Barack Obama’s Political Career Before Presidency

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 did Barack Obama’s political career look like before he became president? Why did Barack switch from a legal career to politics?

Barack Obama was working full-time at a law firm until an Illinois state senator encouraged him to run for office. This was a difficult career change to make because he and Michelle had two young children and a career in politics would mean big life changes.

Keep reading to learn about the beginning of Barack Obama’s political career and the impact it had on his family.

Barack Gets Elected to the Illinois Senate 

Barack Obama’s political career didn’t start for him until later in life. Barack was teaching a class at the University of Chicago Law School, working full time at a law firm, and running community-organizing workshops. Michelle began to understand that he had limitless energy and carried the world’s problems on his shoulders, which led to his need for quiet space and time to concentrate, read, write, and think. 

When an Illinois state senator encouraged Barack to run for office, Michelle hoped he wouldn’t take the bait. She had a low opinion of politics and politicians, and she wanted Barack to stick to his stable jobs in law and teaching. But Barack had political ambitions, and Michelle wanted to support his goals even though she believed the job would drive him crazy. 

Barack was elected to the Illinois Senate in November 1996. He had to spend three nights a week in the state capital of Springfield, away from Michelle in Chicago, but he was excited about his new legislative position. 

The couple developed a strategy to help them cope with the time apart: Every Friday night the couple shared “date night” at a favorite Chicago restaurant, where they’d catch up on the details of their lives.  

Barack’s Political Career Climbs Higher  

Barack still hoped for an entry into national politics. George W. Bush was president at the time, and the United States had just experienced the horrific tragedies of September 11, 2001. In the midst of the turmoil, Barack considered running for a U.S. Senate seat. Michelle did not support the idea—she felt like they were already much too busy managing their children and their careers, and the last thing they needed to add to their schedules was a high-profile political campaign.  

Barack Runs for Senate  

Believing that he could make big changes in Washington, D.C., Barack toyed with the idea of running for U.S. Senate. Michelle tried to discourage him. 

If Barack ran, his campaign would be especially difficult because he was only an Illinois state legislator. He was unknown on the national political scene. Michelle didn’t think he had much chance at winning—which would mean putting up with all the campaign hoopla for nothing. 

But Barack was intent on taking this leap of faith, so Michelle agreed to support him. They struck a deal for the sake of their family: She made him promise that if he lost the race, he would leave politics altogether. 

Many of the couple’s friends agreed to help with Barack’s Senate campaign, including Michelle’s former boss at City Hall, Valerie Jarrett. Valerie became his campaign finance chair.  

Barack Becomes a U.S. Senator 

The response to Barack’s convention speech was overwhelmingly positive. Journalists started making a leap of faith, calling him “the guy who will be the first Black president.” People asked for his autograph. His book Dreams from My Father made The New York Times bestseller list. Oprah Winfrey interviewed Michelle and Barack. 

The couple found their sudden fame jarring, but they had to adapt. In November, Barack won his Senate race by 70% of the vote, the largest landslide in that year’s congressional races.

The Impact on Michelle

In January 2005, Barack started commuting back and forth from Chicago to his Senate office in Washington, D.C., so he was gone much of the time. But Michelle’s routine was much the same as ever—she kept working at the hospital and the girls went to school and to swimming and ballet lessons.

When another U.S. Senator’s wife called Michelle and invited her to join a private club of Washington wives, she politely declined, explaining that her family was not moving to D.C. The woman gently told her that Senate families could fall apart when they didn’t move to the capital. Michelle found this disconcerting, but she insisted that she and Barack wanted to keep the children in their schools and that she was not going to quit her job.

After that phone call, Michelle thought about how she had been married to Barack for 12 years, but now for the first time people saw her as “Mrs. Obama,” not as an independent career woman whose accomplishments were completely separate from her husband’s. Although she loved Barack, she wasn’t willing to drop everything to move to Washington, D.C. to be with him. Life as a Senator’s wife wasn’t her choice, and federal politics seemed like a vortex she didn’t want to get sucked into. Yet by virtue of her marriage, she felt sucked in. 

Rumors of a Presidential Bid 

Barack had only been a Senator for a short time, but already the media was conjecturing about whether or not he would run for President in 2008. Even Michelle’s colleagues at the hospital asked her about whether he would run. Barack insisted he was happy working as a new and low-ranking member of the Senate; he just wanted to do his best at that job. 

Barack Obama’s Political Career Before Presidency

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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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