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Chicago: Black voters discuss Obama

Mark Mardell | 08:58 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

Painting of Barack Obama at barber shopAntonio's scissors click and clack across the top of my head. I've decided the Obama cut ($21) wouldn't do anything for me. I am content to have a regular trim in the Hyde Park Hair Salon in Chicago, a virtual shrine to its most famous customer. I'm sitting at the front, opposite the very barber's chair where Obama used to sit: it is now enclosed in a glass case. Above it hangs a large painting of the man himself in the chair.

"He's one of those guys who come in and hang out. When you come in a barber's shop, it's a manly camaraderie sort of thing, and he fits right in. None of that 'Be quiet, he's come in'," says Antonio. He jokes that like all presidents, Obama has gone grey in office.

And he admits that, a year since the president moved into the White House, the economy doesn't feel much better:

"I don't think so. I don't feel the effects, but a lot of my clients are losing their jobs, a lot have moved away, trying to find something else. But I don't put the blame on Obama, I put it on the previous administration. It takes a long while to clean out a closet, and that's what he's doing. By the time we start feeling the effects of President Obama and what he wanted to do, he'll be out of office. It takes a while."

Hairdresser AntonioOther customers seem to agree. Monday is Martin Luther King Day and I've been in Chicago, in part, to find out how black Americans feel the president has done, almost a year on. The pride in a role model who isn't a rapper or an athlete is as strong as ever. Those being shaved and shorn don't reflect the sort of discontent reflected in the opinion polls.

One customer continues with the image of politics as hygiene:

"A lot of work left to do. It's like cleaning up after someone threw a party in your house. It's pretty easy to mess up a house, it's a lot harder to get it back into order. It's obvious the president before him disrupted things and made a mess, and Obama has the job of mopping, washing, cleaning."

One man is not entirely happy:

"A little concern. The health care plan he's put forth - in a perfect society, it would work out. But there's a lot of that he's trying to do that's kind of aggressive, and I am not sure its going to pan out in his favour. But I hope it does."

Another urges patience:

"He's doing okay, real good. It takes a little time, but he's coming along. The economy is still struggling - but a couple of years, and it'll be back on track."

Few African-Americans have a really harsh word to say about Obama as a man; of course, some don't share his politics. I travel to the other side of town in the evening where a bar is hosting a get-together for Young Republicans.

The only black face I see here is that of Issac Hayes. Not the musician, although this Mr Hayes may also be famous one day. He is running for Congress, and his party has set him something of a mission impossible: taking Illinois District 2 from Jesse Jackson Junior. He tells me:

"He brought inspiration, him and his family, to the White House. I am proud to have a black president - America is proud, but that's not the issue. He's brought change, but it's not the right kind of change. He's allowed the left to pull him off his campaign promise to work with both sides of the aisle. I don't think he believes in American exceptionalism: he's been on an apology tour round the world, and I don't agree with that."

Mr Hayes says that the poor in the area he wants to represent have not been helped by Democratic Party politics.

"They would be better with a conservative in the White House and a conservative in Congress. The district has a 98% poverty rate. Allowing people to have more money in their pockets is the first important thing and then when business has more money they can put people to work. George Bush, when he had a recession, he cut taxes and created five million jobs, that's what he wants to do."

As Obama approaches a year in office, the mass media is and will be full of check lists of promises kept and targets achieved, but what struck me in Chicago is that most people had rather less frenetic expectations.  

In a country that demands instant gratification in politics as in everything else, the African-Americans I spoke to repeated that change can't happen overnight.

Rev Leon FinneyReverend Leon Finney has worked in the poorer parts of Chicago for a good while. He not only founded the Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church but heads up The Woodlawn Organisation (TWO).

He goes way back with the man who is now president. He first knew Barack Obama when he became a community organiser, then worked with him as a lawyer and supported him as he moved first onto the local political stage and then went national.

Dr Finney tells me that speaking as one of Jesse Jackson's campaign managers in 1988, he thinks it is a minor miracle that Obama made it to the White House at all.

He admits that in this area there's been little tangible change.

"We have a nation that wanted to see change overnight as if you could flick the telly with the remote control and all of a sudden there is change. It's not going to happen. It didn't happen."

But, he says, because of their history, black Americans are patient.

"We are very proud. We are elated. Maybe, somewhat underemployed and unemployed still, but we have a lot of hope. You have to remember more than any other ethnic group the African-American population has learned to live with hardship and survive the harshest of situations. 'Last hired, first fired' is nothing new for the African-American community. My sense is that we are used to the rigours and better able to adapt and less frightened (by the recession) than our brothers and sisters of different colours."

The day before his murder, Martin Luther King said he had been allowed to go to the top of the mountain and glimpsed the promised land. Much of what I heard in Chicago echoes that leader's belief in slow but inexorable progress.

PS: An earlier version of this post appeared with the last half missing - apologies for the error.

Tomorrow: discontent with the president.


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