What You Never Knew About Barack Obama

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Barack Obama's historic run for president hinged on the belief that he could bring change to Washington. As an outsider on many levels, his message of hope was received with interest. Obama's upbringing in Hawaii and abroad, his naturally cool demeanor, and his chance to make history as the first African American president were a stark contrast against his more established running mates. "Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time," he said on the campaign trail, as reported by The New York Times. "We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."

His message and policies earned him two terms as president. And after eight years in the White House, America got to know the Obamas through good times and bad, from passing the Affordable Care Act to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school. Though he's taken more of a public backseat since leaving office, Obama has an appeal that garners attention whenever he surfaces. And beyond his political life, he continues to fascinate as he redefines his life outside Washington. Learn some less-known facts about America's favorite recent president (at least, according to this poll), from why he dislikes ice cream to where he is on his path to winning an EGOT.

He's a nerd for comic books

Would you have taken Barack Obama for a Spider-Man stan? He made his love for the web-slinger public in a 2015 email to grassroots organizers. "I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and [Spider-Man]," he wrote, later asking them to reveal their hero origin stories, as CBR reported. 

On paper, at least, Obama got to meet his childhood hero. Presidents are often written into comic books, and Obama appeared in multiple during his time in office, from "Archie" to "Amazing Spider-Man." In "Amazing Spider-Man #583," Obama encountered the Chameleon, who appeared with villainous intentions as an Obama doppelganger at his 2009 inauguration. And according to Bleeding Cool, Obama also inadvertently wrote a Batman comic book (or some of its dialogue, at least). The comic features the story of Sal Giunta, a Medal of Honor recipient. In a scene describing Giunta receiving the medal for his duties in Afghanistan, the words are relayed almost word-for-word from Obama's real-life speech during the ceremony.

Given his affinity for superheroes, Obama has had a lot of time to figure out what power he'd wish for. And the answer is actually fittingly nerdy. "It's kind of a weird superpower," he told 93.3 KOB FM (via Yahoo! News), "but if I had something that I could immediately wish for, I would love to be able to speak any language."

Former president Barack Obama is a Jr.

Though Barack Obama doesn't attach it to his name, he is a junior to his father, Barack Hussein Obama Sr. Obama's parents were together until he was 2 years old. They first separated, with Obama Sr. remaining in Hawaii while the family left for Seattle, and he later went to Harvard, where he obtained an economics graduate degree. He returned to Kenya in '64, NPR reported, after they divorced.

Obama was in touch with his father only occasionally by mail, he wrote on Instagram, via letters "written on thin blue airmail paper that was preprinted to fold and address without an envelope."

When Obama was 10, Obama Sr. visited the United States and saw his son for the first time since the future politician was a toddler in Hawaii. It would be the last time they would meet in person; in 1982, Obama Sr. died after being in a car crash. Obama said the visit had "a profound impact" on his life. He explained, "My father gave me my first basketball and introduced me to jazz. But for the most part, the visit left me with more questions than it answered, and I knew I would have to figure out how to be a man on my own."

His immediate family has roots on three continents

Though he was born in Hawaii, Barack Obama's family spans the globe. Per the Miller Center, his mother, Ann Dunham, was a white woman born in Kansas. While attending the University of Hawaii, she met and married Barack Obama Sr, a student from Kenya. His parents divorced and his father returned to Kenya, according to Chicago Sun Times, where Obama eventually had seven half-siblings from his father's other marriages and relationships: Abongo, Auma, Mark, David, Abo, Bernard, and George.

Dunham also married again, this time to another University of Hawaii student, Lolo Soetoro. Soetoro was from Indonesia, where Obama's half-sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, was born.

When Obama married, his global family finally came together in one room. "I remember his wedding. And there were everything from the very fair Kansas complexion, you know, the Scots-Irish thing, to the blue-Black Kenyan," his sister recalled, according to a publication from Life magazine. "And we looked like the rainbow tribe — and me in between. I'm Indonesian. The united colors. Never a dull moment, right?"

Barack Obama spent much of his childhood in Indonesia

Barack Obama's stepfather was a student studying at the University of Hawaii when he entered Obama's life. When it came time for Lolo Soetoro to return to Indonesia, the family followed. Obama lived in Indonesia from the ages of 6 to 10, Reuters reported. He was enchanted by his new home, which had a small menagerie of exotic pets that included a monkey, birds of paradise, and a cockatoo — plus baby crocodiles too!

In a speech at the University of Indonesia, Obama later recalled, "We lived in a small house. We had a mango tree out front. And I learned to love Indonesia while flying kites and running along the paddy fields and catching dragonflies, buying satay and baso from the street vendors."

But he was also shocked by the poverty he saw, and unsatisfied with his schooling, Obama's mother made the decision to send him back to Hawaii to study while living with his grandparents. "I was raised as an Indonesian child and a Hawaiian child and as a Black child and as a white child," Obama said, via Miller Center. "And so what I benefited from is a multiplicity of cultures that all fed me."

His first job was scooping ice cream

We all have to get our start somewhere, and for teenage Barack Obama, it was the home of the 31 flavors. In an old LinkedIn post (per Insider), Obama wrote, "Rows and rows of rock-hard ice cream can be brutal on the wrists. As a teenager working behind the counter at Baskin-Robbins in Honolulu, I was less interested in what the job meant for my future and more concerned about what it meant for my jump shot."

Obama's story about his first job helped promote an initiative called the Summer Opportunity Project, a program that aimed to help teenagers enter the workforce. Obama said the job wasn't glamorous, but it taught him "responsibility," "hard work," and "balancing a job with friends, family, and school" — lessons he hoped other teens would learn early in the workforce.

According to New York Magazine, Obama said scooping chocolate was physically harder than other flavors, and eating too many cones on the job ended up ruining the treat for him. "And while I may have lost my taste for ice cream after one too many free scoops, I'll never forget that job, or the people who gave me that opportunity, and how they helped me get to where I am today," he said (via Dallas Morning News).

He kicked this habit (with the occasional relapse)

Despite having an aura of cool and calm, there's one thing that sets Barack Obama on edge: nicotine. Per Reuters, the former president began smoking as a teenager. And ever since, Obama's undergone a constant "struggle" as he committed to quitting. "Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker, a constant smoker? No," he said, noting that he didn't smoke in front of his children.

Obama has joked that he first promised to quit out of fear of his wife, Michelle, as USA Today reported. But the stress of the presidency often caused him to relapse. In his 2020 memoir "A Promised Land," as CNN reported, he admitted to puffing up to half a pack per day, often ducking out to a "discreet" spot to grab a smoke.

In the end, another Obama girl helped him overcome his vice. He claims he quit when his daughter Malia Obama made a face at him after "smelling a cigarette on [his] breath." That's when he began chewing nicotine gum like crazy, he wrote in "A Promised Land." Michelle Obama said in a 2012 interview with iVillage that being a true role model to his daughters was key in helping him kick the habit: "I think that he didn't want to look his girls in the eye and tell them that they shouldn't do something that he was still doing. So they played an important role in him finally saying, 'I gotta get this done.'"

Michelle Obama was once his advisor at work

Barack and Michelle Obama's love story is so epic that their first date was made into an entire movie, "Southside With You." Watching the pair together inspires major relationship goals, which makes it hard to believe there was ever a time when Michelle was just not having it.

After her first year working at the law firm Sidley & Austin, Michelle Obama, who's had a stunning transformation over the years, was assigned to mentor a summer associate by the name of Barack Obama. She remembers not being particularly impressed when she looked him up. In "Becoming," she wrote (per Today), "I'd checked out his photo in the summer edition of our staff directory — a less-than-flattering, poorly lit headshot of a guy with a big smile and a whiff of geekiness — and remained unmoved."

Obama was immediately taken with his advisor and asked her out several times, but being his mentor, Michelle wanted to keep the relationship professional, as he wrote for Oprah.com. Finally, when he said he'd happily quit if she'd let him take her out, she agreed. Though he had come a long way from working at Baskin-Robbins, Obama took Michelle there on their first date, where they sat curbside eating ice cream, and the rest was history.

Barack Obama had a full-size basketball court installed in the White House

Barack Obama notoriously loves basketball. Along with being photographed on the sidelines and via Kiss-Cams at NBA games, he's welcomed numerous championship NBA, WNBA, and NCAA teams to the White House over the years (per Yardbarker). But he wasn't the first baller-in-chief. According to the White House Museum, George H.W. Bush installed a small court in 1991 that was used for shooting hoops. When Obama came to town, he raised the ante by painting lines on the White House tennis court so it could accommodate both tennis and a full-court basketball game (via Obama White House Archives).

Obama's court became famous for the pickup games that attracted basketball stars and member of Congress alike. The games also garnered media attention, giving Obama a runway to introduce policy initiatives like the Affordable Care Act or My Brother's Keeper in a causal setting, The New Yorker reported.

One of the more storied events includes the time Obama received 12 stitches from an injury while playing, but Obama's 50th birthday celebration pickup game and BBQ, when basketball greats like Magic Johnson came out of retirement to participate, as reported by Sports Illustrated, probably takes the cake.

Barack Obama was a natural when he tried these sports

Sure he can hang on the basketball court, but land sports aren't Barack Obama's only forte. Since he's from Hawaii, it might not come as a surprise that he proved to be a natural in the water. In fact, the first time he attempted kitesurfing while on vacation with Sir Richard Branson in the British Virgin Islands, Obama won a friendly bet that he could outlast his billionaire buddy, The Washington Post reported in 2017. "I had to doff my cap to him and celebrate his victory," Branson said.

Before taking office, Obama was snapped body surfing while on vacation in Hawaii in 2008. But according to Branson, Obama was once a surfer, too, and had to give up the hobby while president. During that 2008 trip, his security personnel told him it would be his last time risking his neck on a surfboard under their watch. "For the next eight years he didn't have the chance to surf, enjoy water sports or do many of the things he loved," Branson shared.

Perhaps that's why Branson saw a difference in Obama in the waves, noting that the former president seemed "back to being a child again" as he soaked up the sun and surf.

A sweet date with Michelle ended in a media headache

One undeniable perk that comes with the presidency is access, and Barack Obama used a hefty amount of leverage to take wife Michelle on a dream date early in his first term. "I am taking my wife to New York City because I promised her during the campaign that I would take her to a Broadway show after it was all finished," Obama said in a statement.

Michelle wrote in her memoir "Becoming" that the couple had a weekly standing date night before Obama became president, but it wasn't until May 2009 that he could fulfill his promise. The pair flew to the city and ate at an upscale farm-to-table eatery in Greenwich Village before taking in the August Wilson play "Joe Turner's Come and Gone." With guilt over the hassle their date caused (the presidential motorcade caused massive traffic, and people within their vicinity underwent security checks), the couple knew they had to make the night worth it. "That evening in New York, we ate, drank, and conversed in the candlelight, reveling in the feeling, however illusory, that we'd stolen away," Michelle wrote in "Becoming."

But the following day, Obama's critics had a field day over the New York trip. Pearl-clutching over the cost of the date ensued, Time noted, and pundits smeared them as out of touch. "Have a great Saturday evening — even if you're not jetting off somewhere at taxpayer expense," the RNC said in a statement.

He's a prolific reader (and writer)

Barack Obama started out as an avid reader, and he later became an avid writer. Craig Fehrman, writer of "Author in Chief," revealed that Obama considered going the literary route after college (per LitHub). As a student, he was most interested in fiction that melded compelling, empathetic stories with ideology. Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon" became an early favorite, and he later cited it as the book that shaped him most.

Obama moved to Chicago after graduation, where he was a member of a book co-op where he regularly shopped. He ended up landing his first book deal as he entered politics, and wrote with great difficulty the literary memoir "Dreams From My Father," which performed modestly (via History). But after giving an impactful speech at John Kerry's 2004 convention, his book came out of print and he had another deal lined up. He next published "The Audacity of Hope," followed up by the picture book "Of Thee I Sing," and his post-presidential memoir "A Promised Land." Next up was "Renegades Born in the USA," a book he cowrote with singer Bruce Springsteen, The New York Times reported.

So what's the former president reading nowadays? Every summer and year-end, Obama drops a list of his favorite reads. A peek at his book recommendations shows his tastes are diverse, a mix of fiction and non-fiction books that span genres and topics, from Andy Weir's sci-fi bestseller "Project Hail Mary" to Isabel Wilkerson's historical deep-dive "Caste."

Barack Obama is a Grammy winner

Over the years, Barack Obama has earned plenty of honors he could stack on the shelf next to his Nobel Peace Prize. But one of his more surprising awards? Not one, but two Grammys. After gaining notoriety from his speech at the 2004 DNC, Obama's publishers came back to him to narrate an audiobook of his 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father," according to History. As noted on the Grammy website, his narration took home the award for Best Spoken Word or Non-musical Album in 2005, beating out Al Franken, Sean Penn, and George Carlin. Obama's next memoir, "The Audacity of Hope," won the category again in 2007, this time against former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

In 2019, another Obama made waves at the award show, as noted by USA Today. Appearing alongside host Alicia Keys, Jennifer Lopez, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Lady Gaga, Michelle Obama praised the music that "fueled me through this last decade," noting that "music has always helped me tell my story." Her story, recounted in the memoir "Becoming," went on to win the a Grammy (via Vogue).

His podcast co-host is another Grammy winner

Yes, you read that right. Barack Obama is now a podcaster. And his cohost is probably someone you've heard of before: rock icon Bruce Springsteen. So what brought this particular pair of voices together? Per Insider, Obama met The Boss during a campaign concert, where he remembers thinking Springsteen was super shy. Over time, they rubbed elbows at functions, but it wasn't until a White House dinner much later that they began to bond ... over showtunes. While Springsteen played piano, they belted out Broadway and Motown songs. Obama recalled, "There were libations involved ... And then I said, 'Well, he's not as shy as I thought, but he just has to loosen up a little bit.'"

As their friendship deepened, so did their conversations about race, politics, manhood, and music. In a partnership with Spotify, they decided to let others in on the chat in a podcast, "Renegades: Born in the USA." Critics are not so into that title. Slate called the duo charming, but not exactly rebellious: "They're super famous really rich guys, whose conversations, incidentally, don't sound all that difficult. They appear to agree on everything."

He signed a monster Netflix deal

Eight years in the White House provides a podium like no other, but Barack Obama still has plenty more to share. Lucky for him, Netflix is happy to help make that happen. In 2018, the streaming giant announced a multi-year deal with Barack and Michelle Obama's production company, Higher Ground, to produce scripted and unscripted series, documentaries, and films. "We hope to cultivate and curate the talented, inspiring, creative voices who are able to promote greater empathy and understanding between peoples, and help them share their stories with the entire world," Obama said.

Though the deal's dollar amount was not revealed, Variety reported that partnerships with the Obamas come with a hefty price tag, with Penguin Random House reportedly forking over $65 million for their upcoming memoirs.

So far, Netflix has aired the Obama's documentaries "Crip Camp" and Oscar winner "American Factory" and children's series "Waffles and Mochi" and "We the People." Higher Ground's "Ada Twist, Scientist," an animated version of the children's book of the same name, has also aired. At the time of this writing, Higher Ground's upcoming projects include adaptations of the YA novels "Blackout" and "Firekeeper's Daughter," and a Frederick Douglass biopic. With those Grammys, an Emmy, and a Higher Ground Oscar under his belt, now all he needs is a Tony to be the first EGOT-winning prez.