Chicago, once Obama's land of hope, is uncertain about political change

The Washington Post's Philip Rucker journeys across America talkingwith voters to get to the heart of this volatile moment in Americanpolitics.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2010; 2:11 PM

Seven days. Seven states. In the final week of the campaign, Philip Rucker makes a mad dash across America listening to what voters have to say.

CHICAGO - Two years ago, this was the city of hope. Chicago gave rise to one of the most inspirational political candidates the nation had seen in a half-century.

Today, Illinois is host to one of the nastiest, most bitter Senate races in the country, to say nothing of the stain of former governor Rod Blagojevich's ongoing saga since being arrested on federal corruption charges.

You might assume the hope here has evaporated, that Chicago has been humbled and is now the city of cynicism. Yet people walking through Grant Park downtown here on a crisp Friday afternoon said they still harbored hope that the country could move past old partisan politics - even if some of the great expectations that flowed from Barack Obama's 2008 election night victory speech in this lakefront park seem to have gone unrealized.

"I was hopeful about politics in 2008," said Michael O'Leary, 39, a structural engineer who like hundreds of thousands of other Chicagoans came to Grant Park after work that night to celebrate Obama's election. "I don't think that is gone. . . . I remain hopeful about politics. But I don't think I had unrealistic expectations. I think some people did have unrealistic expectations in 2008."

O'Leary, a Democrat who said he voted for Obama, said some people expected change to happen overnight. "Politics involves people jockeying for position," he said. "It's not just like revolution. If it was a revolution, then there would be blood on the streets - and I'm glad there's not blood on the streets."

A prevailing narrative of the 2010 midterm elections has been the disappearance of hope - that the good feelings Americans had about their politics were only momentary and have been erased by a ransacked economy and an all-too-slow recovery.

Sure, the electorate is angry and disillusioned. Poll after poll shows trust in government and satisfaction with Congress's performance as low as they have been in decades. And the negative feelings pervade both political parties.

But the story is not so neat - at least not here in Obama's home town of Chicago.

"It just seems that the country is so divided and there's so much volatile rhetoric. But I don't understand it. I happen to be a person of hope," said Storey Shearer, 66, a cashier at an automotive service center, strolling through the park on her day off on her way to an art museum.

Kim Vacek, 31, a psychologist, said she, too, remains optimistic.

"I am still hopeful and I trust in [Obama's] genuineness and in his belief for change," Vacek said, resting on a park bench during her lunch break. "I just think a lot of the systems in America - the educational system, for example - feel so immovable at times."

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