A brief overview of the main newspapers, news sites and TV channels shows that, despite the fact it’s been a month since the US election, “Obamania” is still in full swing. Obama has become something of a popular culture icon, on the par of Madonna, Batman and rock stars. It has then occurred to me that Obama’s image and story can be compared to Joseph Campbell’s myth of the Hero, which Campbell called the “monomyth” (1). Whether consciously or unconsciously, people – and sometimes Obama himself – tend to project this image upon him. As early as 2006, he was called star and legend (2), and recently I have even read an online blog where the writer called him ‘savior’! (3) Mind you, I’m not laying a claim of profound originality on this – I discovered then that George Lucas has already made note of Obama following the Hero’s Journey (4) and there are two bloggers that talked about it, albeit sketchily (5, 6). However, I would like to look at this more in detail than the others I have read – and this article will be lengthier than most others!
Let’s start with the beginning. For those that don’t know, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) was one of the foremost mythologists of his age (7). He is primarily remembered for his groundbreaking book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. It is in this one that he articulated the myth of the hero’s journey, which directly influenced George Lucas’ Star Wars, Disney’s The Lion King, and countless movies and books ever since (8). The book ‘deconstructs’ the journey of the hero in three parts. It is my intention here to compare these with the story of Obama’s rise to power and Presidency.
As per Campbell’s analysis, the hero is someone naturally special, singled out in some manner amongst his peers. Born of an African father and white mother, Obama’s mixed heritage has marked him out as a ‘special’ person right from the start. Furthermore, a characteristic of the Campbellian hero is that he is often cast aside by his family as in the story of Moses. This is an archetype Obama fits very well: he was abandoned, only two years old, by his Kenyan father Barack Obama Sr, whom he met only once more in his lifetime. This has had a major impact on him, according to his best-selling autobiography Dreams from My Father (9).
Part I: Departure
1. The Call to Adventure: the hero receives a beacon call, often from another person (called a ‘herald’)
Obama describes a moment of self-awakening in his book Dreams from My Father, when he realizes, following one-year work with a corporate firm, that his calling was to work for the poor (10).
2. Refusal of the Call – sometimes, the hero initially refuses the call for action.
This is an optional element in Campbell’s book that does not apply to Obama, who comes across as a positive and ambitious person.
3. Supernatural Aid – the hero is helped by a protective figure that gives him support
In youth, Obama’s main support seem to have been his mother, Stanley Ann Durnham, and his grandfather Stanley Durnham, who acted as a surrogate father (11). In politics, an important figure was Illinois State Senator Emil Jones, the leader of the Democrats. His wife, whom Obama has called his ‘rock’ also had an important influence on his political career.
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold – the hero must pass a first test to enter into the new world of heroic action
There were some key decisive moments in Obama’s life that shaped his future career as a politician. One was his decision after two years of attending Occidental College in California to transfer to Columbia University, where he graduated in political science. Another, to seek a low-paid job as a community organizer in Chicago. Thirdly, his decision after two years of working in Chicago to go to Harvard Law School.
5. The Belly of the Whale – the hero must pass through an initiatory trial that involves a descent into a dark or dangerous realm
In Dreams of My Father, Obama presented his darkest moments as the heavy consumption of drugs and alcohol both at Punahou high school and at the Occidental College. Obama confessed to becoming a “pothead” in order to “push questions of who I was out of my mind” (12). Eventually, however, he got his life in order by moving from Occidental College to Columbia University.
Part II: Initiation
1. Road of Trials – succession of obstacles
Barack Obama has encountered a number of obstacles that he has surpassed in political ascendancy. The first was the candidature for the Illinois State Senate in 1996, when he had to eliminate better titled candidates. He succeeded, albeit using what some critics said as being unfair tactics – he successfully challenged the voting campaign of both candidates who were hence legally suspended from the contest (13).
The second obstacle was his failed candidacy to US House of Representatives in 2000, when he was defeated by incumbent Bobby Rush by two to one. This was a sore defeat, the only time when he considered giving up politics altogether (14). He didn’t, and Obama learned many useful aspects of campaigning from this attempt.
In 2004, he successfully run his candidacy for US Senate. Finally, in 2007, he obtained the endorsement of the Democrats for Presidency against the better titled Hillary Clinton.
2. The Meeting with the Goddess – marriage between the hero and a queenlike or mother-like figure
In 1988, Obama met Michelle Robinson, a fellow Harvard Law graduate, while he was doing a summer internship at law firm Sidley Austin. He married her in 1992. Obama is deeply admirative of his wife, whom he called “his rock”. He speaks of her, “There’s something about her that projects such honesty and strength. It’s what makes her such an unbelievable professional, and partner, and mother, and wife” (15).
3. Woman as the Temptress – rejection of a powerful female figure
A read of Obama’s life shows that he seems to respect or even admire female figures. First was his mother Stanley Ann; then there was Michelle Obama. Finally there were other political mentors like Alice Palmer (16). If there was one woman whom Obama had to ‘reject’ it was Hillary Clinton, his Democrat counter-candidate for Presidency. Nevertheless, Obama did not seem to harbor bad feelings toward Hillary, neither did she act in a ‘corruptive’ sort of manner toward Obama.
4. Atonement with the Father – reconciliation with the tyrant and merciful aspects of a father-like authority figure
As Dreams of My Father shows, Obama was affected by the absence of his father, Barack Obama Sr (17). An important part of young Obama’s life was taken by his effort to reconcile his father’s absence with his ever-present racial heritage.
5. Apotheosis – the hero’s expansion of the self, or profound alteration of the perception of reality
Obama’s first apotheosis was his famed 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, that would bring him into the spotlight and change the course of his career. Obama’s final apotheosis was his candidacy and success to the bid for the Democratic nomination in 2007.
6. Ultimate Boon – the hero obtains a key item or victory
His first major victory was his landslide win in the US Senate in 2004; next, his Democratic nomination in 2007 and finally, his election as President in 2008.
Part III: Return
1. Refusal of the Return – having attained enlightenment or bliss, the hero may not want to return to the ordinary world
This is not the case in Obama’s case, since his victory was attained in the ‘ordinary’ world, not some otherwordly or mythical land. Furthermore, he has always been an ambitious figure, who would not settle in one place but aim higher (18), (19).
2. Magic Flight – the hero may have to wrestle the ‘boon’
Obama had to pull all his stops in the Democratic presidential nomination of 2007, which had to be wrestled from much better-titled Hillary Clinton.
3. Rescue from Without – the hero may need supernatural support to bring the boon into the ordinary world
There were several moments when Obama’s ‘lucky streak’ played in. It isn’t a coincidence that Washington Post, in an article from August 2007, called his ascent to US Senate as “A Series of Fortunate Events” (20). They recorded how in 2004 his win for US Senate was helped by the decision of Peter Fitzgerald, the incumbent Senator, not to run for his own seat again, by the domestic abuse charges brought against Democrat counter candidate Blair Hull, who was the favorite for the seat just one month before the election and by Republican counter candidate Jack Ryan’s domestic sex scandal. Obama eventually came in to win the Senate seat by a landslide victory: 70% (21).
4. Crossing the Return Threshold – the hero returns to the ordinary world
The ‘return threshold’ is undoubtedly the win of the American Presidency, which was both a challenge and a given – following his win of the Democrat nomination over Hillary Clinton.
5. Master of the Two Worlds – the hero pertains both the divine and human worlds
Following his political ascendancy and experience, Obama is now seen as fit to run the USA and able to share his vision to the American people.
6. Freedom to Live – the hero bestows the boon to his fellows.
Once he has won the Presidency, Obama is now in the position of contributing to the betterment of American life and of improving America’s tarnished image abroad.
Conclusions: Barack Obama’s story and image fits quite well with Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” pattern, even if it does not flow in a linear fashion as Campbell designed it. This is, after all, natural: Campbell was disecting single-story fairy tales and books, but Obama is real-life figure and his life goes beyond the imaginary.
On the other hand, one aspect worth noting is that Campbell’s pattern does not go beyond point 6 where the hero is in the position of bestowing the ‘boon’ to the other people. Obama must go beyond the Campbellian heroic journey into the actual work of sharing the boon. Currently, Obama is a hero because of his past, and the symbol of change, youth and racial unity that he symbolizes. However, it is his long-run work that will define him as a true hero.
(1) Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. New York: Pantheon Books.
(6) Cocca, C. (2008). Barack Obama and the Hero’s Journey. Online. Accessed on 11 Nov 2008.
(3) Edinger, R. (2008). Obama Rocks: America and the Planet. Online. Accessed on 09 Nov 2008.
(2) Graff, G. (2006). The Legend of Barack Obama. The Washingtonian, 1 Nov. Accessed on 09 Nov 2008.
(11) Jones, T. (2004). Barack Obama: Mother Not Just a Girl from Kansas. Chicago Herald Tribune, 27 Mar. Online. Accessed on 09 Nov 2008.
(9), (10), (12), (17) Obama, B. (2004). Dreams from My Father. New York: Three Rivers Press.
(5) Snapp, M. (2008). Obama Walks the Hero’s Journey… Contra Costa Times. Online. Accessed on 09 Nov 2008. ]
(4) The Huffington Post. (2008). George Lucas on Obama: A Hero in the Making. Online. Accessed on 09 Nov 2008.
(7), (8) Wikipedia. (2008). Joseph Campbell. Online. Accessed on 10 Nov 2008.
(13), (16) Jackson, D & Long, R. (2007). Barack Obama: Showing His Bare Knuckles. Chicago Herald Tribune, 4 Apr. Online. Accessed on 09 Nov 2008.
(14), (20), (21) Mundy, L. (2007). A Series of Fortunate Events. Washington Post, 12 Aug. Online. Accessed on 10 Nov 2008.
(15) Parsons, C., Japsen, B. & Secter, B. Barack’s Rock: Michelle Obama. (2007). Chicago Herald Tribune, 22 Apr. Online. Accessed on 09 Nov 2008.
(18) Pearson, R. & Long, R. (2007)Barack Obama: Careful Steps, Looking Ahead. Chicago Herald Tribune, 3 May. Accessed on 10 Nov 2008.