cuts in the proposed budget to reduce the deficit, which resulted in the threat of a government shutdown until a compromise was reached in April. In mid-2011, however, a new confrontation over the same issues erupted when Congress was faced with passing a normally routine increase in the debt ceiling, and Republican demands subsequently restricted or derailed disaster-aid and other legislation. In May, 2012, he became the first U.S. president to support same-sex marriage.

In foreign policy, Obama broke with many aspects of the Bush administration's "war on terror," calling for a withdrawal of most troops from Iraq by Aug., 2010, the closure of the Guantánamo prison camp within a year (a goal he failed to achieve), the end of the use of interrogation methods denounced by many as torture, and a renewed focus on fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (which led to an escalation in the number of U.S. forces there in 2010). His administration also suspended plans for deploying a ballistic missile defense system in E Europe, focusing instead on defending against shorter range missiles based in Iran. Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oct., 2009, for his efforts to "strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." In Apr., 2010, the president signed the New START nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia; it replaced the START I treaty that had expired at the end of 2009. In 2011 his administration participated in the imposition of a UN no-fly zone during the anti-Qaddafi uprising in Libya. Also in 2011 Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. commandos in Pakistan; Obama subsequently announced a more rapid U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In the 2012 presidential election, Obama defeated the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, despite a slow recovery that saw unemployment no lower than the level that had led to Obama's 2008 victory. The Democratic ticket, however, did win by a narrower margin than in 2008; Democrats also made modest gains in the Senate and House, but the House remained securely in Republican control. An attempt by Obama to win passage of a number of gun control measures in the wake of the Dec., 2012, elementary school killings in Newtown, Conn., proved (2013) unsuccessful.

The months before the health care changes took effect revealed significant problems with the federal website for the program and other issues, which created political problems for the president in late 2013, though by mid-2014 the situation appeared to have improved markedly. Also in late 2013, Congress agreed to a two-year budget deal, in a significant change from prior years. In 2014 Russia's seizure of Crimea and support for Ukrainian rebels led the Obama administration to adopt sanctions against Russian, and the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq led to U.S. air attacks there. The Republican wins in the 2014 elections, including control of the Senate, were generally seen as representing a rejection of Obama (whose administration had suffered from domestic and international difficulties in 2013–14) or unhappiness with the economy, rather than as broad support for Republican policies. Obama subsequently eased immigration enforcement for law-abiding illegal aliens who were long-term U.S. residents and also had children who were U.S. citizens (the policy was challenged in the courts), and restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and and called for Congress to consider ending the embargo.

See his Dreams from My Father (1995) and The Audacity of Hope (2006). See also biographies by D. Mendell (2007), D. Remnick (2010), and D. Maraniss (2012); biography of his mother by J. Scott (2011) and of his father by S. H. Jacobs (2011); J. Kantor, The Obamas (2012); R. Wolffe, Renegade: The Making of a President (2009); K. H. Jamieson, ed., Electing the President, 2008 (2009); J. Alter, The Promise: President Obama, Year One (2010); J. T. Kloppenberg, Reading Obama (2010); T. J. Sugrue, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (2010); M. Tesler and D. O. Sears, Obama's Race (2010); P. Firstbrook, The Obamas (2011); R. Kennedy, The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency (2011); D. E. Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (2012); C. Todd, The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House (2014).

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