Four years ago, Barack Obama edged John McCain in Chicago, 1.1 million to 150,000.
True, the Democratic presidential candidate always wins here—or has for 13 straight elections. The last time the city went for the GOP nominee was 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower narrowly beat Adlai Stevenson in Chicago while stomping him nationwide.
But the Democratic candidate winning by more than seven to one? The 2008 landslide was due in part to the support the city’s black wards gave the first African-American presidential nominee—upwards of 95 percent. In the 17th, on the south side, the final score was: Obama—23,716; McCain—96. (That’s 247 to 1.)
Obama was also a favorite son, of course, and the city backed him from the lake to Harlem. He kicked butt on the north lakefront, in Hispanic wards, in white ethnic neighborhoods. He won all 50 wards going away.
And remember the ecstasy downtown that night? An estimated 175,000 jammed Grant Park, and they unleashed a deafening roar when their hero took the stage. Strangers embraced on Loop sidewalks, and there was dancing on State Street. Mechelene Head, a 40-year-old Lawndale resident, burst into tears as she told a Sun-Times reporter, “This is the best thing that has ever happened to me.” Angel Castillo, a 19-year-old University of Illinois at Chicago student, said, “I am going to be able to talk about this to my kids.”
Ah, but that was then. After four years of a slack economy and continued high unemployment, hope’s no longer audacious, and Chicagoans are less excited. They’ll roll up big numbers again for their favorite son, though not quite as big. If Obama wins reelection over Mitt Romney, it’ll be met this time with sighs of relief instead of unrestrained joy—exhalation instead of exaltation.
We talked about the election with five Chicagoans—residents of Lake View, the East Side, Lincoln Square, Armour Square, and Edgewater. Four will vote for Obama; the fifth may vote for the Green Party candidate out of frustration with the president and his party. (We wanted to also interview a Chicagoan who supports Romney, but both of them were busy.)
The Obama supporters will be tapping the touch screen box next to Barack Obama compliantly, not blissfully, 12 days from now. “It’s just a civic duty at this point,” says Austin Millet, who was a University of Illinois student during the last election, and now is one of many college graduates looking for full-time work. Like the president, they’re four years older and wiser, though some of them claim to have known in 2008 that people were getting carried away. “What’s the likelihood that he’s gonna turn everything around in four years?” Shahshak Ben Levi, a former housing project resident who gets by mainly on food stamps, says he thought then.
How about in eight years? Disappointed or not, most of them would like to see what Obama can do with a little more time. Especially considering the alternative.
The first in line to celebrate Obama’s 2008 victory views 2012 from a more nuanced seat
Evidence of the height of Daniel Krieglstein’s Obama obsession arrived sometime around 5 AM on November 4, 2008.
For the previous seven hours, Krieglstein and his brother had been wandering around Grant Park, alternately lauded and scowled at by police and puzzled over by whoever else happened to be up at that hour. The Krieglsteins were looking for the line of donors and volunteers who’d been preapproved for VIP access to the presidential candidate’s (hopeful) victory party. They wanted a good spot in line.
Slowly it dawned on them that they were the line.
Then, at 5 AM, came a group of Northwestern students, freshmen and sophomores as Krieglstein recalls. “They really thought they were getting there first.” Nope. That honor would remain the Krieglsteins’. Third in line would be the mother and son who’d traveled to Grant Park from the south side.
The three groups spent the next several hours getting to know each other. To Krieglstein, it was a telling mix: he and his brother, the late-20s entrepreneurs born into a politically charged and hyperintellectual family (just the afternoon before, he’d completed his three-hour oral exams for a master’s in clinical psychology from the Illinois Institute of Technology); the energized undergrad contingent that came out for Obama in record numbers; and the hopeful family members from an historically overlooked urban swath who were about to witness someone with a background very much like their own become the first African-American president.
All of them had found a way to interpret Obama’s message of hope as it applied to their unique circumstances. And they shared a belief in the promise of a more cohesive country under a commander in chief who was the very embodiment of unity.
Krieglstein’s mother was a community organizer (she’d fought for migrant workers’ rights and later for LGBT causes), and his adopted grandmother helped organize one of the handful of marches in Chicago’s west suburbs led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.
Krieglstein felt that he and his brother were not only fulfilling a family legacy; they were participating in the next chapter of the nation’s history. “Our grandmother having been a part of that early struggle—and then us being there to celebrate probably the greatest symbol of triumph over that struggle—felt like full circle.”
Of course, the next chapter ended up being more complicated than Obama’s initial triumph over adversity suggested.
Looking back on that day from the distance of four years and through a filter of disappointments (civilian deaths attributed to drones, Guantanamo, a drug policy that shuttered medical-marijuana clinics), Krieglstein admits the perils of the president-as-symbol line of thinking: a single individual imbued with so much weighted meaning tends to eclipse our ability to parse the issues he’s fighting for, leaving him vulnerable to disenchantment once the veil of symbolism lifts.
“I look back and I actually don’t diminish that moment in time. I don’t diminish the hype.”
Though he wasn’t motivated to knock on any doors this time around, as he did both in 2008 and for Obama’s 2004 Senate race, Krieglstein has donated to the 2012 campaign—despite still “living like a grad student” in Lincoln Square. Since 2008, he’s launched a grants-funding organization and has become an adjunct professor of psychology at IIT, where he’s pursuing his PhD.
What’s more, Kreiglstein’s inclination in the middle of Obama’s term to “attack him for what you want him to do and not celebrate his accomplishments so much” has given way to “this psychological phenomenon that, when you find yourself having to defend someone, you find yourself empathizing with that person.”
Now he’s finding himself “heavily” supporting Obamacare and feeling “much more enthusiastic than I anticipated.” Consequently, 2012 has become an election year in which Krieglstein is excited about several different possibilities—increased access to health care, progress in the fight for LGBT and women’s rights—rather than the huge one that was at stake in 2008.
Not that he feels any less pride for the front-row seat he took at the celebration four years ago—or any less excited about how Obama’s reelection would affirm that milestone.
“I don’t diminish that moment in time, I don’t diminish the hype around it. We’re one of the only developed democracies in the world that elected a minority to the highest office.”
As for his 2012 election night plans?
“We’ll probably just go to a bar.”
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A teacher so let down by the politics of education that she might skip the election
Four years ago, Jen Johnson sat in front of her TV and cried tears of joy as she watched Barack Obama and his family take the stage in Grant Park to celebrate his election as president.
It wasn’t just that his progressive politics were similar to hers. She felt a more personal connection: like Obama, Johnson has a black father and a white mother.
“I shocked myself with how emotional I was,” says Johnson, a 31-year-old history teacher at Lincoln Park High School. “I was crying like a baby. I kept seeing Sasha and Malia and I kept thinking, ‘Oh, my God, there’s going to be little black girls in the White House.'”
But this time around Johnson, an Edgewater resident, isn’t sure she’ll even vote for the man who once brought her so much pride. Like many Chicago public school teachers, she’s undergone a political transformation in recent years, in part because of the role Democrats—including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff—have played in the privatization of public schools.
“I don’t want Mitt Romney to win,” she says. “But Illinois is going blue no matter who I vote for. So because of Obama’s educational policies I’m feeling very reluctant to give him another vote. I might vote Green.”
Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Johnson comes from a long line of public school teachers. Her father, DeMonte, was a high school history teacher in Grand Rapids for 31 years and an assistant principal for four. Her maternal grandfather, William Gregory, taught English at New Trier High School for 35 years—though he didn’t have its famous alum Rahm Emanuel in class.
Her mother, Susan Johnson Gregory, is the author of Hey, White Girl!, the classic 1970s coming-of-age memoir.
After graduating from City High in Grand Rapids in 1999, Johnson enrolled at Northwestern University. “I knew from the time I was in high school I wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “It’s in my blood.”
In 2003, when she was just 21, she got a full-time job at Lincoln Park, where she’d done her student teaching. She barely paid attention to local politics in her first few years in the classroom. “I wasn’t really aware of Mayor Daley and the politics of education,” she says. “I was nose-to-the-grindstone, just trying to get my classes in order.”
“There is hope, but I don’t think it will come from politicians. It will come from people who have children in the public schools.”
But she gradually felt compelled to get active in the Chicago Teachers Union. In 2005 the Lincoln Park principal abruptly fired the school’s librarian in a controversial move that upset teachers and students. That was the point Johnson decided she couldn’t get around the fact that politics plays a role in the classroom. “They don’t teach you about the politics of education when you’re in college—you learn about it through experience,” she says. “I began to put things together—school closings, teacher evaluations, seniority, class size, the lack of adequate funding.”
She became one of Lincoln Park’s three union delegates and helped form the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a systemwide coalition of teachers. In 2010, Karen Lewis, another CORE founder, was elected CTU president.
“It’s hard for me not to hold Democrats responsible for a lot of the things that have happened in public education over the last few years,” she says. She notes that Arne Duncan, the former CPS chief and current U.S. education secretary, helped make charter schools the fastest-growing segment of the local school system. And under his lead, the Obama administration has continued the high-stakes-testing policy of the Bush years, except they’ve renamed it Race to the Top and forced local districts to compete for funding.
That’s why she sees little substantial difference between Romney and Obama on education. “What about the districts that don’t win? We have to deal with issues like poverty and segregation. You can’t pit school against school and state against state. That’s ridiculous.
“If Obama wins, it’s more of the same. If Romney wins, I suppose he has the potential to escalate what’s happening. We’re back to the lesser of evils.”
The recent school strike has given her hope, in part because of the outpouring of support she saw from the wider public. “I keep thinking that if there’s going to be change it will start on a local level—like here in Chicago. I’m hoping that the dialogue will be shifted. We’ll focus on the inequities and adequate funding for schools. There is hope, but I don’t think it will come from politicians because they’re funded by billionaires and millionaires. It will come from people who have children in the public schools.”
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Shahshak Ben Levi knows no election will ease the grip of poverty. But Obama still represents hope.
“I graduated from sidewalk high and the college of necessity,” Shahshak Ben Levi says.
Levi, 56, spent most of his life in Robert Taylor Homes, the infamous south-side housing project that was demolished in the 2000s. He grew up there with his father, who was a machinist, his mother, and ten brothers and sisters. When he was in seventh grade he got in trouble for “roughhousing” and was transferred to a school for kids with behavior problems. He quit school instead and started bagging groceries at the neighborhood store and washing car mats at the car wash. He’s been scraping by ever since.
Levi is six foot six and thin, bearded and graying. He makes a little as a part-time housing activist; a subsidized apartment and food stamps keep him afloat. In 2008, he got a chance to do something he never thought he’d be able to do: help elect a black person president.
He remembers a mix of feelings among blacks in his circle when Obama was running the first time. He and his friends shared an “overwhelming fear” that if Obama were elected he’d be killed. “That’s what has always happened to our black leaders,” Levi says. “I’m thinking, ‘Do he live to see the end of those four years?'”
There was a second fear: “You had those who felt he was a token nigger, bought and paid for by the white corporate structure—that he was only gonna carry out their means.
“And then you had the overwhelming amount who was just rah, rah, rah that we had a black person who could actually end up president,” Levi says. He himself “got caught up in the excitement” on occasion. “But at other times you just looked at the sheer reality. Whether he win or he don’t win, is that actually gonna change my life one bit? I was unemployed the day before I went to vote, I was unemployed the day that I voted, I was unemployed the day after. So what dramatical difference did it make for me personally? None.”
“I understand that there were things he needed to do before he could turn his attention to us. But I also see that it was never about us anyway.”
Almost four years after Obama’s election, times are still hard for Levi and the former Robert Taylor residents he knows. The last of the Taylor high-rises came down in 2007. Levi still lives nearby. Jobs remain scarce, and the neighborhood’s poverty hasn’t abated. But Levi doesn’t blame Obama.
“The majority of us knew that before he can do anything, he’s got to deal with eight years of [President George W.] Bush,” Levi says. “There was economical devastation, housing devastation. What’s the likelihood that he’s gonna turn everything around in four years after what this man did, and the two wars he done started? It’s gonna take you easily your first three years to get a grip on what’s going on. So I understand that there were things he needed to do before he could turn his attention to us. But I also see that it was never about us anyway.”
By which Levi means he isn’t especially optimistic that things will improve much for the poor if Obama wins a second term. During the presidential campaign, “there’s been no talk on either side of the aisle about extremely low-income families.” He’d like to see more help for public housing residents who were displaced when the projects were razed. “But there are in the minds of others far more pressing issues than public housing,” he says. “That’s been the history of things. No one tends to care about the poor.”
That’s certainly true of Romney, Levi says, and for good reason. “You cannot ask someone who has been one of the most extremely rich persons to comprehend what it is to be poor. It’s irrelevant to him. It’d be like me trying to run a big corporation. What can he possibly bring to the table?”
Levi’s proud of what Obama has accomplished so far, given the circumstances. He credits him for extending food stamps and several other safety-net programs. He praises him for the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama has “shown many of the neocolonials that black people actually can think and function on levels that they never imagined.”
And he holds out hope that despite the political constraints, Obama will find a way in a second term to do more for the disadvantaged than he’s done so far. “I know you can’t just come straight out and say I’m fitting to sign this bill and it’s gonna help the extremely low-income, because your adversaries will eat you alive,” Levi says. “But indirectly there are things you can do.”
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Sandra Leon maintains faith in Obama and his ability to protect the life she built from scratch
Sandra Leon didn’t have to think about whether to vote for Barack Obama four years ago. He seemed to understand people like her. The other side had no idea. “It’s being middle-class and seeing the Republicans catering to the corporations,” she says. “I think they’re totally out of touch.”
Leon, 34, is a nurse at the University of Chicago hospital and her husband is a longtime city employee. They live with their two daughters on the East Side, a neighborhood along the Indiana state line that’s home to police officers, public school teachers, and shift workers at the nearby Ford plant.
“This is a very proud union neighborhood,” Leon says. “I saw it with my parents—if it weren’t for the unionized jobs they had, they wouldn’t have gotten ahead like they did.”
Leon grew up in the working-class South Chicago neighborhood a couple of miles north, where her parents moved after emigrating from Mexico in the early 1970s. They arrived with no money, no belongings, and no papers—just word that they could find work in Chicago. “They found a mattress in an alley, and those crates where you put the Coca-Cola bottles, that was a table,” Leon says.
Her father found a job at the nearby Republic Steel mill. Her mother worked in a series of factories. At home, they pushed Leon and her three siblings to aim higher.
“My dad used to say, ‘We came here with nothing—you have to do better than us. Going to college wasn’t an option. We had to go. He would say that all the time: ‘We came here and we didn’t speak any English, you guys were born here, how embarrassing if you don’t go to school.'”
The neighborhood public high school, Washington, had a specialized program in nursing. By the time Leon graduated, she was an LPN, which allowed her to work as she continued her studies at St. Xavier University.
Leon and her boyfriend, another first-generation Mexican-American, were married four months after she finished high school. They had a daughter the next year, and another four years later. “My parents were furious,” she says. “We were so broke and poor. But it worked out.”
“I don’t know how the whole thing’s been manipulated so the working people are at fault for what happened on Wall Street.”
Despite the sluggish economy, she says she and her husband are in a little better position than they were four years ago. They bought their house in 2001, before the housing market balloon, and have been able to pay down some of their mortgage.
But Leon is deeply concerned about what looms ahead. She worries that she and her husband earn too much for their daughters to qualify for financial aid when they go to college, but not enough to pay for it up front. Coworkers have told her stories about refinancing their homes, taking out loans, or returning to work from retirement to cover tuition.
“I feel like being middle-class, you live comfortably and I can’t complain, but you can’t advance. As soon as we’re done paying off our cars and our house, we’re going to go into debt again for our kids. And then they might not be able to leave [our house] if they can’t get a job.”
Despite her anxieties, Leon has no doubts about how she’s voting. As a nurse, she’s a big fan of President Obama’s health care law, since it’s likely to lower the number of uninsured. She’s also disgusted at the way Republicans have discussed women’s health issues and attacked Roe v. Wade. Yet nothing gets to her as much as the Republican assaults on union power in Wisconsin, Ohio, and New Jersey (not to mention Rahm Emanuel’s in Chicago).
“I don’t know how the whole thing’s been manipulated so the working people are at fault for what happened on Wall Street,” she says. “I loved it when that 47 percent video came out, because that is how Romney feels. If Romney were to win, that would be frightening.”
Underemployed recent college grad hopes for environmental change
Who are the youth voters? It might be the most imaginary political demographic. Unlike, say, Latinos—another important group in this year’s election—there’s little in the way of shared cultural background, common language, or lived experience to bind the youth bloc. Young voters may be black or white, they may be rich or poor, but mostly they’re just not very old yet.
Is Austin Millet a “youth voter”?
When Barack Obama ran for president the first time round, he captured the imaginations of many of the country’s young voters, who in 2008 were a hot political commodity in the way that “soccer moms” had been in years prior. Millet, who’s now 24, voted for Obama then, though he was, and remains, measured in his support. He didn’t feel as inflamed about the Illinois senator as did many of his peers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he graduated in 2010.
“There was a real sense that he was paying attention” to the attitudes of young people, Millet recalls. He thought the future president gave off a “leadership vibe,” which he’d noticed before Obama declared his intention to seek the presidency—Millet grew up in suburban Hinsdale, so the senator was his senator. Vibe or no, he wasn’t so impressed with Obama’s rhetoric. “You get the sense that when you start having to become attractive to a huge portion of the population, almost 50 percent, you’re gonna have to boil some of your issues down.”
Others on Millet’s campus, too, fell short of being Obamaniacs; he says he detected among some of his peers a “reactionary cynicism” elicited by the upstart candidate. Millet’s roommate was from southern Illinois and “hated” Obama. Why? “He’d say, well, he hasn’t done anything for Illinois”—nothin’ for nobody, in other words, who didn’t live in Chicago. “It was just a knee-jerk kind of reaction,” Millet says—though Millet’s roommate, in his embrace of that particular flavor of he-doesn’t-care-about-us rhetoric, may well have been the Ghost of Presidential Politics Future.
“I would like for my issues to be addressed but I think they’re comparatively less important.”
Even a cynic might grant college students some enthusiasm about a rock-star presidential candidate: for his classmates on the U. of I. campus, 2008 was “a little early for the job-market thing,” Millet says. The 2012 election hits them closer to where they live. In theory it hits Millet, too, though he’s not making too many links between the nation’s story and his own. After majoring in English, he moved back to the Chicago area in search of a job. He hoped to do some sort of writing, but ended up in what he calls “manual labor” jobs: moving pianos and digging ditches. He also worked at a bar. For a while, he wrote marketing materials for a life coach.
A year after graduating Millet found a job teaching English abroad. He spent a year in Georgia, which fed an interest in Soviet and post-Soviet history and helped him refine his career goals. The poverty he saw there, Millet says, “made me want to actually spend my time doing more community outreach, and devote myself to a good cause.” He’d like to do public relations for an environmental nonprofit.
The goal has yet to turn into a job. Millet returned from Georgia in June, and this fall he’s working an unpaid internship at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, which promotes urban sustainability. It’s given him a chance to meet people in an industry he’d like to work in, but when the internship ends his plans aren’t clear. “It might be back to moving pianos, it might be back to working in a bar,” he says. “I hope that there’s a fair amount of work for those who want to do it.”
What interest Millet has in the presidential race mostly relates to environmental issues. He appreciates the president’s investments in green technology, and when Mitt Romney affirmed his interest in coal in the first debate—”I like coal,” is what he said—it affirmed Millet’s interest in Barack Obama. His friends aren’t terribly concerned with presidential politics. He says they don’t talk about it much, partly out of respect for the one or two of them who won’t be voting for Obama, and partly because there’s such a powerful expectation of shared values here in Obama country. “It’s just assumed in the city that you’re going to vote for Obama,” Millet says. “It’s just a civic duty at this point.”
If Millet’s less than enthusiastic about Obama, it might be because he sees Obama returning the favor—not that he minds. Millet thinks “youth” issues, like access to education, have “moved to more of a margin. Because it is a marginal issue, I think. Health care is much more important. Defense is much more important. I would like for my issues to be addressed but I think they’re comparatively less important.”
So what are your issues? I ask.
“My issues are lack of employment,” Millet says. “And I really don’t think the government can do anything to address that, so I don’t expect it.”