Never has a president come from a constituency of the urban poor
November 7, 2008 | 10:57 AMRyan Enos
We have heard a lot about Barack Obama being from Chicago. This fact came up often, sometimes by his opponents because it conjures images of famously corrupt Chicago machine politics. Sometimes his supporters used it to demonstrate his toughness: if Obama could survive the rough and tumble of Chicago politics, he could survive any contest.
To me, however, the real significance of his association with Chicago is overlooked when we focus on the political. That he comes from Chicago, and the Southside of Chicago, has profound symbolic importance and, potential, implications for his policy as president.
We do not often elect big city dwellers as president. In the post-war era, I would think that no president could really be considered an urbanite. Dwight Eisenhower, who's most immediate non-government job was president of Columbia University in New York City might be considered the closest example. But few would associate the “Man from Abeline” (a small town in Kansas) with the big city. Those that came from big city regions, like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, came from wealthy suburbs.
The last real city dweller in the White House might have been Franklin Roosevelt. That Roosevelt came from New York opulence, far removed from the typical city dweller of his time, demonstrates why I think Obama's home is symbolically important.
With Obama, in addition to his personal characteristics being a presidential first, his constituent roots are also a presidential first. Never has a president come from a constituency of the urban poor.
Before I entered graduate school, I taught high school social studies in Chicago at Paul Robeson High School in Englewood, a neighborhood on the Southside. Englewood is one of the most economically depressed urban areas in the United States. The people of Englewood struggle with endemic poverty and violence. The murder rate in Chicago at the time was approximately 500 people per year. These murders, heavily concentrated in areas of the West and South sides would be enough violence to have some observers designate Chicago a war zone if it were in a foreign country. Englewood was in the center of this. My observation was that less than 25% of the students, 100% of whom were African-American, that started at Paul Robeson, graduated from there.
In teaching government and civics, I would require my students to learn the names of their elected representatives. I clearly remember the unusual name of a state senator, unusual enough that when my students asked me about the origin of it, I had to admit that I really had no idea. If Barack Obama had not had an unusual name, I never would have remembered it – and why should I have? He would have just been another obscure politician from a depressed constituency that would never rise to prominence. But Obama was different - and due to a combination of an acute timing and extraordinary personal characteristics, the man whose constituents included the children of Paul Robeson High School will now be President of the United States.
Of course, Obama's constituency also included the affluent Hyde Park and other areas – and Obama's life story, even in growing up, was much different than that of many of his constituents. However, I would like to believe that his exposure to communities like Englewood, the type of place in which most Americans may never even set foot, will give him an awareness that will affect his policy making. It is probably no accident that the last president to make a concerted policy effort for the poor, Lyndon Johnson, was exposed to critical poverty in minority children as a school teacher in south Texas.
With Obama's new constituency including approximately 300 million people, it will probably be very difficult to focus on Englewood in particular, but the fact is that the United States includes a disturbingly large number of constituencies similar to Englewood. The perpetuation of intergenerational poverty and violence in these neighborhoods affects our ability, as a nation, to affectively allocate resources and is a specter that hangs over our debates about almost all social policy. Policy that addresses the needs of the critically poor, be it through redistribution, education, health care, or otherwise is something that if a president successfully addressed, could leave a profound legacy.
I am sure that the residents of Englewood are experiencing a profound sense of pride in witnessing the election of Obama. Obama should also have pride in that he represented Englewood and, hopefully, as president he will not forget the needs of those that he once represented and whose needs he is uniquely positioned to address.
Dean of the UCLA School of Public Affairs and professor of political science.
Professor of education, law, political science and urban plannning.
Professor of urban planning, social welfare, and Asian American studies.
Professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA.
Professor of public policy.
Associate professor of public policy.
Associate professor of political science and director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Politics.
Assistant professor-in-residence of medicine.
Assistant professor of political science.
Assistant professor of communication studies.
Ph.D. candidate in political science.
Graduate student in political science.