Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Obama's Mamas Weigh In

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Yesterday, I called two of the Obama Mamas -- the women who hired Barack Obama to work as a community organizer on the Far South Side. They were the first to see Obama’s leadership qualities, so I wanted to know how they thought he’d met the test of leading an entire nation.

    The Developing Communities Project, the group that hired Obama as an organizer, was formed as a response to the closure of Chicago’s steel mills. One of Obama’s first projects was interviewing laid-off steelworkers for a job re-training program. The steel crisis of the 1980s was a situation similar to what Obama faced coming into office, when the auto industry was about to go bankrupt, Loretta Augustine-Herron said.

    Augustine-Herron, who was given the pseudonym “Angela” in Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father, is now a substitute teacher in Calumet City.

    “The interviews with the laid-off steelworkers were so sad,” she remembered. “The people couldn’t understand that these jobs weren’t coming back. Barack understood that. His perceptions were really, really good. His experience really aided him in identifying some of the things that needed to be done.”

    Yvonne Lloyd -- “Shirley” Dreams from My Father -- has moved back to her native Nashville. In Tennessee, she’s seen anti-Obama signs reading, “The Bro and His Ho Gotta Go.”

    Lloyd thinks Obama’s bill to extend health insurance to all Americans -- his most important achievement as president -- was a result of working with the poor and the elderly in the Altgeld Gardens housing project.

    “I think Obamacare is a result of that, of working with people on Social Security and Medicaid,” she said. “He interacted with all those people who lived in the projects. The old ladies just loved him. He would eat their cooking, and hardly anybody would have eaten there.”

    Both Augustine-Herron and Lloyd saw in Obama what would prove to be his most valuable quality as a poltician: the ability to interact with diverse groups of people. Not only could Obama charm the old ladies of the South Side, he could impress the downtown foundation executives who had the money the DCP needed.

    “I’ve watched him go from place to place, and everywhere he’s gone, he’s been accepted,” Lloyd said. “That’s why we didn’t have a hard time when we needed funds for the community.”

    In Washington, though, Obama has a tougher audience than old ladies or foundations: Republicans.

    “There wasn’t another side back then,” Lloyd said. “Now, he’s fighting hard against people who don’t want him there.”  

     

    This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $9.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.