Although some question what personal goals motivate Obama, his interest in social issues is deeply grounded.
At Occidental College in Los Angeles, Obama studied international relations and spent much of his time helping to organize anti-apartheid protests. In his junior year, he transferred to Columbia University, "more for what (New York City) had to offer than for the education," he said.
After graduating, Obama landed a job writing manuals for a New York-based international trade publication. Once his college loans were paid off, he took a $13,000-a-year job as director for the Developing Communities Project, a church-based social action group in Chicago.
There, he and a coalition of ministers set out to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods plagued by crime and high unemployment. Obama helped form a tenants' rights group in the housing projects and established a job training program.
"I took a chance and it paid off," he said. "It was probably the best education that I've ever had."
After four years, Obama decided it was time to move on. He wanted to learn how to use the political system to effect social change. He set his sights on Harvard Law School, where he quickly distinguished himself as a top student. He was soon chosen through the strength of his writing and grades to serve as one of 80 student editors on the law review.
Unlike many peer-review professional journals, the law review is run solely by students. It is widely considered the major forum for current legal debate and consequently is watched closely by courts around the country.
In his second year at law school, Obama decided to run for law review president after a conversation with a black friend.
"I said I was not planning to run and he said, 'Yes you are because that is a door that needs to be kicked down and you can take it down.' "
It was a marathon selection process, an arcane throwback to the early days of the review. The students editors deliberated behind closed doors from 8:30 a.m. until early the next day. The 19 anxious candidates took turns cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for the selection committee, whose members emerged with a historic decision.
"Before I could say a word, another black student who was running just came up and grabbed me and hugged me real hard," Obama recalled. "It was then that I knew it was more than just about me. It was about us. And I am walking through a lot of doors that had already been opened by others."
But few students at the law review were prepared for the deluge of interview requests for Obama from newspapers, radio and television stations. Strange letters of congratulations began arriving.
Shortly after the elections, a package turned up at the law review office with no return address. Obama said he hesitated to open it because of the spree of recent mail bombings targeted at civil rights activists nationwide. When the package was finally opened, inside were two packages of dim sum, with no explanation.
Some students made light of the media invasion, posting a memo titled "The Barack Obama Story, a Made for TV Movie, Starring Blair Underwood as Barack Obama."
Yet tensions were building. White students grumbled about the attention paid to Obama's race. Black students criticized him for not choosing more blacks for other top positions at the review. Caught in the cross-fire, Obama, who has a tendency toward understatement, downplayed his own achievements.
"For every one of me, there are thousands of young black kids with the same energies, enthusiasm and talent that I have who have not gotten the opportunity because of crime, drugs and poverty," he said. "I think my election does symbolize progress but I don't want people to forget that there is still a lot of work to be done."
Describing Obama, fellow students and professors point to a self-confidence tempered by modesty as one of his greatest attributes.
"He's very unusual, in the sense that other students who might have something approximating his degree of insight are very intimidating to other students or inconsiderate and thoughtless," said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor. "He's able to build upon what other students say and see what's valuable in their comments without belittling them."
But what truly distinguishes Obama from other bright students at Harvard Law, Tribe said, is his ability to make sense of complex legal arguments and translate them into current social concerns. For example, Tribe said, Obama wrote an insightful research article showing how contrasting views in the abortion debate are a direct result of cultural and sociological differences.
As law review president, Obama is the last person to edit student articles, as well as longer pieces by accomplished legal scholars. The review publishes eight times a year and receives about 600 free-lance articles each year.