Son of an African Immigrant Elected President




Following Barack Obama’s landslide win in the presidential election, headlines in many newspapers read like this one from the New York Times: Election Unleashes a Flood of Hope Worldwide. It strikes me that part of the optimism is due to Obama’s compelling personal story as the son of an African immigrant as well as his own experiences living abroad.

His father, Barack Obama, Sr., traveled from Kenya on scholarship to study economics at the University of Hawaii. There, he met and married Ann Dunham, who gave birth to Barack Obama, Jr., in 1961.

Obama is not the first president to be the son of an immigrant. According to Wiki info (hat tip to, five former presidents (Jefferson, Buchanan, Arthur, Wilson, Hoover) had one immigrant parent each, and one president (Jackson) had two immigrant parents. Still, being the son of an African immigrant is different. Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s former president, said in a letter to Mr. Obama: “Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should not dare to dream of wanting to change the world for a better place.”

Also, Obama spent several years (1967-71) in Indonesia with his mother and Indonesian stepfather. This was a time of Cold War chaos in Indonesia. Newsweek editor John Meacham believes Obama’s experience of “what American power feels like on the receiving end as opposed to the giving end” may help him think two steps ahead about the impact of U.S. actions abroad.

Obama wrote about his personal story in his books, Dreams of My Father and Audacity of Hope. He campaigned on his personal story. The next several years will show whether the current wave of global optimism is justified.

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