Obama, at the White House fence in 1984...

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By David Maraniss

Barack Obama saw his future home for the first time a quarter-century ago. He was a year out of Columbia, working in Harlem as a community organizer, when he rode to Washington with a scrum of college undergraduates protesting proposed cuts in student aid.

After a long day on Capitol Hill, they walked west along the Mall, then circled around to Pennsylvania Avenue and paused in front of the White House. Beyond the fence, past the northwest gate, lived Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States. Ambitious political thoughts would enter the young traveler's mind soon enough, but not yet.

The year was 1984. Obama, a study of cool on the outside, burned inwardly with what he once described in young black men as a "knotted, howling assertion of self." At age 22, he was just emerging from a few lonely years in New York, a lost period even in his memoir, "Dreams From My Father." He had not yet figured out the life course that would take him from then to now -- to this historic day, Jan. 20, 2009, when he enters that same White House to live and work as President Obama.

There is improbability in the making of any president, some more than others, none comparable to Obama...

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