BICENTENNIAL 2018: Barack Obama’s political career in Illinois helped shape his presidencyBy Chris Kaergard — November 15, 2018
A decade ago, he claimed victory in the presidential campaign from Grant Park in Chicago.
He announced his run — and later his running mate — on ground trod by Abraham Lincoln at the Old State Capitol.
And, yes, he also quoted Ronald Reagan on occasion.
Like the first two, Barack Obama wasn’t born here, but chose to live in Illinois and make his reputation within these borders.
While his post-presidency may not — at least for now — feature a Chicago address, his time in Chicago and its politics helped clarify his presidential character to the world, and prepare him for the task.
So, too, did the world under the Capitol dome in Springfield, and his time representing a state that boasts Fortune 500 corporations, industrial laborers, suburban families, downstate farmers and many others.
“I think coming from an industrial, agricultural state with a lot of cultural diversity was such a great learning experience for him,” says Ray LaHood, Obama’s former secretary of transportation.
That experience started in Chicago, and it began at a fortuitous moment.
The diagnosis from an end-of-presidency analysis by Chicago magazine points to Obama’s arrival on the Windy City scene at the right time, during the mayoralty of Harold Washington, and his growth in the political world during the election and term of Sen. Carol Moseley Braun — two trailblazing African-American politicians.
Obama himself noted much the same about the connection to Washington’s era, writing in “Dreams of My Father” that his election as the city’s first African-American mayor “had given (the) people a new idea of themselves. Or maybe it was an old idea, born of a simpler time. Harold was something they still held in common: like my idea of organizing, he held out an offer of collective redemption.”
His nature as something of an outsider — at least not someone raised from birth in Chicago’s political culture — also may have helped Obama.
“A traditional Chicago pol, tainted by the alliances and the dealmaking of the city’s shady political culture, could never succeed on a national stage,” the piece notes.
Most people know Obama’s thumbnail-sketch biography: community organizer, president of the Harvard Law Review, state legislator, U.S. senator, president. But one initiative that gets less attention now is one that helped propel him to local fame.
After law school and before the Legislature, during those few years of private legal practice that fly under the radar, Obama led a major voter registration drive — the biggest in Chicago history to that point.
Project Vote put more than 125,000 more voters on the rolls in 1992, many of them minorities, and it got people talking about a possible political future for him.
Weeks later, the man whose 2008 presidential candidacy would later be credited with spikes in minority and youth voting said in a Chicago magazine story on the registration effort, “I think it’s fair to say we reinvigorated a slumbering constituency. We got people to take notice.”
That’s one of many themes he later took to a national campaign and the presidency that were first sounded in the Windy City.
When he first ran for the Legislature, he said this about his organizing efforts in a 1995 interview with the Chicago Reader:
“In America, we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations.”
And this, too, in the Chicago Reader, from a man whose presidential campaigns grew leaders from the grass roots.
“Three major doubts have been raised,” he said. The first is whether in today’s political environment — with its emphasis on media and money — a grass-roots movement can even be created. Will people still answer the call of participatory politics?
“Second,” Obama said, “many believe that the country is too racially polarized to build the kind of multiracial coalitions necessary to bring about massive economic change.
“Third, is it possible for those of us working through the Democratic Party to figure out ways to use the political process to create jobs for our communities?”
Other experiences along the way also helped him develop beyond those early days – not only living in a city “with its politics 24-7,” but the personalities that it contains helped prepare him for that world, LaHood says.
So, too, did his single loss, taking on U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush for a seat in Congress in 2000.
“I think the fact that … he lost his election in the congressional race was probably as good a lesson as you can learn in politics on what to do and what not to do,” LaHood said. “That was, while probably painful, a good lesson for him to learn.”
So was learning about the state that exists beyond the borders of Cook County.
Once in the Senate, Obama got to know lawmakers from all corners of the state, including Sen. Denny Jacobs in the Quad Cities and Sen. George Shadid from Peoria.
“He learned a lot from George Shadid and central Illinois – and I’m sure that was true of all senators,” LaHood says, pointing to the reunion Obama staged with former colleagues after a valedictory visit to the Illinois Legislature late in his term to visit with longtime pals under the dome.
Some of those friendships made it easier to run for U.S. Senate, already having an understanding of downstate interests and priorities. And geographic proximity helped when he turned his eyes to the presidency.
“When he started running for president, you didn’t have to show him where Davenport was, having represented the Quad Cities. Or Muscatine, having been to Quincy,” LaHood says.
One more legacy, too, that Obama took from his adopted state and his early political career.
He and LaHood played golf earlier this year, and the latter says that Obama’s love of the links developed in the statehouse.
On slow session days, LaHood relates that the young senator noticed colleagues clearing out of the Capitol in the late afternoon, and learned that many were adjourning to golf courses in town. So he took up the sport himself.
“He really learned how to play golf on courses in Springfield,” LaHood says.
Chris Kaergard is an associate editor for the Journal Star in Peoria. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3, 2018. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
–BICENTENNIAL 2018: Barack Obama’s political career in Illinois helped shape his presidency–