Obama's Years in Chicago Politics Shaped His Presidential Candidacy

Two decades in the Windy City produced the Obama we know today.

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"Barack is a very egotistical guy with undeniable ambition," says a former adviser who has had a falling-out with him. "When he went national, he didn't care about anything else."

He had no personal connections to Chicago when, at 23 and living in New York after graduating from Columbia, he answered an ad in a trade publication for a community organizer in the Windy City. He was hired, and in June 1985 he moved there in his run-down blue Honda. The job paid a paltry $13,000 a year. He found himself in one of the most fascinating, complicated, and challenging urban environments in the country, a place where, as author David Mendell says, politics, race, and power are "inextricably intertwined."

Kellman, his boss and still a close friend, assigned the earnest newcomer to the Roseland and West Pullman areas on the South Side. The nearly all-black territory included both stable middle-class areas with carefully tended lawns and sections of abject poverty where drug dealers prowled the streets. Obama's assignment was to teach the poor to rely on themselves in a very aggressive way—to get what they wanted from city hall, their landlords, and others in power by clarifying their needs and banding together to take action. It's the kind of self-help that he preaches today as a presidential candidate. And it's the kind of grass-roots activism that he has put to good use in his campaign, which has dominated the presidential caucuses where success is based on the type of person-to-person organizing that he learned in the Windy City.

One of his projects was organizing Altgeld Gardens, a dilapidated housing project with 2,000 residents just outside Roseland, to prod the Chicago Housing Authority to make basic repairs in the apartments, such as fixing toilets and furnaces. He enjoyed only mild success because city authorities were so resistant to change. He also assisted in organizing a campaign to have asbestos removed from the apartments. The housing authority, under pressure from demonstrations that Obama aided in organizing and media attention that he helped to arrange, eventually agreed to test for asbestos and hire workers to seal it off. But in the end, the asbestos removal stalled, and the episode left Obama disappointed in the limits of community organizing without at the same time having allies in power.

Obama also saw firsthand the central role that African-American churches played in the black community, providing solace, pride, and the motivation to persevere against adversity. He got to know Wright, the bombastic and charismatic pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ—whose angry sermons, widely perceived as anti-American and antiwhite, got Obama's presidential campaign into deep trouble a few weeks ago.

Political base. But there was personal motivation, too. Despite having little previous interest in religion, Obama joined Wright's growing church in part to deepen what one friend called "a whole web of relationships" in the community that gave him a strong political base and a well-connected mentor. At one point, Wright warned Obama that the ministers and other leaders in Chicago could be parochial and cynical, which would make Obama's job of organizing much harder. Obama soon learned this in a very personal way when one minister derided him at a public meeting for being a pawn of Chicago's whites because he tried to work with the Establishment.

Wright, who retired earlier this year, belonged to a gospel-shouting tradition in many black churches of "signifying"—connecting with parishioners by linking religion to contemporary life and politics. He was dramatic and topical in part to attract young people to his version of the Christian tradition rather than Islam, which also had appeal to young blacks, to some degree because of charismatic leaders such as Farrakhan. Obama says he recognizes all this, and while he has condemned what Wright said, he refused to "disown" him and his good works in the community. This is seen by Obama confidants as an example of the loyalty so prized in Chicago politics. "He feels that we need to accept people with their imperfections," says a friend. "You don't disown them. It's very much a part of his message." Adds Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Chicago, a supporter: "Barack will not demonize. He won't throw somebody under the bus."