Barack Obama Almost Married a White Woman, But Ambition and Race Got in the Way

The most recent biography of former President Barack Obama reveals a stunning story from his personal life: how race and political ambitions doomed a close relationship with a white woman Obama proposed to — twice! — before he married Michelle Robinson.

After Obama first proposed to Sheila Miyoshi Jager (now a professor at Oberlin College), continued "marriage discussions" were clouded by "torment over this central issue of his life ... race and identity," Jager told David J. Garrow for his book Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. "The resolution of his black identity was directly linked to his decision to pursue a political career."

Garrow added that Obama "felt trapped between the woman he loved and the destiny he knew was his." The future president reportedly believed he could not be the first black president and be married to a white (and part Asian) woman.

In the 2012 biography Barack Obama: The Story, David Maraniss recounts the community organizer's shifting identity — from multicultural and internationalist to distinctly African American. Garrow, as explained by The Washington Post's Carlos Lozada, puts that transition in political terms. Here's a particularly powerful passage from Lozada:

For black politicians in Chicago, he writes, a non-African-American spouse could be a liability. He cites the example of Richard H. Newhouse Jr., a legendary African American state senator in Illinois, who was married to a white woman and endured whispers that he “talks black but sleeps white.” And Carol Moseley Braun, who during the 1990s served Illinois as the first female African American U.S. senator and whose ex-husband was white, admitted that “an interracial marriage really restricts your political options.”

Jager, as a white girlfriend, represented a threat to Obama's political ambitions, and eventually the relationship ended. While she was virtually written out of Dreams From My Father, Obama's old girlfriend mentions two separate proposals in the new biography.

This close girlfriend might have reminded Obama of his own mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. Dunham studied anthropology with a focus on Indonesia, while Jager studied the same discipline but focused on the Korean Peninsula. In Obama's multicultural days, the two were "a natural pair."

"In the winter of '86, when we visited my parents, he asked me to marry him," Jager says in the book. Her parents opposed the match because they thought their daughter too young. Interestingly, they reportedly had no problem with the racial element — a close family friend said that Obama came across to them as "a white, middle-class kid."

In early 1987, Jager says she noticed a change. "He became ... so very ambitious. I remember very clearly when this transformation happened, and I remember very specifically that by 1987, about a year into our relationship, he already had his sights on becoming president."