As to Ice, Chicago Still Obama's Kind of Town

D.C. Needs 'Toughness,' President Says

President Barack Obama pauses to gently needle Washington for all but coming to a halt on Wednesday after a dusting of snow and ice. He says school would rarely be scrubbed in hometown Chicago under these conditions. Video by AP
By Daniel de Vise and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 29, 2009

Washingtonians have bickered for decades over whether the region is too quick to close its schools for snow and ice. Now they're arguing over whether one of their newest neighbors, who happens to be president, was right to take sides in the perennial debate.

Either way, President Obama was off to a quick start in fulfilling his promise to embrace Washington's ways. It's a winter pastime for residents to second-guess officials who close schools at the first whiff of winter weather, and the president dived right in.

"My children's school was canceled today," Obama said, speaking to reporters before a meeting with business leaders. "Because of what? Some ice? . . . We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town."

The remarks might have captured Washington's attention as much as anything Obama has said since taking office a week ago. With those offhand comments, the president homed in on the one thing that riles Washingtonians every winter. His words reflected a common sentiment among recent arrivals from up North or out West: The denizens of Washington are weather wimps. Life around the Capital Beltway grinds to a halt for climatic events that would barely register in, say, Chicago.

"While I don't always agree with President Obama's policies, I certainly agree with him on his statement today," said District native Damon Ehrlich of Olney, a father of two.

Some residents have moved here from more southern climes, and there, perhaps, lies the problem. Experience with snow, sleet and ice varies from house to house, from block to block. So why risk it?

"With all due respect for President Obama, the problem with Washington, D.C., is unlike Chicago, we get a lot of ice," said Leslie Darr, a Loudoun County mother of three.

On neighborhood Internet lists, lunch lines and the comments section of, the reaction to the president's remarks was visceral.

In one sense, the president's gripe was understandable. In Chicago, where his daughters previously attended school, the public schools haven't closed for weather since a 1999 ice storm.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said it would take "a hurricane, an avalanche or a tidal wave" to close schools in Chicago, where until recently he was the schools chief. In Washington, the threshold for closure is somewhat lower.

As for Obama, he kept at it. "I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."

And in the afternoon, transfixed by the topic, he was heard to ask someone: "Aren't you a little surprised that they canceled school for my kids?"

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