Barack Obama: Pragmatist learned to adapt to different worlds

Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) _ It was a Wednesday night ritual for Barack Obama: After a day of debating taxes, the death penalty or some other divisive issue, he’d head to a meeting of “The Committee.”

Lawmakers and lobbyists, Democrats and Republicans alike, would put politics on hold and gather for … their weekly poker game.

It was a chance for Obama, then an Illinois state lawmaker, to socialize over cards and cigars (or, in his case, cigarettes). It also was a way for this son of an African goat herder, this Harvard-educated lawyer, author and professor to show he could be just one of the guys.

That was nothing new.

He had already navigated the exotic corners of Hawaii and Indonesia, the halls of privilege of Cambridge, Mass., and the poverty-wracked streets of Chicago as a boy, a student and a young man.

Along the way, Barack Obama – now a freshman U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate – set out to do the things he says will work in the White House: bridging gaps, making connections, forging alliances.

“He walks between worlds,” says Maya Soetoro-Ng, his half-sister. “That’s what he’s done his entire life.”

His father, also named Barack Obama, was a black scholarship student from Kenya who attended the University of Hawaii. His mother, Ann Dunham, was white and just 18 when they met.

Barack – “blessed” in Arabic – was born Aug. 4, 1961. His father left his family to study at Harvard when his son was 2, returning just once to visit.

When Obama’s mother remarried, she took her young son to join her husband, Lolo Soetoro, in his native Indonesia. After four years, Obama returned to Hawaii, and was raised by his mother and her parents – all transplants from Kansas.

Today, Maya sees traces of all three in her half brother.

From their mother, she says, “he gets his ability to build bridges, to keep an open mind.”

From their grandmother, Madelyn: “his pragmatism.”

From their grandfather, Stanley: “his love of the game. My grandfather … pursued life with great zest.”

In Hawaii, Obama was a scholarship student at Punahou School, a private academy in Honolulu, where he was an outgoing kid with an easy laugh. Obama – then known as Barry – grew into a teen who listened to Earth, Wind ‘ Fire, tooled around in his grandfather’s old Ford Granada, sang in the choir and joined the literary journal.

He also loved basketball and played on his school team, which won a state championship his senior year.

Friends says Obama never spoke of the turmoil he revealed in his memoir, “Dreams from My Father,” in which he wrote about wrestling with his racial identity and using drugs – including marijuana and cocaine – to “push questions of who I was out of my mind.”

In a 1999 article written for the Punahou Bulletin, Obama said that as one of the few blacks in the school, “I probably questioned my identity a bit harder than most. As a kid from a broken home and family of relatively modest means, I nursed more resentments than my circumstances justified, and I didn’t always channel those resentments in particularly constructive ways.”

After graduating from Columbia University and working in New York briefly, Obama became a community organizer in Chicago. He concentrated on black churches on the industrial South Side, an area crippled by the loss of steel mills and factories.

“He had no trouble challenging power and challenging people on issues,” says Gerald Kellman, the man who hired him to work for the Developing Communities Project. “When it came to face-to-face situations, he valued civility a great deal. When it came to negotiating conflict, he was very good.”

Obama befriended many of those he organized – women his mother’s age.

“This man was so bright, but he didn’t hit you over the head with it,” recalls Loretta Augustine-Herron. “He explained things so nobody would be offended.”

The women doted on him, chiding him for not eating enough, laughing when he showed off his dance moves, joking about his punctuality – warning each other that “baby-faced Obama” would be angry if they didn’t get to a meeting on time.

In Chicago, Obama also honed his writing skills, crafting short stories inspired by real-life experiences.

After three years, Obama headed to Harvard Law School.

Former classmates and professors remember him as a conciliator with sound judgment.

“He wasn’t someone that you simply wanted to read his class notes or hear his voice,” says Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor who served as a mentor to Obama and other black students. “You wanted to hear him thinking.”

Obama had two pivotal moments at Harvard.

During his first summer while working at a Chicago corporate law firm, he met another Harvard law graduate, Michelle Robinson, who became his wife and mother of their two daughters, Malia and Sasha.

Obama also made headlines when he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, perhaps the most prestigious legal journal in the nation.

“He did not take that pound-on-my-chest attitude, ‘Look at me, I’m the first one,'” says Earl Martin Phalen, a black classmate. “He was conscious of the historical significance but understood … there was a responsibility.”

After graduation, high-powered job offers flooded in, but Obama joined a small civil rights firm in Chicago. He also lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School.

In 1996, he won a state Senate seat and helped change laws governing the death penalty, ethics and racial profiling.

As a newcomer in the clubby atmosphere of Springfield, Obama also encountered cold shoulders. Some lawmakers initially thought he was arrogant.

“It took him a while to prove that he was a real guy,” says state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican who appears in an Obama campaign commercial.

Obama’s roots and style have long stirred debate. Some black leaders and commentators have questioned whether he is “black enough” – the issue surfaced in his unsuccessful race against U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.

Obama says there never has been any question about him being black, and he has written about slights he has endured because of his race.

Two years after his failed congressional bid, Obama began plotting his campaign for the U.S. Senate.

Friends see similarities in how Obama approaches politics and poker.

“If he was going to play the hand, he knew it was a hand he could win,” says state Sen. Terry Link. “That’s his politics, too. He’s not going to do it just to do it.”

It took just 17 minutes for Barack Obama to create a national buzz.

After his star-making keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, pundits and politicians began talking about him as a presidential candidate.

Last February, Obama returned to Springfield to the Old Capitol, where his hero Abraham Lincoln was a legislator.

He came to make another big speech.

He announced he was running for president