There are certain figures whose stories become bigger than their politics—people who become part of history, and whose lives inspire people regardless of whether they agree on anything at all. And after lifetimes of steady-handed hard work, and an uncompromising ambition that occasionally caused people to raise their eyebrows along the way, Barack and Michelle Obama have become two of them.
Throughout their time in the public eye, the Obamas have been a lightning rod for controversy: villainized by many, but adored by just as many others. But the facts of their politics interest us less, than how they came to be who they are today. How a boy born in Hawaii who hardly knew his father, and a girl growing up not-so-far removed from the days of slavery, could chart a course for their own dreams and follow them to Harvard; to the world of Academia in Chicago; and all the way to the highest political office in the United States.
Because the story of Barack and Michelle Obama is not about fame handed down or a future inherited, but the story of all the icons which we look up to at Selfmade: of a vision pursued when the rest of the world didn’t believe at all, and journey taken to its most unlikely end. When a person has a vision, and turns the eyes of the rest of the world to see.
AS FAR FROM WASHINGTON AS YOU CAN GET
The stories of both Barack and Michelle are unlikely. Although they both worked hard in school, went to college, and earned admission to Harvard Law, they were not born into upper-class families. Michelle grew up on the South side of Chicago, and Barack was born all the way out on Hawaii, but from the time they were both young they were focused on how they could help others—a dedication that would be at the core of their success professionally, and maybe personally, as they were always on the same page about their priorities.
But while parts of their spirits in childhood were similar, their circumstances could not have been more different. As a child, no one would have ever guessed that Barack “Barry” Obama would grow up to become the President of the United States. His mother, Ann Dunham met his father Barack Obama Sr. at the University of Hawaii. His father was from Kenya, and already had children from a previous marriage. Ann and Barack Sr. were married for two years before getting a divorce, and he moved back to Kenya soon after. Barack Obama only met his biological father for one month before he passed away—and it turned out that Barack had several half-siblings still living in Kenya, who he was never able to meet until he was an adult.
When Barack’s father left, his mother Ann married an Indonesian man named Lolo Soetoro, and the family moved from Hawaii to Jakarta, Indonesia when he was 6 years old. This was more than a move to a different island: at the time, the city of Jakarta had dirt roads, and many of the houses didn’t have electricity. Obama’s family didn’t even have a refrigerator. This was a massive change of pace, and his mother was afraid that he wouldn’t receive a good education at the local school.
To prevent this, Barack’s mother would wake him up early to do an entire day’s worth of homeschooling lessons before she sent him off to the local school. There, he was the only African American boy in his class—but for Barack this was the same case as at home. His mother was white, and his step-father and sister were Indonesian. Without any black person in his life to look up to, he was always searching for a way to identify as a mixed-race person and was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. At the same time, he read comic books at night, wishing he could be a superhero who helped those in need. Even as a child, he dreamed of making people’s lives better.
Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” -Barack Obama
In the mid-1970s, Barack moved back to Hawaii to attend High School. When he moved to the continental U.S. for college, he found his way to Columbia University after a stint at Occidental, and worked for a few years as a community organizer in Chicago. From there things only seemed to go upward for him: he applied to, attended, and completed Harvard Law School so that he could become a lawyer. There he became the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review, and although he and Michelle both attended the school, it wasn’t until they both worked at the law firm Sidley Austin, that they would discover there was more than a little potential in each other.
THE OTHER HALF OF SUCCESS
Michelle Obama, born Michelle Robinson, had a childhood far different from Barack’s. She was born on the South Side of Chicago, where she shared a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and older brother Craig, where both siblings slept in the living room, which was split by a room divider. Michell’s father suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, and growing up watching him struggle inspired her to work incredibly hard, as well as appreciate the simple fact that she could move her body freely. Their family didn’t have much, but she was grateful for all of it.
Michelle’s ancestors were slaves who worked on a plantation in South Carolina. Her family history was filled with blue-collar workers who struggled to make ends meet. But from the time she was a young girl, it was already clear that her destiny would be different. Michelle was incredibly intelligent, and in her early years of school began taking classes for so-called “gifted” kids. She graduated as the Salutatorian of her High School, and was accepted to Princeton University for undergrad, after which she attended and graduated from Harvard Law.
After graduating from Harvard Law, Michelle found herself at a law firm in Chicago called Sidley Austin—the same one where Barack was working. In fact, Michelle was supposed to be Barack’s mentor. This meant that at first, she didn’t want to date him, thinking it would be inappropriate to have a work romance. But their chemistry was undeniable, and after a while they ended up together: first dating, then married. Through it all, they supported one another in all of their dreams, and both worked together in their mission to help make the world a better place.
Never stop believing in the power of your ideas, your imagination, your hard work to change the world.” -Barack Obama
Michelle was passionate about community service. She was a lawyer, but she went on to become even more as an associate dean at the University of Chicago, as well as the President of Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Barack was working as a civil rights attorney, and taught classes as a constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago Law School. It was during this time that he began his career in politics. He ran for the 13th district of the Illinois Senate, and served from 1997 to 2004. In 2004, he ran for the US Senate. And in 2008, was elected to be the President of the United States—the first African American to ever hold the office.
MR. AND MRS. PRESIDENT
When Barack became President of the United States, it was a historic moment—and Michelle was in no way just along for the ride. She gave up her career and a 6-figure salary to become First Lady, and together they set out to make the changes they both dreamed of.
As First Lady, Michelle Obama made it her goal to bring attention to improving health and wellness as a nation. She had a vegetable garden planted on the White House grounds. Michelle woke up at 4:30 AM so she could have time to workout in the morning when she lived at the White House.
They tried to make the White House more fun and accessible to common people. The Girl Scouts were invited to camp on the white house lawn. They held hip hop dance classes, and had parties for holidays. Suddenly, the office of the President of the United States was no longer something only for the privileged few. They wanted kids to grow up thinking that one day, maybe they could be President.
Everything we said, we thought about how it would be viewed by children. Not just our children, but by all children. We had to be the moral compass.” -Michelle Obama
LIFE AFTER THE WHITE HOUSE
When the Obamas left political office, their work to change this country didn’t stop. They may not live in the White House anymore, but the Obamas have continued to use their influence to help people with the non-profit organization they founded, The Obama Foundation. Since leaving office they have been working on plans for a community center on the South side of Chicago called The Obama Presidential Center, which will emphasize taking care of communities.
As of 2021, the center is still in progress, but the Obamas now see this as an opportunity to create new jobs for people who are unemployed due to Covid-19. In every situation, Barack and Michelle are trying to find ways to help make life better for other people. It’s the dream that he had, reading comic books as a child, and the one that she developed watching her father struggle with M.S. But unlike many, they didn’t just dream—they worked hard to see if they could make those dreams a reality. And what’s more, they succeeded.
No matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, you can make it. That's an essential promise of America. Where you start should not determine where you end up.” -Barack Obama