Barack Obama has now been gone from Chicago as long as he was here, if you count his election to the U.S. Senate as the end of his full-time residence in the city. Obama was a community organizer on the South Side from 1985 to 1988, took three years off for Harvard Law School, then returned here in 1991 to begin the political climb that took him to the presidency.
With that kind of historic distance, and with the Obama Center under construction in Jackson Park, it’s a good time to ask: What did Chicago mean to Obama, and what did he mean to us?
Obama still owns his Georgian manse on Greenwood Avenue, and uses it as a voting address, but he actually lives in an $11 million estate on Martha’s Vineyard, where he recently celebrated his 60th birthday with John Legend, Erykah Badu, and other celebrities. That’s a long way from running the Developing Communities Project out of a church basement on 113th Street, catering meetings from Subway. Obama will dedicate his Center, and visit it for important events, but he’s never coming back to Chicago to live.
“I don’t know if it would be a comfortable fit here, because he’s such an outside figure,” Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington once told me. “He’s not a Chicago creature anymore. He’s a world figure.”
Which raises the question: Was Obama ever a Chicago creature, or was the city simply a stepping stone for his ambitions? Few modern presidents have less connection to the state they represented politically. Obama was neither born nor raised in Chicago, and didn’t return here after his presidency. Still, he couldn’t have made it to the White House from any other city, and he’s the only Chicago politician who could have been elected president.
I mean no disrespect to Obama when I say he’s the most calculating person I’ve ever met. I say that with all the respect in the world. No one becomes president by accident. His first calculating move was his move to Chicago. One reason he was attracted to the city: Harold Washington, whose election as mayor demonstrated that Chicago was a place where a politically ambitious young Black man could make it to the top. (In fact, when Obama first ran for office, he hoped to follow Washington’s path from the state legislature to Congress to City Hall.) Illinois has elected more Black politicians to Congress than any other state, by a wide margin.
Had Obama remained in New York City, where he graduated from Columbia University, “you would never have heard of him,” Lou Ransom, former executive editor of the Defender, once said. “He may have been a very good lawyer and maybe got elected to some office, but if he hadn’t come to Chicago, he would not have had the kind of support to push him where he is now.”
Obama’s effort to duplicate Harold Washington’s political journey was blocked by Bobby Rush, who defeated him in the 2000 Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District — his only electoral loss. During that race, I interviewed Obama for the Chicago Reader. Even then, he made it clear that Chicago wasn’t big enough for his ambitions.
“I really have to want to be here,” he told me. “I’m like a salmon swimming upstream in the South Side of Chicago. At every juncture in my life, I could have taken the path of least resistance but much higher pay. Being the president of the Harvard Law Review is a big deal. The typical path for someone like myself is to clerk for the Supreme Court, and then basically you have your pick of any law firm in the country.”
Even Obama’s biggest fans will tell you he’s not a humble guy. Few successful politicians are. The thing of it is, though, the first (and probably only) Chicago president had to be an outsider. A traditional neighborhood politician — think Dan Rostenkowski, Michael Madigan, Richard M. Daley, or Bobby Rush — could never have made it on the national stage. During the 2008 presidential campaign, John McCain released a TV ad that began “Barack Obama, born of the corrupt Chicago political machine,” then attempted to associate Obama with Bill Daley, Tony Rezko, Emil Jones, and Rod Blagojevich.
The ad didn’t work because Obama didn’t look, talk, or think like a Chicago politician. He was, by then, a national and even international figure, as much a creature of Hawaii, Harvard or New York as of Chicago. British-Indian essayist Pico Iyer, who met Obama in Hawaii in 2006, described him as “so much like the kind of people we meet in Paris, in Hong Kong, in the Middle East: difficult to place and connected to everywhere. Like the air of his home island (not really Eastern or Western, but a vibrant mingling of the two), he spoke for the dawning global melting pot of today.”
Supposing Obama lives into his 90s, as most presidents do these days, he will have spent only a sixth of his life in Chicago. Chicago was the booster rocket to his rise, jettisoned once he reached the stratosphere. Still, we can always say we produced the first Black president, and we’ll always have the Obama Center. (Obama’s absence from Chicago has probably made the process of building the Center more acrimonious than it would have been if he still lived in Kenwood. In 2018, now-Ald. Jeanette Taylor pressed Obama for a Community Benefits Agreement to protect the neighborhood from gentrification. Speaking by teleconference from Washington, Obama told her no. “He forgotten who he is,” Taylor fumed later. “He forgot the community got him where he is.”)
Maybe Obama was never a creature of Chicago, but he needed us, and we needed him. I’d say we got our money’s worth out of each other.