Before Farewell Speech, Chicagoans Reflect On President Obama's Legacy | KUOW News and Information

Before Farewell Speech, Chicagoans Reflect On President Obama's Legacy

Jan 10, 2017
Originally published on January 10, 2017 5:17 pm

President Obama's adopted hometown of Chicago is often the stage for pivotal moments in his career. He claimed victory in Chicago in 2008 and again in 2012. And it's where he will give his farewell address on Tuesday night.

Many Chicagoans use the word "pride" when talking about Barack Obama. You can hear it in their voices. In this city, where President-elect Donald Trump got only 12 percent of the vote, admiration for President Obama is strong.

Kim Chisholm stood with thousands of others in the bitter cold this weekend to get a ticket to Obama's speech.

"I'm so excited," she says. "History in the making. I never made it to the White House, but I will see him here in Chicago."

Chicago officials say there are pluses and minuses to having such close ties to the Obama administration. On Monday, the city won a federal grant for nearly $1 billion to upgrade a major portion of the city's elevated commuter rail line.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's first White House chief of staff, worked to make sure the funding came through before the administration changed hands.

"This will over the next four years create 6,000 jobs in the city of Chicago," he says.

Illinois' senior U.S. senator, Dick Durbin, says the city has been able to make significant infrastructure improvements with the help of federal funds, including high-speed rail and upgrades to O'Hare International Airport.

"Time and again, the Obama administration has not forgotten where he came from," Durbin says. "[He] has not forgotten the city of Chicago."

That's in part because the administration included a bevy of Chicagoans as Cabinet members and advisers, such as former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Tuesday night's speech and talk about an Obama legacy in Chicago are much more personal for some. Jacky Grimshaw worked in Chicago government under Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and was Obama's next-door neighbor for years. She says the country's first black president faced the same sort of opposition that Washington did and both men prevailed.

"And he put through the stimulus package that allowed communities across the country to deal with infrastructure projects that needed to get done," Grimshaw says of Obama.

Some community organizers take a more nuanced stance. Jitu Brown of the Institute for Educational Leadership says that while the president conducts himself with grace, he disagrees with many of his administration's education policies.

"And I think the disappointment is in a president who started as a community organizer. I would have really hoped there would have been space to really listen to the voices of the people directly impacted," Brown says.

At Valois Restaurant, not far from the president's Chicago home, customers can order a variety of Obama specials on the menu. Kimberly Barnes Staples was eating breakfast with her husband.

"For Chicago, specifically, he gave us a national profile," she says. "He showcased who we are as Chicagoans. He made us proud."

And Devi Austin, a retiree, says she personally benefited from policies Obama advanced.

"Because of the laws that he put in place for people who had just bought homes and was underwater, I got forgiven — forgiven, not modified — forgiven $60,000," she says. "I will miss President Obama."

While some Chicagoans express disappointment that the president didn't provide more help to deal with gun violence and gangs, others give him a pass, saying that's a problem for the mayor, not the president. So as Obama says farewell, Patty McNamara, a museum consultant, says she will be watching wistfully.

"It's kind of bittersweet," she says. "It's going to be a tough transition, I'm afraid."

There will be a tangible Obama legacy for Chicagoans, though. His presidential library and foundation will be built on Chicago's South Side. That means that even if the Obamas don't return there to live, the president will remain engaged in the city that gave him his political start.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Chicago. It's President Obama's adopted hometown and the stage for many big moments in his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, Chicago.

(CHEERING)

CORNISH: He claimed victory there in 2008, again in 2012. And in Chicago tonight, he'll give a farewell address. NPR's Cheryl Corley asked Chicagoans what Barack Obama's presidency meant for them and the city they share.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Pride - that's a word many Chicagoans use when talking about Barack Obama. You can hear it in their voices. Kim Chisholm stood with thousands of others in the bitter cold this weekend to get a ticket to Obama's speech.

KIM CHISHOLM: I'm so excited. History in the making. I never made it to the White House, but I will see him here in Chicago.

CORLEY: Chicago officials will tell you there are pluses and minuses to having such close ties to the Obama administration. Yesterday, the city won a federal grant, nearly a billion dollars to upgrade a major portion of the city's elevated commuter rail line.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Argyle is next.

CORLEY: Mayor Rahm Emanuel, President Obama's first White House chief of staff, worked to make sure the funding came through before the administration changed hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAHM EMANUEL: This will, over the next four years, create 6,000 jobs in the city of Chicago.

CORLEY: Illinois senior U.S. Senator Dick Durbin says the city's been able to make significant infrastructure improvements with the help of federal funds, including high-speed rail and O'Hare airport upgrades.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK DURBIN: Time and again, the Obama administration has not forgotten where he came from, has not forgotten the city of Chicago.

CORLEY: In part because the administration included a bevy of Chicagoans as Cabinet members and advisers, like former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Tonight's speech and talk about an Obama legacy in Chicago is much more personal for some. Jacky Grimshaw worked in Chicago government under Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and was Obama's next-door neighbor for years. She says the country's first black president faced the same sort of opposition that Harold Washington did, and both prevailed.

JACKY GRIMSHAW: And he put through the stimulus package that allowed communities across the country to, you know, deal with infrastructure projects that needed to get done.

CORLEY: Some community organizers take a more nuanced stance. Jitu Brown says while the president conducts himself with grace, he disagrees with many of his administration's education policies.

JITU BROWN: And I think the disappointment is in, you know, a president who started as a community organizer. I would've really hoped there would've been space to really listen to the voices of the people directly impacted.

CORLEY: At Valois Restaurant not far from the president's Chicago home, customers can order a variety of Obama specials on the menu.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Unintelligible) Bacon and sausage omelet.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: How do you like your eggs?

CORLEY: In this city where President-elect Trump only got 12 percent of the vote, admiration for President Obama is strong. Kimberly Barnes Staples was eating breakfast with her husband.

KIMBERLY BARNES STAPLES: For Chicago specifically, he gave us a national profile. He showcased who we are as Chicagoans. He made us proud.

CORLEY: And Devi Austin, a retiree, says she personally benefited from policies President Obama advanced.

DEVI AUSTIN: Because of the laws that he put in place for people who had just bought homes and was underwater, I got forgiven - forgiven, not modified - forgiven $60,000. I will miss President Obama.

CORLEY: While some Chicagoans express disappointment that the president didn't provide more help to deal with gun violence and gangs, others give him a pass, saying that's a problem for the mayor, not the president. So tonight, as President Obama says farewell, Patty McNamara, a museum consultant, says she'll be watching wistfully.

PATTY MCNAMARA: It's kind of bittersweet. You know, it's going to be a tough transition, I'm afraid.

CORLEY: There will be a tangible Obama legacy for Chicagoans, though. His presidential library and foundation will be built on Chicago's South Side. That means that even if the Obamas don't return to live here, the president will remain engaged in the city that gave him his political start. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF KELLEY STOLTZ SONG, "BIRDIES SINGING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.