The Public Eye: Who is Barack Obama?

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday August 26, 2008 - 10:36:00 AM

Monday: Much of the opening night of the Denver Democratic convention was devoted to a reintroduction of Barack Obama. If you’re a loyal Dem or one of the millions who’ve read his autobiography, Dreams From My Father, you probably don’t need to be told who he is and what he stands for. But there are still a substantial number of Americans who don’t know the Illinois Senator; who are worried about him because they’ve heard he’s a Muslim or wonder what they have in common with a brown-skinned intellectual from Hawaii. This night was for them. 

For whatever reason, the Obama campaign hasn’t taken advantage of his Horatio-Alger story: raised by a single mom and his grandparents; working his way through college and law school; cutting his teeth as a community organizer and civil rights attorney; and making his mark as a successful writer. It’s a story that all Americans should be proud of. And can identify with. 

On the other hand, while most Americans know that John McCain was shot down over Vietnam and held as a prisoner of war for five and a half years, few are aware of the privileged circumstances of his life. The Arizona senator is the son and grandson of admirals. John secured a legacy appointment to Annapolis, married into a wealthy Arizona family, and leveraged their connections to become a four-term senator—part of the Washington establishment. 

Barack Obama had none of these advantages. He came from a blue-collar background and pulled himself up by the bootstraps. The purpose of the Monday night presentation was to point this out and say to America: Barack is someone you can feel comfortable with. A guy who shares your values. 

The reintroduction had four components. Barack’s half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, described their family life and spoke glowingly of their mother’s emphasis on education and self-discipline. She insisted that Barack got his empathy and commitment to public service from their mom, Ann Dunham. 

In 1985, Jerry Kellman, a Chicago community organizer, hired Obama for his Developing Communities Project, which focused on blighted neighborhoods in Chicago’s south side area. Kellman noted Obama’s tenacity, his ability to listen and adapt, and his commitment to the ideal of “the beloved community.” 

The first convention evening concluded with a short film about Michelle Obama and then a 20-minute talk by his wife of 16 years. The film was intended to convince viewers that Mrs. Obama’s life had not been all that different from many of theirs: her blue-collar father worked long hours to provide for his family, her mother stayed home and took care of Michelle and her brother Craig Robinson. The Robinson children were taught the virtues of hard work and quality education. Michelle went to Princeton and Harvard Law School. Like her husband she eschewed a lucrative law career for one of community service. 

For those in the television audience who had never seen Mrs. Obama in person, tonight was informative on several levels. She gave a flawless performance. So good that Democratic partisans struggled to remember a candidate’s wife’s speech that compared in delivery and lucidity. If Barack becomes president, Michelle Obama promises to be an advocate in the tradition of Eleanor Roosevelt and Hillary Clinton. 

Mrs. Obama graciously acknowledged Senator Clinton, “who put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling, so that our daughters—and sons—can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher.” 

In February, Michelle Obama said, “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Her awkward comment was picked up by the conservative smear machine and used to portray her as un-American. In her remarks to the convention, Mrs. Obama noted, “[Americans are] driven by a simple belief that the world as it is just won’t do—that we have an obligation to fight for the world as it should be. That is the thread that connects our hearts... That is why I love this country.” 

She describe growing up in Chicago, lauded her parents, and observed, “I know firsthand from their lives—and mine—that the American Dream endures.” 

Mrs. Obama’s strongest words were reserved for her husband. She emphasized that she and Barack were raised to believe in fundamental American values: “that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.” 

As strong as Michelle Obama’s speech was, Monday’s highlight was a surprise appearance by ailing Senator Ted Kennedy. The last surviving Kennedy brother linked Barack Obama to President John Kennedy and concluded: “This November the torch will be passed again to a new generation of Americans, so with Barack Obama and for you and for me, our country will be committed to his cause. The work begins anew. The hope rises again. And the dream lives on.” 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at