Barack Obama in Hawai‘i and Indonesia

The Making of a Global President

by Dinesh Sharma


Barack Obama is the first American president born and raised in Hawai‘i, the most diverse state in the Union, and the first American president to have spent a significant part of his childhood in a Muslim-majority nation, namely, Indonesia. What effect did these—and other early experiences—have on the man who is now, arguably, the world's most popular political leader?

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Cover image for Barack Obama in Hawai‘i and Indonesia

September 2011


Pages 274
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Politics, Law, and Government/Presidential Studies
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Distinguishing itself from the mass of political biographies of Barack Obama, this first interdisciplinary study of Obama's Indonesian and Hawai‘ian years examines their effect on his adult character, political identity, and global world-view.

The first 18 years of President Obama's life, from his birth in 1961 to his departure for college in 1979, were spent in Hawai‘i and Indonesia. These years fundamentally shaped the traits for which the adult Obama is noted—his protean identity, his nuanced appreciation of multiple views of the same object, his cosmopolitan breadth of view, and his self-rooted "outpost" patriotism. Barack Obama in Hawai‘i and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President is the first study to examine, in fascinating detail, how his early years impacted this unique leader.

Existing biographies of President Obama are primarily political treatments. Here, cross-cultural psychologist and marketing consultant Dinesh Sharma explores the connections between Obama's early upbringing and his adult views of civil society, secular Islam, and globalization. The book draws on the author's on-the-ground research and extensive first-hand interviews in Jakarta; Honolulu; New York; Washington, DC; and Chicago to evaluate the multicultural inputs to Obama's character and the ways in which they prepared him to meet the challenges of world leadership in the 21st century.


  • Foreword
  • Photographs
  • Timelines
  • Figures
  • Appendices


  • Offers the first systematic study of Barack Obama's Indonesian and Hawai‘ian years and their effect on his adult character and political identity
  • Shows how Obama's early experiences fostered a repertoire of social and psychological skills ideally suited to dealing with the complex cultural and geopolitical issues that confront 21st-century America
  • Provides new keys to understanding Obama by looking at the varied cultural and religious influences that shaped his attitudes, beliefs, and hybrid cultural identity
  • Examines Ann Dunham's doctoral dissertation, based on her social anthropological fieldwork in Indonesia, for clues to the perceptual prisms she inculcated in her son, Barack Obama
Author Info

Dinesh Sharma, PhD, is senior fellow at the Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Research at St. Francis College, NY, as well as a cultural psychologist and marketing consultant. He received his doctorate from Harvard University. He has consulted for Fortune 500 clients for almost ten years across different industries, including healthcare, pharmaceuticals, biotech, technology, media, publishing, and consumer products. He is the author/editor of three books and many peer-reviewed articles published in newspapers and journals such as Asia Times Online, The Wall Street Journal Online, Far Eastern Economic Review, Middle East Times, Health Affairs, Biotech Law Review, and International Psychology Bulletin.



"Whatever the final historical judgment of Obama's presidency, the very fact of it resonates globally as it signals that the United States is more in sync with the rest of the world than its power-wielding implies and is ready for the multicultural changes of the 21st century, says cultural anthropologist Sharma. He draws on his insider-outsider perspective as an immigrant, written materials by and about Obama, and interviews with family, friends, neighbors, and teachers in Hawaii and Indonesia to offer the first cultural biography of Barack Obama. . . . Sharma offers intriguing glimpses of Obama's life and a compelling argument that Obama's singular background and his election as U.S. president despite distrust of his "otherness" make him a transformative figure as the United States grapples with emerging nations and its own decline as the world's only superpower."Booklist Online

"An enlightening account of Obama's boyhood chronicling an amazing transformation from an Indonesian slumdog ordinaire into a planetary prophet for the ages."

"Sharma (culture psychology and marketing, St. Francis College, New York) provides a psycho-cultural biography of
President Obama in his first 18 years in Hawai'i and Indonesia, then later on as a young man in college and afterwards
on the mainland United States. Using as evidence Obama's writings along with interviews with Obama's former teachers, his half-sister, classmates in the Catholic elementary school and state elementary school (that used Muslim prayers) that
Obama attended as a child in Jakarta, and interviews in the elite prep school in Honolulu he later attended, the author
contends that Obama is the United State's first global president, given that his first experiences were with multiracial,
multiethnic, multilinguistic people in those areas. . . . Recommended."Choice


"Academics, students, and the public will be riveted by this compelling and original perspective about the formative years in the development of Barack Obama that offers a unique psychological and sociological lens on the ascendancy of a young African American boy to become the leader of most powerful country in the world. The author's personal journey in his quest to learn about Obama's roots are artfully woven with historical facts and psychological theory, resulting in a brilliant book that at times reads like an historical novel but is all that much more important a tome given that it is real history. The result is a book that should be read by everyone interested in the state of the world today." —Dr. Judy Kuriansky, Clinical Psychologist and Author of Beyond Bullets and Bombs: Grassroots Peacebuilding between Israelis and Palestinians

"I have engaged in two close reads of Dinesh Sharma's Barack Obama in Hawai'i and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President because there was a large number of cogent insights and fresh data in the manuscript. Having read Obama's two books fairly carefully and having studied all of the President's speeches since 2007, I conclude that Sharma's volume trumps all others that are currently out. The concept of a global President is fleshed out with considerable detail and conceptual exploration; it is not simply asserted as some journalists have. The analytic lines of this book run deep and the narrative sometimes moves into a level of artistic brilliance."—Lawrence J. Friedman, Professor, Mind-Brain-Behavior Initiative, Harvard University, Professor of History Emeritus, Indiana University

"In this fascinating cultural biography, Dinesh Sharma considers the ways in which Barack Obama has assumed the unique role of global President. Sharma casts an astute psychological eye on Obama's early years, tracing the sources of the president's life story in his childhood and adolescent experiences in Indonesia, Hawai‘i, and the U.S. mainland. In the complex and multi-cultural identity that is Barack Obama, Americans may find new clues about who they are now and what America itself may come to mean in the 21st century." —Dan P. McAdams, Author of George W. Bush and the Redemptive Dream

"This intriguing book helps us understand not only who Barack Obama is but why he is the way he is. We are all products of our life experiences. Sharma helps us understand the impact of the compelling life experiences that made the man who is now our President."—Jerry Burris, Former Editorial Page Editor, Honolulu Advertiser; Coauthor, with Stu Glauberman, of The Journey Begins: How Hawaii Shaped Barack Obama

"This deeply researched book provides a new understanding of how Obama's varied childhood environments contributed to his development and his outlook as an adult. Its vivid glimpses of his life in Jakarta and Honolulu, and its portraits of his relationships in these places, answer questions raised by previous accounts and make better sense of the man who became, as Sharma calls him, our 'first global president'." —Robert A. LeVine is Professor Emeritus of Education and Human Development and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Harvard University

"The child is father to the man," said Wordsworth. In this biography, Obama's key relationships with mother, his grandmother, his stepfather, and his absent biological father are examined in both factual and psychological detail to show how Obama constructed his own life from the life experiences that made him President and the global man that he is today. Special attention is given to Obama's formation of identity, the well known developmental concept of the renowned psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Given the complexities of his multicultural upbringing in a non-nuclear or non-traditional family structure, the formation of Obama's sense of place and cultural context is captured in great detail. . . . The result of Dinesh Sharma's far-reaching and penetrating portrait makes one feel a great sense of congruence and parallelism between the multiple and multilayered geographical, cultural, and interpersonal forces that shaped President Obama and his pivotal role as President of the United States in these complex, global, and challenging times we live in today."—Professor Karen Vander Ven and Associate Professor Andrew Schneider Munoz, School of Education, University of Pittsburgh, PA

"Dr. Dinesh Sharma has produced a masterful analysis of Barack Obama's psychosocial journey from his early identification as Barry, a young boy attempting to define himself, to a sophisticated world leader and America's first African-American president. Dr. Sharma's training and scholarship as a cross-cultural psychologist coupled with his own cross-cultural roots has given him an implicit understanding of both the benefits Obama has gleaned and challenges he has faced as a multicultural person with African ancestry. Insightfully commingling relevant theory and research, politico-historical data, and first-hand accounts from primary sources, Sharma has contributed an exhaustive depiction of Obama's evolution."—Holly O. Houston, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Director/Clinical Supervisor at Anxiety & Stress Center and Former Clinical Faculty at University of Chicago and University of Illinois

"Dr. Sharma has chosen the important task of showing us how Obama's thinking arose on a global scale. He gives us a picture of Obama in Java, where his step-father introduces him to many things, for example, that life is tough for many people. Obama also learns that there are many types of Islam and most are benign. Sharma also introduces us to Obama's strong-minded Grandmother who, with just a high school education became the first woman to become a Vice-President in a Hawaiian Bank, where she literally wrote the book on escrow. He also analyzes the impact that his mother had on him. She has been described as a pragmatic idealist who implemented social reform not just in Java or even in Indonesia but in other Southeast Asian countries and Pakistan and Kenya, best known for her work on micro-credits for women. These are some of the influences which make him truly a Global President." —Alice Dewey, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at University of Hawai‘i, Honolulu, HI


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