President Obama on stage during a 2009 town hall with longtime friend and advisor Valerie Jarrett from Chicago (AP)
You may have noticed, as I have, that President Obama has this highly annoying habit of running from Washington to hit the road to bask in the adoration of the 51% of the electorate that voted for him.
The media reports on these pep rallies almost without questioning the motives. In doing so, they spread his message of faux success at every stop. Understand that NOTHING is getting done, but more than half of the country thinks that it’s getting their vote’s worth.
All of this is what made Obama’s most recent trip to Chicago last week so remarkable. He was honest, direct, caring, and actually helpful. It was the president genuinely trying to help the people he was there for, in the best possible way.
Barack was the second Obama to visit Chicago in a week’s span. The First Lady had come to town with White House advisor Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arnie Duncan to pay their respects at the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton. She was the 15-year-old, who was, by all accounts, a great kid. She was shot and killed while sitting in a park with friends a few weeks ago. It was a gang drive-by, and the two teen thugs who are allegedly responsible thought they were shooting someone else.
I was critical of Michelle Obama's trip because the last thing the worst neighborhoods in Chicago need is another drive-by — a political one, that raises neighborhood’s hopes but changes nothing. The pictures look great on television. It makes for a great story in the newspaper. It served as a great backdrop for the president’s ongoing narrative about the evil of guns. After all, it was Mayor Rahm Emmanuel who, in the service of President Obama as his chief of staff, once quipped that a crisis should never go to waste.
Please understand that I do not believe the First Lady, Jarrett, and Duncan don't care. This is their town, too, and I think they care very much. The problem isn’t when they arrive. It’s when they leave. What happens now? The people that live on the South Side and West Side are trying to survive. They need less politics and more answers.
That's why the President's follow-up was such a surprise. The cynics — including me — expected more of the same. We expected another Obama speech blaming the guns and leaving the same question behind: what happens now?
President Obama didn’t give the same old speech. He talked directly to the kids from those neighborhoods. He acknowledged how tough their lives must be. He reminded the children that he was one of them, and that, “as the son of a single mom, who gave everything she had to raise me with the help of my grandparents, I turned out okay,” Obama said. “But at the same time, I wish I had had a father who was around and involved.”
He reminded them they had choices. They didn't have to gang-bang. He told them to have hope, goals, and not give up on themselves. “It does require us, first of all, having a vision about where we want to be. It requires us recognizing that it will be hard work getting there. It requires us being able to overcome and persevere in the face of roadblocks and disappointments and failures,” he said.
“When a child opens fire on another child, there’s a hole in that child’s heart that government can't fill,” the president said. “Only community and parents and teachers and clergy can fill that hole.”
And he said all of this, to these kids, without his trusty teleprompter.
After he finished, reporters spoke with some of the kids seated in the audience during the president’s speech. They said they were all inspired to try to reach their goals and maximize their lives. More importantly, the president had been inspired by them to make that kind of speech, and at least for one afternoon, he was the guy who could use the power of the presidency to positively change lives.
Know this — I'm not suddenly drinking the Kool-aid.
For many of us who are close to giving up on the notion that Obama will do anything right, we need to pause, and give credit where credit is due. The president had one of the best afternoons of his life in Chicago … and almost no one noticed.
Those that did notice weren’t the pundits or the press. It was kids sitting in from of him who noticed. They are the ones who needed him to do something. He did, and they got it.
Now, let me publicly ask President of the United States to be as good as he was in that hour more often. I ask him to lead, to do everything he can for all Americans, not just his 51%.
As long as you have the privilege and power of the office that only 43 others have shared in our 236 year history, be the leader you were in Chicago last Friday.
Remember: all Americans will be better served, if you serve all Americans.