Making History with Hope
Being both the 44th President of the United States and the first African-American commander in chief, Barack Obama is a unique politician, states person, and man. As a politician, Obama’s legacy largely involves his administration’s shrewd policies that allowed America to return to stability after years of mismanagement, wars, and one of the worst economic recessions in history. As a person, Obama remains popular for his charisma, soaring rhetoric, and personable nature. Due to his abilities to circumvent pessimism, make calculated decisions, and inspire millions, Barack Obama is a model of how one’s decision-making, even in the worst of circumstances, can make our world a better place.
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Hope and Morale
The absence of hope can rot a society from within. – Barack Obama
The most impactful aspect of Obama’s legacy was his ability to reignite hope in a demoralized world.
When Obama became President of the United States in 2008, he was perhaps taking on one of the hardest jobs in history. While taking the reins of the world’s most powerful country is no small feat on its own, the America which Obama inherited was teetering on collapse. Reckless spending, multiple wars, and the 2008 financial crisis had bankrupted both the nation and its people. Politically, the previous administration was draped in scandal, from controversial election results to Guantanamo Bay. This compounding of bad decisions led many Americans to lose faith in economic and political processes, which only strengthened apathy and hopelessness.
It is human nature to tend towards pessimism. Our brains are designed to gravitate towards the negative, and it is easy to see why. The world can be, and often is, a bleak place. Certainly nobody would blame Americans who had just gone through a series of policy blunders and financial devastation for being skeptical of government institutions. However, while it is easy to wallow in cynicism, it is difficult to get anything done from that perspective.
This defeat of cynicism is why Obama was such an important figure. His ability to inspire people to their highest ideals, without drifting off into unrealistic idealism, was key in preventing further disaster.
“So don't get cynical. Cynicism didn't put a man on the moon. Cynicism has never won a war, or cured a disease, or built a business, or fed a young mind. Cynicism is a choice. And hope will always be a better choice.” -Barack Obama
Hope, however, is not enough to save a country. Paired with his idealism, Obama also established a shrewd method for making decisions that would ensure his vision of the future came to fruition. Obama is often applauded for his humility and rationality in the face of dire circumstances and high expectations, and much of this success came down to the way he made decisions.
Obama outlined in a 2018 Medium post his decision-making process. He outlines the routine that helped him avoid some pitfalls of our inherent human irrationality. In a position like the president, decision-making can be of life or death significance. Campaigning on hope and change, one might assume Obama was an idealist who didn’t see through the feasibility of his actions, which could have caused him to make irrational choices driven by naive idealism. Instead, systemizing his decisions based on science and strategy allowed him to create transformational change.
“Rather than let myself get paralyzed in the quest for a perfect solution, or succumb to the temptation to just go with my gut every time, I created a sound decision-making process — one where I really listened to the experts, followed the facts, considered my goals and weighed all of that against my principle.” - Barack Obama
Obama’s ability to take his own human fallibility out of the situation, and instead rely on his teams, was also vital to his success. As an early believer in behavioral science, Obama established the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, who advised him on the best practices from the field, which he then applied to policy. As one of the earliest world leaders to embrace this new field, Obama had an advantage in designing effective policy tailored to human behavior.
Obama’s calm deliberation allowed him to create highly effective policy. In the wake of the financial collapse, his administration bailed out the automotive industry and prevented further economic devastation. Throughout his two terms, the economy roared back to full health and started one of the longest periods of economic growth in history.
Obama had a variety of other legislative successes as well. Ranging from passing Obamacare, to the Iran Nuclear deal, to making significant progress on climate change, Obama was highly effective at forwarding his agenda despite political obstruction. While he did not achieve everything he promised, his effective decisions certainly reignited hope for a large portion of demoralized Americans who’d endured a period of darkness.
“I trusted my team. I listened to every voice in the room. I gave myself space to think. And then I made a decision that reflected my own personal sense of what was right.” - Barack Obama
Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1961 to Ann Dunham, an anthropology student from Kansas, and Barack Obama Sr., a Kenyan foreign exchange economics student. The two met at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, married, and separated shortly after Barack’s birth. His father went off to pursue higher education, and eventually returned to Kenya.
When Barack was about six, his mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian graduate student. The trio relocated to a wealthy neighborhood in Jakarta, Indonesia, where Obama would become well versed in Indonesian language, culture, and schooling. During this time, Obama’s sister Maya was born. His classmates in Indonesia remember his leadership shining early, as he would often organize class lineups and motivate others to help him clean the chalkboard. His ambition was also noticed: Obama’s third grade teacher distinctly remembers him writing in an assignment, “I want to be president one day.”
After bouncing around multiple religious schools, Obama moved back to Hawaii for more stable education. He attended a private college prep school with the help of a scholarship, where he excelled academically and athletically. After graduating from high school, he began his studies, as well as his political activism, at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He eventually transferred to Columbia University, where he graduated with a degree in Political Science and English Literature.
Obama’s path to politics wasn’t a straightforward one. After college, he worked at a global consulting firm as a writer and analyst for approximately a year. He then relocated once more to Chicago, where he took a job as a community organizer in the impoverished Southside of Chicago. Growing up without a solid location to call home, a shaky base of familial support, and a confused identity, working in Chicago allowed Obama to hone ideals that would guide his future decision-making and career.
“Hope is the bedrock of this nation. The belief that our destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by all those men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.” - Barack Obama
After running into much bureaucracy as a community organizer, Obama felt compelled to get a law degree to more effectively pursue change. This ambition led him to Harvard Law School, where he became the first African-American to be the president of the Law Journal. This feat thrust him into the national spotlight, as well as inked him his first book deal, which produced Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. He then worked for a number of years as an educator and civil rights attorney, which had him fighting on the front lines for many of the same issues he would later fight for in his political career. These experiences allowed him to springboard into politics, and he successfully ran for Illinois Senate and US Senate in the following years.
After a successful career as a young senator, Obama decided to run for president in 2007, where he faced up against multiple prominent Democrats, including favorite Hilary Clinton and 2020 president Joe Biden. Despite being a long shot, Obama’s charisma, lack of scandal, and commitment to American issues charmed the American people. After winning the primary, he handily defeated Senator John McCain in the general election, and the rest is history.
While his political career is largely over, Obama remains one of America’s more popular presidents. He is still a relevant media figure, frequently offering his perspective on pressing political issues.
Obama’s journey to the presidency, from schooling in Indonesia to community organizing in Chicago, was certainly not a clear or direct one. Regardless, Obama remains a key figure in recent American politics, and will be widely regarded in history books as an effective leader and moving speaker.
“The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people.” - Barack Obama
Books By President Obama
The Audacity of Hope: The second book written by Obama examines his key moral, political, and spiritual beliefs. These beliefs provided the backing for his 2008 presidential campaign.
Dreams of My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance: The first book written by Obama, Dreams of My Father is a memoir which recounts Barack’s adolescent experiences, his relations to his father, and what shaped him into the man he would become.
A Promised Land: Obama’s most recent memoir reflects on his life and his presidency, specifically outlining what key situations and decisions made the most impact on his legacy.
Books About President Obama
Barack Obama: The Story by David Maraniss
This unique biography examines the life of both Barack Obama and his parents, specifically focusing on the forces that shaped Obama into the man he would become.
The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment by Julian Zelizer: Written by a group of leading political historians, this book dissects the key problems the Obama Presidency faced, their subsequent decisions, and their consequences. Each chapter focuses on a distinct issue, and assesses the successes, failures, and lasting legacies of the Obama presidency.
We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy by Ta-Nehisi Coates
For a different perspective on the Obama white house, award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ collection of essays examines the racial angle to the Obama presidency, specifically how racial backlash led to the election of Donald Trump. While not specifically covered in this piece, the public’s response to their first African-American president is a key facet of Obama’s legacy, and is eloquently covered here.
“Hope is not blind optimism. It's not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It's not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it.” - Barack Obama
- Borger, J. (2008, November 6). After Bush, the world looks on in hope and expectation: What are Obama's plans - and can he deliver them? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/06/us-elections-barack-obama.
- Conley, M. (2008, September 25). Obama's Early Days In Jakarta. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/story?id=5883803&page=1.
- Executive Office of the President. (2013, September). The Financial Crisis: Five Years Later. Obama White House Archives.
- Nelson, M. (2020, March 16). Barack Obama: Life Before the Presidency. Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/president/obama/life-before-the-presidency.
- Obama, B. (2015, September 15). Executive Order -- Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People. National Archives and Records Administration. https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2015/09/15/executive-order-using-behavioral-science-insights-better-serve-american
- Obama, B. (2020, December 9). How I Approach the Toughest Decisions. Medium. https://barackobama.medium.com/how-i-approach-the-toughest-decisions-dc1b165cdf2d.
- YouGov. (2021, March). Barack Obama popularity & fame. YouGov. https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/explore/public_figure/Barack_Obama.
About the Author
The Decision Lab
The Decision Lab is a Canadian think-tank dedicated to democratizing behavioral science through research and analysis. We apply behavioral science to create social good in the public and private sectors.