A 'Funny Name,' a Compelling Success Story

APObama lifting his daughter Sasha as Malia, right, and his wife watch during an election party in Chicago late Tuesday.
PHOENIX -- "My presence on this stage is pretty unlikely," Barack Obama began.

"I stand here knowing that my story is part of the larger American story ... and that in no other country on earth is my story even possible."

It was the speech that launched him. Obama was an Illinois assembly member seeking his first term in the U.S. Senate, given a shot at the national stage when John Kerry asked him to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

He had those in the crowd on their feet, cheering wildly, even as many of them wondered: Who is this guy?

A "skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him too," he said at the time.

He talked about hope and brighter days and standing at a crossroads in U.S. history -- themes that would become the bedrock of his own unprecedented run for the White House. And he touched on the many chapters of his life, as familiar to the world now as his rallying cry for change. There was the black father, also named Barack, who grew up herding goats in Kenya. He traveled on a scholarship to attend the University of Hawaii and there, in a Russian-language class, met 18-year-old Stanley Ann Dunham, the white daughter of Kansas-bred parents, christened after the father who worked on oil rigs and farms.

Barack (which means "blessed" in Arabic) was born on Aug. 4, 1961. But his parents' marriage didn't last, and his father would be absent for all but a month of the boy's life. His mother, a free-spirited anthropologist passionate about helping women, raised him. Of her, Obama once wrote: "What is best in me I owe to her."

We would learn of the international upbringing, four years spent living in Indonesia after his mother remarried. Young Barack had a pet monkey, but he also saw poverty and disease, and his eyes were opened to a new world view.

That world view didn't ease Obama's own struggle with his biracial identity. He was among the few black students at his Honolulu high school, where he was known as "Barry" and met with others for a weekly "ethnic corner" discussion. He lived then with his maternal grandparents, including Madelyn Dunham, the grandmother he called "Toot."

Dunham died Sunday at age 86. His father died in a car crash in 1982, his mother of ovarian cancer in 1995.

The compelling life story that helped propel Obama from community organizer to celebrity politician emerged initially in 1990, after he was elected the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. He was 28, a second-year student with a political science degree from Columbia University who had spent several years working the streets of Chicago mobilizing residents to fight for themselves after steel mill closings left them struggling.

After Harvard, Obama rejected high-powered job offers, joining a small civil rights firm back in Chicago. He ran a voter registration drive and lectured on constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. He also married Michelle Robinson, a fellow Harvard Law School grad who served as his adviser during a summer internship at a Chicago law firm. The couple have two daughters, Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7.

The jump into politics came in 1996, when Obama won an Illinois Senate seat. He failed in a 2000 bid for a U.S. House seat. Then came 2004 and the opportunity to run for U.S. Senate. But it was "The Speech" that made him a rock star. Talk of a presidential run began even before his first day in Washington. At first, he demurred. But on a chilly February day, Obama announced his candidacy for presidency.

These past 21 months, he has drawn colossal crowds. He took on race. He toppled the anointed Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, a historic candidate in her own right. He deflected condemnation of his lack of experience.

And he crossed party lines, earning the backing of former Republican governors and senators and retired General Colin Powell, President Bush's first secretary of state. "I think that he has a definitive way of doing business that would serve us well," Powell said.

"Yes, we can!" all those legions of supporters chanted throughout the campaign. And somehow, he did.

On Jan. 20, Obama will take to another stage, the west front of the U.S. Capitol, to recite the presidential oath. The rock star will be known the world over as Mr. President. And the skinny kid will take his place in history, proving that unlikely as it may have all been -- it was, indeed, possible.