President Barack Obama has referred to his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood here as “a time capsule,” a mostly uninhabited place full of old bills and news clippings dating back to a time before he took office.
Nearby, in Jackson Park, is the site of his future presidential center, a place that currently carries a stronger imprint of the 1893 World’s Fair held there than the expansive, modern presidential center that will open there in a few years.
For Obama, this city remains a potent mix of his past and his future, and on Tuesday he will return to lay down a critical mile marker of his presidency, seeking to address both the past and the future. The president will make his final case for why the change he promised in 2008 is a reality that will continue to unfold despite the battering his party suffered in the November elections.
Here in Woodlawn, where the Obama Presidential Center is slated to open in 2021, residents see it as providing a critical economic boost. Tonya Hall, a home health-care aide, noted approvingly: “We saw them cutting down all the trees,” a concrete sign in her mind that the library will become a reality.
“I think it will be jobs,” said 77-year-old Almeda Nelson on Monday, as she ran errands across from the Good Shepherd Manor seniors’ home where she lives. She hopes the Obama library will help create opportunities for the neighborhood’s young people: “It will given them something to do. They don’t have nothing to do. They’re out in the street.”
Obama chose Chicago to deliver his farewell-to-the-nation speech because of his “deep and profound love for the city,” said White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, and that profound love also explains the reason he chose to locate his presidential library here.
But the city also highlights some of the unfinished work of his presidency. Racked by gun violence, armed confrontations between police and civilians, and fights between city officials and the teachers’ union, conservatives hold up Chicago as a national symbol of urban dysfunction. The city had 762 homicides last year, the highest number since the crack epidemic of the 1990s.
“We are experiencing, obviously a serious murder and crime problem,” said Dick Simpson, a political-science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But Simpson, who served as a city alderman from 1971 to 1979, noted that Chicago “has become more established as a global city” and the Obama center will reflect that growing sophistication.
“It’s not your grandfather’s presidential library, at least as it’s designed,” Simpson said.
While most residents are confident that the hundreds of thousands of tourists drawn to the center each year will spur new businesses, there is also a tangible unease that the area’s redevelopment could crowd out existing residents. The night before Obama was slated to deliver his speech at McCormick Place, city officials held a public meeting on a plan to develop a Tiger Woods-designed golf course next to the center, which has infuriated some local residents.
The Rev. Byron T. Brazier, who serves as pastor of Apostolic Church of God, said the construction of the center will provide both Woodlawn and nearby Washington Park with greater leverage over future economic decisions. Both communities are on the upswing, he said, with strong schools and a declining murder rate.
“The importance of the presidential library is it catalyzes and moves the process sooner than it would have been without it,” said Brazier, whose father worked with Obama when he was a community activist here.
While many Chicago residents will be in the audience Tuesday, Obama will also be speaking to those who helped put him in office, and to the nation as a whole.
A decade ago, Obama’s rapid ascent appeared to galvanize a new political coalition – composed of young people, people of color and women – that promised to scramble established voting patterns and usher in an era of federal progressive policymaking.
On Tuesday, many of the Obama true believers will gather to hear him one last time before he leaves office.
Elizabeth Jarvis-Shean, a Sacramento native who directed research at the White House as well as during the 2012 campaign, is “like everybody else, in the tech industry” now, in Northern California. On Monday, she boarded a plane for Chicago to meet up with other veterans of the Obama campaigns.
“I’m looking forward to hearing from him, what does it mean, and how do we all move forward,” she said, referring to Obama and the election results. “He’s always been sort of the North Star. So the question is what does that navigation tell us, what does the compass look like.”
The president has already signaled that he will strike the sort of optimistic tone he adopted on the night of one of his rare electoral defeats – when he came in second to Hillary Clinton in the 2008 New Hampshire primary and coined the now-familiar catchphrase: “Yes we can.”
The White House put out a video over the weekend, featuring both celebrities and ordinary people recounting what “Yes we can” meant to them. And in his weekly radio address Saturday, Obama said that he planned to highlight the achievements his administration had made over the past eight years, “knowing that our work is and will always be unfinished. That’s the imperative of citizenship – the idea that with hard work, people who love their country can change it.”
Obama has said repeatedly that he hopes to train the next generation of civic leaders through his presidential center. In an interview in late December with his former senior adviser David Axelrod on “The Axe Files” podcast, the president said he wants “to build that next generation of leadership, organizers, journalists, politicians.”
And when it came to the next set of Democratic Party leaders, Obama said he aimed to “accelerate their presence . . . on the scene, and that’s where I can be helpful.”
Presidential historian Douglas Brinkley has dubbed Obama “a firewall president, who must constantly defend progressive achievement in a country that’s center-right.” The result is that Obama may find himself more tightly tethered to the political stage than he had envisioned he would be at this point.
“He’s going to keep his political hat on for a little longer than he wants to,” Brinkley said, even though “he might want to throw it in the closet.”
And Obama has begun to think through when he might publicly weigh in on what his successor is doing, Jarrett said, even as he will work to be respectful of the fact that a new president will be in charge.
“It’s a delicate balance, and he will try hard to strike it appropriately,” she said. “I don’t think it’s an ‘either-or,’ it’s a ‘both-and.’ He certainly won’t be commenting on every issue that comes up. When he feels something extraordinarily important is at stake, he will say what he needs to say.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Juliet Eilperin