Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Becoming" by Michelle Obama. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What was Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign like? How did Obama win against all odds?

When Barack Obama ran for president, he was an unknown senator from Illinois. Michelle was also worried that America wasn’t ready for a Black president. However, Obama’s 2008 run gained strength due to its massive grassroots campaign.

Continue on to learn about Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Barack’s Campaign for the Presidency

Michelle truly believed Barack had the intelligence, temperament, discipline, and empathy to be a great president. She believed in his ideals and his ability to bring them to life. But she also knew enough about America to think the country might not yet be ready for a Black president. She had an unshakeable feeling that no matter how hard he campaigned, Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign wasn’t going to succeed. 

On February 10, 2007, Barack prepared to stand at an outdoor podium in a freezing Illinois storm to announce his candidacy. Michelle worried that the awful weather would mean a small crowd, and Barack’s kickoff event might be a dismal failure. She worried that her daughters would trip over their feet or look bored on stage. She worried whether she or they were dressed properly. She was painfully aware of the image she was supposed to project: “I knew the stereotype I was meant to inhabit, the immaculately groomed doll-wife with the painted-on smile, gazing bright-eyed at her husband.” 

But as soon as she saw the crowd that had gathered, her worries subsided. Thousands of people roared with enthusiasm, cheering on the entire Obama family. Michelle was moved by this incredible display of loyalty. She started to believe that the next 20 months of campaigning might actually be worth it: Barack did have a chance at the presidency. She suddenly saw each audience member as the Obamas’ responsibility. Each person had come out to support the Obamas, and the Obamas would not fail them. 

Threats Against Barack

Barack was the subject of many unfounded rumors. Lies, suspicions, and theories circulated in the media, on the Internet, and in anonymous email chains. Some stories said he refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or that he had a close friend who was a domestic terrorist, or that he had been sworn into the Senate on a Koran instead of a Bible. Many Americans couldn’t even pronounce Barack’s name—and didn’t try to learn. 

Michelle didn’t feel unsafe, but she was concerned about threats against Barack. She took comfort in the fact that Secret Service agents trailed her husband, and an agent was assigned to the Obama home. Never before in history had a presidential candidate been given Secret Service protection so early in his campaign, but Barack’s heritage made him a particularly controversial candidate. 

As Michelle is subjected to harsh criticism, she recalls her mother’s lesson about not letting a bully’s insults or aggression get to you—it’s only when you take a bully’s comments personally that you really get hurt. She remembers when she was in first grade, and a boy punched her in the face for no reason. Stunned, hurt, and confused, Michelle ran home to her mother, and her mother went to her school to sort things out. The boy was punished and forced to apologize to Michelle. Michelle’s mother explained the boy’s meanness this way: “That boy was just scared and angry about things that have nothing to do with you.” 

Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner 

After a year of campaigning, Barack trailed in the polls behind Hillary Clinton and John Edwards. But Michelle wasn’t convinced the polls were correct. She knew that Barack was running a massive grassroots campaign staffed mostly by young 20-somethings. They were invisible to the pollsters, but these young people had power, skills, and energy, and they were staffing 37 offices for the Obama campaign.  

A key moment came at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, an annual Democratic event in Des Moines that’s essentially a huge pep rally held a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses. More than 3,000 of Barack’s young staffers attended the event. All the Democratic candidates made a speech, and most used their time to criticize their opponents, but Barack, who spoke last, spoke against the dangers of polarization. He didn’t want voters to take sides; he wanted Democrats to change America. His speech was met with thunderous applause, and Barack went on to win the Iowa caucuses. 

Barack’s Campaign Gains Strength

Barack became the Democratic nominee for President and chose Joe Biden—at that time a Senator from Delaware—to be his running mate. Although they were rivals for the Democratic nomination, they quickly became friends afterward. They were running against the Republican ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin. 

The media frenzy around the Obamas intensified. Journalists follow Barack’s every move, scrutinizing every word, action, and gesture. In the summer of 2008, just a few months before the November election, Michelle felt like the Obamas’ life was entirely scripted, with every moment planned by other people. Being surrounded by huge audiences, bright lights, and newspaper photographers had become the norm. Carefully regulating every word spoken in public was also the norm. 

Election Night 2008

On November 4, Michelle and Barack cast their votes in Chicago and begin an excruciating, all-day wait to hear the election results. Friends and family visited their home to help pass the time. Craig and Barack played basketball to relieve the stress. Michelle continued to ask herself the question she’d been asking all along: Was America really ready to elect a Black president? 

That evening, Michelle and Barack went to a hotel suite that the campaign had rented for them. With a small group of family and friends, they watched the election results on television. Joe and Jill Biden watched the results from their own suite across the hall. 

At 10 p.m., Barack was declared the 44th President of the United States, and everyone in the hotel started screaming and hugging. Michelle recalls the rest of the night as a surreal blur. Secret Service agents escorted the Obamas in a motorcade to Grant Park, where Barack made his acceptance speech to an audience of more than 200,000 people. Michelle, Malia, and Sasha stood on stage with Barack, listening to the cheers of a jubilant crowd.  

Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michelle Obama's "Becoming" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Becoming summary :

  • How Michelle Obama went from the South Side of Chicago to the White House
  • Why much of her success came from her being determined from a young age
  • How Michelle Obama continues to push herself and discover new opportunities

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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