WASHINGTON – Barack Obama is defined in many ways by something he never really had. A father.
He quizzes golf partners and friends about their dads. He leans in when he talks with troubled teens about the absence of his own father. The loss shapes his role as a dad.
His late father looms large when Obama visits Kenya next week for the first time as president. He may not visit the village where his father lived. He may not see the grave that is freshly decorated just in case.
The father Obama scarcely knew was born in Kenya in 1936 and died there, mostly a stranger to his son, whom he left as an infant. There's little doubt that Obama has been shaped by the vacuum.
"It motivated to him to want to do better," said Valerie Jarrett, a friend and Obama's senior White House adviser. "His message to young people is you don't have to be defined by the voids in your life."
Obama points to his father and his unrealized potential — he died at 46 — as a source of his ambition. "Every man is trying to either live up to his father's expectations or make up for his father's mistakes. And I suppose that may explain my particular malady," he wrote in his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope."
The elder Barack Obama came to the United States in 1960, part of a scholarship program to educate young Africans. He met Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, a white woman from Kansas, at the University of Hawaii in 1960. They married and welcomed a son in Honolulu in 1961.
The senior Obama left when the future president was 2, heading to Harvard University and then to Kenya. His son, raised by his mother and her parents, saw his father just once more, when he was 10.
Brilliant but troubled, the elder Obama became an economist in Kenya. A descent into alcoholism ended with a fatal car crash in Nairobi in 1982.
Obama made his first pilgrimage to Kenya in 1987, seeking to reconcile his own racial identity as he searched for an understanding of his father.
Though his mother spoke positively of his father, Obama found his story more complicated. His father had children with several wives, was an alcoholic and "did not treat his children well," he said in 2008.
This trip will be Obama's fourth to the country. The government plans to spend about $16,000 to spruce up his father's and grandfather's graves in the village of Kogelo. It's unclear whether Obama will stop by.