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With the Obama family’s arrival in D.C. this month, locals have revived the old transition tradition of speculating about how the new president will interact with his half-million-plus new neighbors. And this time, the oft-shunned city is optimistic that, as Mayor Adrian Fenty puts it, “he won’t be a president who just happens to live in the White House.”
Obama has already gotten plenty of advice. He should embrace the community. He should frequent troubled neighborhoods. He should stop by public schools. He should have public school students stop by the White House. He should use his office to help local cops, social workers, and teachers. And by all means, he should slap a taxation without representation license plate on his limo. A day after the election, the most loyal of the District’s loyalists told Politico how the 44th president could show his bona fides. “Go to our restaurants, attend neighborhood functions,” WTOP political analyst Mark Plotkin advised. Plotkin’s goal for the new president is to “portray the city as a real place where [585,000] people live.”
The best way for Obama to do just that is to ignore pretty much all of the above advice. Be a president, in other words, who just happens to live in the White House.
Nowhere is my hometown’s uneasy sense of itself on greater display than in its attitude toward the residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. One minute, local patriots are asserting D.C.’s right to run its own affairs without the federal government bossing them around. The next, they’re beseeching the head of that government to show up at block parties or butt into fire department budget debates as if he were the Ward 2 Councilmember.
If Obama were a newcomer ascending to a top job in any other one-industry town—an incoming studio boss moving to Hollywood or a General Motors CEO landing in Detroit—the gawking might be limited to the standard social-climbing questions: Whose children will go to school with the new boss’ kids? Which restaurateur’s kitchen will serve his favorite meal? Which hostess’ living room sofa will seat the first posterior?
In D.C., though, such curiosity inevitably elides into more uniquely Washingtonian territory. The basic theme: What will the new president do to recognize, um, us?
The neediness of the question speaks volumes about the Washingtonian condition. All D.C. natives know, but won’t admit, that the rest of the country sees their town as a giant marble theater of national politics without any residents. The District compensates via the “neighborhood history” tourism come-on, pleading with visitors to check out some of our neighborhoods—so real! Where locals delude themselves, though, is in thinking there’s anything unique about this plight. Orlando is a real place whose middle-class neighborhoods have ethnic eateries, too. Did you visit them on your last trip there? No. You were stuffing your face in the Magic Kingdom.
The paranoid delusion is understandable given Washington’s history: A majority-minority city denied self-determination, it’s a place where voters feel the consequences of their national invisibility quite acutely. Thus our eternal quest for somebody—a president, say—to tell the world that we exist. “Go to our restaurants,” in such a context, is more than a culinary suggestion.
Like many such epics, D.C.’s has its own lost-cause mythology. In local lore, few events loom larger than the fabled Georgia Avenue Stroll, a 1992 visit by president-elect Bill Clinton to a pre-gentrification stretch of the avenue. “There’s a city out here, a city that needs a president,” Clinton said during his brief visit. But in classic lost-cause fashion, he soon lost interest in residential Washington. His successor was worse, combining anti-urban politics with an inclination to stay home at night.
So now Obama arrives: Not just a Democrat but a big-city Democrat, not just a big-city Democrat but a big-city African American Democrat. The expectations are huge. “I really do believe that I have a partner in the new president,” D.C. Councilmember Tommy Wells told the Washington Post. “He will be a president who will see the issues of the city and want to do something about them,” Fenty has said.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t seeing the issues of the city and doing something about them actually Fenty’s job? Sure, Obama ought to be offering him help—just as he should to Fenty’s colleagues in Kansas City or Philadelphia or San Diego. But implying that the guy at 16th and Pennsylvania has some special benefactor obligation to Washingtonians reinforces the idea that the city is a ward of Uncle Sam—the idea local pols have spent 30 years trashing.
Same goes for the barbecues and barber shops and bars Obama’s being encouraged to frequent. A mayor might feel obligated to dine in some far-flung neighborhood of his city in order to show the flag. A president—or any other newcomer who’s arrived to take a 120-hour-a-week, six-figure job—need only go for one reason: because the food’s good. Perhaps that was the thinking behind his visit last weekend to Ben’s Chili Bowl. Let’s hope so, for to behave differently just to please the dainty locals would be Exhibit A in any argument that Washington isn’t, in fact, a real place.
None of this is to say that Obama should abandon his promises on urban issues or adopt a Bush-like social life. Quite the contrary: His politics were why he won so big in both D.C. and any number of non-federal cities. Likewise, part of his appeal is the sense that he’s an energetic, cosmopolitan sort—the type who’d venture out of the bubble for a bite in some non-stuffy local establishment every now and then.
So if Obama wants to respect his new home, the best way to do so would be to be himself. Try a thought experiment: Instead of moving here to be president of the United States, picture him moving here for a different nice new job—the president, say, of PEPCO. As a result, he’d live not in the presidential bubble but in some D.C. neighborhood, one of those genuine places we natives like to tout. What would he do with his free time? Volunteer in the community? Use his day job to mentor local kids? Go out to eat? Stay home and watch TV? Stroll where Clinton strolled on Georgia Avenue? If so, that’s what he should do as president. If not, skip it. That’s how 585,000 residents of the real D.C. make their decisions, after all.