Barack Obama for beginners

The most lionised US politician since JFK visits Europe next week. Mass outbreaks of Obama-mania are expected. Are you prepared? Read Leonard Doyle's instant briefing

Saturday 22 October 2011 22:47

The tour

"Renegade" (Barack Obama's Secret Service nickname) is due to arrive in Jordan on Monday – or he might go first to London. Or will he make a lightning dash from Amman to Baghdad or Kabul? Nobody knows. Such is the hyper-sensitivity about protecting the first black candidate for the world's top job that only the innermost members of his 300-strong inner circle of foreign policy advisers are privy to his itinerary. Nonetheless, Obama is on his way to Europe, and is expected to stop for a high-profile handshake or two in London. He's also going to France and Germany, as well as heading for Israel and the West Bank – where security fears are high. The Irish, too, want O'Bama to drop in on Moneygall (one traffic light, two pubs, pop 298.) His great-great-great-grandfather, one Fulmuth Kearney, left for America in 1850.

The agenda

Obama has been relentlessly twitted by his opponent as a foreign policy lightweight, so his 2008 tour is all about finding the right soundbites and photo ops for the folks back home. He has to convince sceptics in Kansas and West Virginia that he's got the Right Stuff to be commander-in-chief. What they don't want are huge crowds of adoring European fans swooning before him. Instead, expect lots of earnest handshakes, dramatic backdrops and the unavoidable crowds. As a political cross-dresser, Obama is desperate to appear at the Brandenburg Gate and channel Ronald Reagan ("Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall"). But Angela Merkel is kicking up such a fuss that he may have to settle for channelling John F Kennedy ("Ich bin ein Berliner") instead – outside Berlin's town hall.

Expect some harsh words for Europeans who criticise America while taking the free ride they get on the back of America's battered army. He won't just be talking about the liberation of Europe in the Second World War and the Berlin airlift. If Washington reopens, as he hopes, under new management, Obama wants German, Belgians and Italian boots on the ground in Afghanistan – and anywhere else where hard fighting is taking place against terrorism.

The circus

Some of the biggest drama of the Obama tour is the jockeying of the big American media stars for exclusive interviews. They all want face time with the "The One", as he is derisively known by advisers of his opponent, the Republican John McCain. On board Air Force Obama and whizzing around in the "bubble" of blacked-out SUVs will be Katie Couric of CBS and Charles Gibson of ABC as well as the NBC News anchor Brian Williams. Star political reporters from the major newspapers and magazines are big-footing those who have followed Obama from the beginning. It's all causing a major sulk at the McCain headquarters, where they complain that he received none of the media limelight on his recent trip to Latin America and Canada.


McCain sells "golf gear" on his website while Obama flogs special edition hood ornaments. The online marketplace is exploding for Obama jewellery and night-lights. A Cincinnati artist, Van Taylor, has created "The Obama sneaker", which is a hand-painted portrait of the candidate on the side of Nike Air Force One sneakers. There are also playing-cards, left, videos of his best speeches; and when he is on the campaign trail on every street corner someone is selling an Obama T-shirt of their own design. It remains to be seen if Europe shares this appetite.

The art

A stencilled Obama portrait titled Hope will be auctioned today by Def Jam Recordings founder, Russel Simmons, at his annual celebrity-rich benefit for charity. Pre-bidding was more than $100,000 (£50,000) by yesterday afternoon. The art market has gone wild for Obama "street art". Limited -edition campaign posters that were sold for £15 now get snapped up for thousands on eBay. Obama himself is now wise to collectors shoving to the front of rope lines to get posters signed. Nobody, it seems, wants McCain art.


As half of Europe already knows, Obama's unlikely story begins in Kenya when his philandering father won a scholarship to the University of Hawaii. That's where he met Obama's mother, only to desert her shortly after her son was born. Today, his family tree looks like the roll call of the United Nations with (white) grandparents from Kansas, black relatives in Kenya and others scattered around the globe, including an Indonesian half-sister. Sadly, neither his statuesque wife, Michelle, nor their two daughters, 10-year-old Malia and seven-year-old Sasha, are coming on his whirlwind trip to Europe.


The incessant rumour mill says he attended a madrassa in Indonesia. It's not true. For the most part Obama had an elite education attending an exclusive – mostly white – prep school in Hawaii and then going to Occidental, a small university in California, and on to Columbia in New York. Only later after a spell as a community organiser in Chicago did he go to Harvard Law School, where he became the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There was no turning back after that.

The money

Obama's phenomenal internet-driven fundraising ability has overwhelmed the ability of the Federal Election Commission, watchdog groups and the media to make sense of how much he has raised. This is already a record-breaking $1bn election campaign, driven in large measure by the excitement generated by his non-confrontational, let's-all-hold-hands appeal. When an email drops into an inbox from "Barack" with the subject line "re: our talk" it's hard to resist a $25 or $50 donation. That is what millions of people have found and is largely why he is odds-on favourite to win the White House.


Forget Mao and his Little Red Book: Obama is a master of political slogans. Here are a few: "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek." "I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war." "Don't tell me we can't change. Yes, we can. Yes, we can change. Yes, we can heal this nation. Yes, we can seize our future."


A poll in five big countries – Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia – showed Obama getting 52 per cent support, compared with 15 per cent for Senator McCain. In France, 65 per cent favour Obama, compared with 8 per cent for McCain. Another poll, in Belgium, showed 74 per cent for Obama to 12 per cent for McCain.

What his fans say

"He is a rock star. I love what he is saying about education. I think he will win and I am anxious to meet him." (Rupert Murdoch) "Obama's nomination marks a truly exciting and historic moment in US history... He has broken a mould. And it can't be reset." (Gary Younge, The Guardian.)

What his detractors say

"This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I've ever seen." (Bill Clinton) "Barack, he's talking down to black people... I want to cut his nuts off, (he's) telling n******s how to behave." (The Rev Jesse Jackson)

The senator

Despite his promise that he would bridge the boundary between Democrats and Republicans, Obama's voting record as a senator has – according to analysts – been that of a loyal Democrat, with one study by the conservative National Journal having him as the most liberal senator in 2007. A major achievement in Washington was a bill that ensures total transparency for every single federal dollar that law-makers spend.

The pose

With the hopes of the world resting on his slim shoulders, Obama has perfected a "Looking-off-into-the-future" pose. Back arched, his chest out, his eyes transfixed on a predetermined point between 500 and 600 yards away, this creates the illusion that he is looking forward to a bright future.

The fluff

American journalists are outdoing each other in a race to produce the fluffiest, most inconsequential coverage of the candidate. On Wednesday, cable news breathlessly reported that Obama had spent more time in the gym than on the campaign trail as he prepared for his European tour. We also now know the contents of the candidate's iPod, his favourite books and which historical figure he would like to have dinner with. Talking of which...

The music

What he really listens to is anyone's guess but he told Rolling Stone that he has at least 30 Bob Dylan songs on his iPod, including the entire Blood On The Tracks album. "One of my favourites during the political season is [Dylan's] 'Maggie's Farm'," he says. "It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric." The playlist straddles generations and tastes, taking in the jazz of John Coltrane and the rock of Bruce Springsteen and comes bang up to date with the rappers Jay-Z and Ludacris. There is even a nod to Yo-Yo Ma, but if he has one musical hero, it is Stevie Wonder.

Race and religion

In addition to the controversy over Jesse Jackson's inflammatory remarks, Obama also found his career close to meltdown over his association with the Rev Jeremiah Wright's statement that the September 11 attacks were evidence that "the chickens are coming home to roost". But his speech in response to this crisis was seen by many as a masterpiece of politically mature oratory. He also alienated many white voters when he said that rural working-class whites were not supporting him because they were bitter and were "clinging to God and religion". More recently, he was the subject of a controversial New Yorker cartoon depicting him and his wife as terrorists – referring to a long-running smear campaign designed to suggest that he is a secret Muslim. He has set up a special section of his website – Fight the Smears – to combat such negative campaigning.

What he reads

When his biographer, David Mendell, asked him who his favourite author was, Obama said Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, the outspoken liberal. Then he changed his mind. Now he says "the tragedies of William Shakespeare" and Hemingway's novel of the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which curiously is also a favourite of John McCain, who can quote from it line for line.

What he has written

Two books: Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope.

The hobbies

If he is elected, the first thing Obama promises to do – after sorting out Iraq and Afghanistan – is install the first basketball court in the White House. Obama works out on the basketball court every morning and plays the game every chance he gets with Craig Robinson, his brother-in-law, a professional basketball coach.

The physique

As a child Obama was chubby but he soon lost his baby fat with his compulsive interest in sports. Over 6ft tall, he talks of himself as "that skinny guy with the unlikely name", but there is undoubtedly a lot of sex appeal behind it. An enthusiastic cyclist, he is a metrosexual icon, who always carries his own bags to and from the plane and dashes rather than walks up steps. A photograph of him on the beach inspired a Barack Obama action doll ($21.95).

The drugs

Obama has revealed that, as a youth, he did smoke marijuana. When asked if he inhaled, he said: "That was the point."

Good friends

Celebrity supporters include Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L Jackson and Robert De Niro.

Bad friends

The Rev Jeremiah Wright and Jesse Jackson.

Plans for Iraq

"On my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war."

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