Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

How Obama Became President Harold Washington

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When Barack Obama accepted a job as a community organizer in Chicago, it was in part because of Mayor Harold Washington.

Obama, who was searching for his own black identity, wanted to live in a city where African-Americans controlled their own political destiny. In 1985, Washington was the most prominent black elected official in America, but he was also engaged in a battle with his mostly-white City Council for control of Chicago.

“The 29,” as the white bloc was called, refused to accept the election of  a black mayor, and held up some of Washington’s appointments for years. Council Wars lasted until a pro-Washington majority was elected in 1986.

It’s safe to say that if Washington had never been mayor of Chicago, Obama would never have become president. He might not have moved here, first of all. And Washington’s success as mayor reassured white voters who thought he was going to turn Chicago into a Midwestern Zimbabwe, and allowed a later generation of black politicians to thrive in Chicago. When Obama first got into politics, his plan was to emulate Washington’s path: the state legislature, Congress, then the mayor’s office.

Instead, he ended up in the White House, and he’s finding himself in a situation similar to his political hero’s. A faction of the Republican opposition -- the Tea Party -- is so implacably opposed to Obama’s presidency that they’re willing to allow the government to shut down or stop paying its bills rather than compromise with him. Call it Congress Wars. If you don’t think their opposition is about race, just read what Rep. Joe Walsh said about Obama in a May interview with Slate:

“Why was he elected? Again, it comes back to who he was. He was black, he was historic. And there's nothing racist about this. It is what it is. If he had been a dynamic, white, state senator elected to Congress he wouldn't have gotten in the game this fast. This is what made him different. That, combined with the fact that your profession“—another friendly tap of the bumper sticker—“not you, but your profession, was just absolutely compliant. They made up their minds early that they were in love with him. They were in love with him because they thought he was a good liberal guy and they were in love with him because he pushed that magical button: a black man who was articulate, liberal, the whole white guilt, all of that.”


Writing in Salon, author Michael Lind called the Tea Party a neo-Confederate movement, continuing a tradition of white Southerners trying to tear down the government when they lose control of it.

Obama always wanted to be Harold Washington. Now, as president, he is.

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

Related Topics Joe Walsh, Ed Burke, Barack Obama
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