John E. O'Connor Film Award

A Review of Frontline: Dreams of Obama

By Ryan Gullett

On November 4, 2008, the citizens of the United States of America elected the first African American to the office of President. The 2008 election was also unique in that for the first time in United States history the Vice President is a Roman Catholic, two sitting senators ran against each other, and for the first time in fifty six years neither the incumbent president nor the vice president ran for office. There were several unique aspects about the 2008 election. The 2008 election of Barack Obama to the office of President of the United States marks a dramatic change in the attitude of this country and further proves that neither the circumstances of a person’s birth nor the color of his or her skin can determine the future of an individual in the United States.

On the eve of President Obama's inauguration, Frontline aired “Dreams of Obama” an excellent exploration of the events of Obama’s background, the events of his early life, and how those events led him to this historic achievement.


Obama was born in 1961 and grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. His father, a foreign student from Kenya, left his mother, a student from Kansas, before Obama reached three years of age. In 1985, Obama moved to Chicago and became a community organizer on the South Side. This chance at an authentic African American experience encouraged Obama. According to Cassandra Butts, one of Obama’s Harvard schoolmates, the complications of being raised by a white family and the stigma of his dark skin caused conflicting identities within Obama. His campaign slogan of change and unity stems from his days as a community organizer in Chicago. This position, though important, failed to satisfy Obama’s need to promote change.

He left Chicago in 1991 and attended Harvard Law School. During his time there, Obama became the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review and strove to promote unity among the staff in order to produce the prestigious publication. According to David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power, while at Harvard Obama first demonstrated his ability to walk the fine line between liberals and conservatives. During these years, Harvard Law School was embroiled in many controversial issues revolving around the issue of race. Obama delivered many speeches promoting unity and fairness on behalf of an African American professor who had been wronged by the faculty.

Political Career

After returning to Chicago, Obama married Michelle Robinson, a native of Chicago. Despite the claim of many opponents that Obama's marriage was a political move, Cassandra Butts asserts that, while Michelle's roots in the community provided obvious value, Barack and Michelle Obama's connection was very personal.

In 1996, Alice Palmer, State Senator for Illinois, decided to run for a United States Congressional seat and offered Obama her seat on the State Senate. After her defeat by Jesse Jackson, Jr. in the Congressional race, Senator Palmer expected Obama to step aside and allow her to rerun for her seat in the State Senate. Obama refused to drop out of the race. After Obama investigated all of his opponents’ election petition signatures, Alice Palmer and the rest of Obama’s opponents were removed from the voting ballot. Obama won the State Senate seat without an opponent.

In 2000, Obama decided to run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives previously held by Bobby Rush. The doubt felt by the African American community with regard to Obama became apparent during the 2000 election. In short, the “blackness” of Obama became the subject of heated debate. Bill Clinton’s support for Bobby Rush ended Obama’s campaign in the 2000 election. According to Salim Muwakkil, editor of In These Times, “The Bobby Rush defeat helped him [Obama] understand that his natural constituency were[sic] not these working class African Americans with nationalist aspirations but rather with progressive whites, progressive African Americans and those who had a wider view of what politics was all about.”

Tom Daschle, Senate Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003, saw great potential in Obama and expected that Obama would rise to power quickly. After Obama’s election to the United States Senate in 2004, Pete Rouse became Obama’s chief of staff and together they devised a plan to improve Obama’s political standing. In the first year Obama avoided any controversial issues and concentrated on speaking events in order to raise his profile. In the second year, Obama concentrated on aiding other Democrats within the Senate and House of Representatives. He did so to demonstrate his ability to be a team player. Soon after, Tom Daschle suggested that Obama run for President in 2008. The rest is history.

Review of the film

The film provides the background of Obama in a narrative form that enables the viewer to follow the life of the 44th President of the United States. Those interviewed by Frontline provide insight into the facts concerning President Obama and his family. The film does not provide significant links to all of Obama’s choices in cabinet members or allude to the current policies that Obama is beginning to forge. As of February 2, 2009 reports indicate that recently approved members of Obama’s cabinet are:

First & Second Terms:

Rahm Emanuel & Dennis McDonough—Chief of Staff
Hillary Clinton & John Kerry—Secretary of State
Robert Gates & Ashton B. Carter—Secretary of Defense
Timothy Geithner & Jack Lew—Secretary of Treasury
Ken Salazar & Sally Jewell—Secretary of Interior
Eric Holder & Loretta Lynch—Attorney General