Barack Obama, come home. We need you back in Chicago.
Most people don’t know this, but when Obama first got into politics, his goal was to become mayor of Chicago. In 1995, at his annual lunch date with his old University of Chicago law school student, Jesse Ruiz, Obama laid out a plan to duplicate the career path of his idol, Harold Washington. First, he’d get elected to the legislature. Then Congress. And finally, City Hall.
“Barack, Mayor Daley is going to be there forever,” Ruiz told him, scoffing at the idea that a U of C lecturer could rise to replace him. Ruiz agreed to work on Obama’s state senate campaign, though. That seemed achievable.
Obama was elected to the state senate. Four years later his attempt to win the 1st Congressional District seat — which Washington held before becoming mayor — was thwarted by Bobby Rush, who fulminated that Obama “went to Harvard and became an educated fool.” Blocked from his original ambition, Obama went to the U.S. Senate and the White House instead: a respectable career, but not what he’d set out to do.
Mr. President, this is the perfect time to fulfill your youthful dreams. You’re out of a job, and Chicago is in the market for a new mayor. Discontent with Lori Lightfoot is boiling over. Murder is at a 25-year high. Lightfoot can’t get along with the City Council — or anyone else, according to Ald. Susan Sadlowski Garza, who said “I have never met anybody who has managed to piss off every single person they come in contact with: police, fire, teachers, aldermen, businesses, manufacturing.” A November poll found that 62 percent of voters don’t think Lightfoot deserves re-election. The number may be even higher now.
So far, though, no one with gravitas has stepped forward to challenge Lightfoot. That’s where you come in, Mr. President. No one has more gravitas than an ex-president. You’re still registered to vote at your house on South Greenwood Avenue, so you could beat back a residency challenge, even though you haven’t lived there since 2008. You would dispatch Lightfoot in the first round by stealing her coalition of African Americans and white liberals, which was your old coalition. We hope you would change Chicago’s image, which has taken a beating as a result of all these shootings. Right now, when we invite out-of-towners to visit Chicago, they say, “I’ll put on my bulletproof vest.” With you as mayor, they’ll ask, “How’s Barack?” You’d be a living tourist attraction: The public would throng the City Council chambers, just to watch you preside over meetings.
Richard Nixon once said, “A person who has been president, there is nothing else he can do.” That statement ignores modern lifespans, and the constraints of the 22nd Amendment. You left the White House at age 55. You’re now only 60 — a year to the day older than Mayor Lightfoot. Modern presidents live into their 90s. Do you want to spend the next 30 years sitting in your $11 million mansion on Martha’s Vineyard, writing books and delivering speeches to ever-dwindling audiences, as your historic presidency recedes into history? Your ex-hype man, Joe Biden, is 79 years old, and he’s still out there getting it. You just released a book, Renegades: Born in the USA, based on a series of podcast conversations with Bruce Springsteen, who hasn’t had a hit single in nearly 30 years.
Plenty of formerly famous people who no longer have public platforms are podcasting from home. Podcasting with a washed-up musician is making you look washed up. You need to stay relevant. Nothing would make you more relevant than rescuing your adopted hometown from its current fiscal and criminal crises. You led the nation out of the Great Recession and passed Obamacare over the unanimous objections of the Republican Party. A mayor with your political chops would restore the alders to their traditional state of quiescent servility. You’d be the next in a long line of boss mayors. Plus, you could oversee construction of your Obama Center. If you’re mayor, the historic preservationists won’t be able to stop you from turning all of Jackson Park into a monument to yourself. Since you have Secret Service protection, we wouldn’t have to assign you a police detail. We could put those cops on the street instead.
You wouldn’t be the first president with a political afterlife. John Quincy Adams was a congressman. William Howard Taft was chief justice of the United States. You owe us more public service than we got out of you. You were elected to a six-year Senate term thanks to Chicago’s tradition of Black political empowerment, but spent only two years doing the job full time before announcing your campaign for president. Then, less than two years into your presidency, you dumped Rahm Emanuel on Chicago after he’d worn out his welcome as White House Chief of Staff. You owe us for that, too, with at least one term as mayor.
Michelle and Mrs. Robinson would love coming home. You could return to all your old Hyde Park haunts: breakfast at Valois, browsing at the Seminary Co-op, pickup basketball at Promontory Park. That is, if you could go out in public. Mayors attract a lot of attention in Chicago.