Senator Barack Obama stole the national spotlight at the Democratic Convention when he gave the speech of his life with his powerful vision for America. He talked about "the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too." GQ magazine named Senator Obama one of their Men of the Year, and Newsweek declared this rising star the one to watch in 2005. He is fast becoming America's favorite son.
Oprah: I was told when I first started out to change my name to Suzie because nobody would ever…remember ["Oprah"].
Senator Obama: The same thing happened to me. A political consultant, when we first started thinking about this Senate race, said, "You can have one funny name. You can be 'Barack Smith.' Or you can be 'Joe Obama.' But 'Barack Obama'—that's not gonna work."
Senator Barack Obama's story starts in two opposite corners of the world. His white mother was born in Wichita, Kansas. His black father grew up in a tiny village in Kenya, where he was the first in his tribe to get an education. They met during college in Hawaii, but their marriage did not last. When Senator Barack was just two years old, his father left the family. Senator Barack only met his father one other time.
His mother eventually remarried and moved with Barack and her new husband to Indonesia. At 10, Barack moved back to Hawaii to live with his white grandparents and to attend a prestigious school. He struggled with his identity, and he says "ended up getting involved in drugs and drinking too much."
Despite the strikes against him, he turned his life around, graduating from Columbia University and spending years as a community organizer. He then went on to be a star at Harvard Law School, becoming the first African-American president of the renowned Harvard Law Review before returning to public service.
"All of these different strands in me—the black, the white, the African—all of that has contributed directly to my success because when I meet people, I see a piece of myself in them. And maybe they see a piece of themselves in me," Senator Barack explains.
Before he had considered a career in public office, Barack Obama wrote a book called Dreams from My Father. In it he addressed his confusion and pain growing up, and how he sought relief in negative ways. He wrote that he was looking for "something that could push questions about who I was out of my mind. Something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory."
This period in his life informs his outlook. "I think part of the reason that I put this in there," he says, "was because as I grew up and came to Chicago and was organizing in the far South Side of Chicago, I would meet so many young men—and I still meet so many young men—who are as talented as I am, have as much promise, have as much energy, but don't have opportunity. And find themselves going into these same ruts and find themselves internalizing the notion that they can't succeed."
In 2004, Barack Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of Illinois. He is currently the only African-American in the Senate. He says that he's noticed the change in how people perceive him.
Senator Obama: When I became a senator, for example, I noticed that people started treating me differently.
Oprah: How so?
Senator Obama: Well, you know, they're nice to me all the time. And they pretend that everything that you say makes sense. Which it doesn't, right? But they'll nod and say, "Senator, that's a great point." And so I think you [need to] have people around you who can remind you that, actually, what you just said makes no sense. …Fortunately, I have my wife to do that continually.
In late July 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama rose to give the convention's keynote speech. At that exact moment, he hadn't been elected to national office and was largely unknown even to those in his own party. But in less than an hour, he was a political shooting star. Oprah said when his speech was over, "It felt like a new day."
One of the most famous lines in the speech was: "There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America, an Asian America. There's the United States of America."
Of the speech, which he wrote himself, Senator Obama says, "All I was trying to do was just talk about the common sense things that people know when they're sitting around the kitchen table but don't somehow get into the political conversation."
Senator Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, met on the job. Michelle, a Harvard graduate herself, happened to be Barack's advisor at the law firm they worked at. Today Michelle is a working mom both in and outside the home. They have two young girls and she maintains her high-powered job at the University of Chicago Hospital.
Michelle says she has been trying to keep Barack's fame, derived from his Democratic National Convention speech, from turning into a liability.
Oprah: You said in Newsweek that giving a good speech does not make you Superman.
Michelle: Right, and I think that that's one of the things that I've tried to do when I've gone around to campaign for him—to sort of tamp down expectations, because that's one of the things we do with our politicians.
So what is your greatest hope? Senator Obama:
You know, my greatest hope is to be able to pass the same dreams and hopes and vision that I've been able to enjoy in my life, on to the next generation. Not just for my children—because with a mother like [Michelle], my kids are going to be great—but for all children. There are too many children in this country for whom the American dream is so distant and the odds against them are so daunting. For more with Senator Barack Obama, listen in to Oprah's Cut.