CHICAGO — There are remnants of the Obamas all over their old neighborhood of Hyde Park. Walk east on 53rd Street, and you’ll pass the place where Barack and Michelle first kissed. A bronze marker laid into a stone marks the spot, although the Baskin-Robbins where they met for ice cream has long been shuttered.
Head a few blocks over to 57th Street Books, a cellar bookstore that the Obama family once frequented, and you’ll find a dusty audio copy of the president’s autobiography “Dreams From My Father” on display.
Visit Valois Restaurant — which TripAdvisor’s “President Obama’s neighborhood” walking tour will send you to — and you can order steak and eggs, one of the hearty meals listed on a big poster as among the president’s favorites.
All around these old Obama haunts, Hyde Park — with its tree-lined streets and hip restaurants — hums along without its most famous former residents. Lingering in the air is the acknowledgment, eked out in drips and dribbles over the past year, that the Obamas probably will not call this place their permanent home again.
The couple, who are away on Martha’s Vineyard for their sixth vacation there in recent years, have made places other than Chicago their retreats from the hot light of Washington. They will have spent 16 days on the Vineyard, off Massachusetts, before returning to Washington this weekend. They have not spent extended time in Chicago, and in the past seven years, their longtime home has played more of a peripheral role.
The places that have become associated with the Obamas when they are looking for down time are known as retreats for the wealthy and famous. One is the Vineyard, where they are renting a large compound and escape for private dinners with friends. The president golfs, reads, picks up ice cream with his daughters and the entire family often goes on bike rides.
They also have traveled to the Coachella Valley in California. Michelle Obama was there this summer, in Thunderbird Heights, a community where she and her husband have stayed previously, according to local news reports. The repeated trips to the valley prompted inevitable speculation about whether she was house shopping there. “It’s her second [visit] in a little more than a year and could add more fuel to rumors that the power couple may ultimately move to the Coachella Valley,” the Desert Sun reported.
Each Christmas, the Obamas head to the president’s native state of Hawaii, a longtime tradition. Thanksgiving has been spent in Washington for the past several years when their large extended family comes to the White House for the holiday.
The first couple’s go-to weekend getaway destinations have been New York, where Michelle Obama has attended Broadway shows, and Florida, where the president has spent time golfing. The Obamas have begun to tell friends that they plan to make the Big Apple their home, said Peter Slevin, author of “Michelle Obama: A Life” and a Chicago resident.
“They’ve probably outgrown Chicago socially and professionally,” said Slevin, who interviewed many of the family’s associates. “Chicago can’t hold them.”
Chicago did, however, help shape them. Michelle Obama was back home this summer to speak at a high school graduation and reminded the students in the audience that she was once one of them.
“I am who I am today because of this community,” she said at the ceremony, held at Chicago State University.
The president, who served as a U.S. senator from Illinois, also spoke movingly about the role Chicago played in his personal story when the couple announced in May that his presidential library and foundation will be built in the city.
“All the strands of my life came together and I really became a man when I moved to Chicago,” Obama said in the announcement video. “That’s where I was able to apply that early idealism to try to work in communities in public service. That’s where I met my wife. That’s where my children were born, and the people there, the community, the lessons that I learned, they are all based right in these few square miles.”
The library is a coup for the city, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the first family will reestablish its home life in town. In some ways, Chicago’s rhythms have become distant to the Obamas, who have flown there mostly for brief stints — to attend a wedding and a funeral, to take in a concert, and to campaign for candidates.
Still, Chicago is a pretty big city; it’s hardly Little Rock, which the Clintons largely abandoned after the White House. Why not just go back home?
New York appears to hold sway for personal and professional reasons.
Barack Obama spent time there while completing his undergraduate degree at Columbia and has written that his time in the city was transformational. His foundation will have a presence in New York as well as Hawaii.
Michelle Obama has established her own professional and personal connections in New York. She spoke this year at the opening ceremony of the Whitney Museum of American Art and attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center, where she hugged the teary-eyed Vogue editor.
Those kinds of connections could prove helpful in the couple’s next act. Additionally, the president and first lady have playfully groused about the harsh Chicago winters.
White House aides are reluctant to speak publicly about the Obamas’ future. They would like the conversation to remain focused on the president’s remaining 16 months in office. But surely the planning has begun. Already, the couple have said they are likely to remain in Washington after the president’s term ends in January 2017. Their youngest daughter, Sasha, will still be in high school and they do not want to uproot her.
Other presidents have left Washington quickly. Tradition holds that as new commanders in chief are inaugurated, the outgoing ones are ferried by helicopter to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and hustled back home, where they live under Secret Service protection. For most heads of state, it was clear where they would be going. Jimmy Carter returned to Georgia; Ronald Reagan to California.
George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, flew to Dallas, where they have been surrounded by longtime friends in a suburban neighborhood. Initially, Bush suggested to Laura that they make their home in Crawford, Tex., where they had built the ranch that served as their retreat from the White House. She nudged him toward a lifestyle that was a tad more cosmopolitan but both were content to return to their home state.
Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is running for president, opted to relocate to New York, where she built her political career and he built the family’s foundation.
The Obamas have indicated that they plan to remain active after they leave the White House, adopting a model that is more activist (like the Clintons) than reserved (like the Bushes). However, it is unlikely that their Chicago ties will be cut as quickly as the Clintons’ ties to Little Rock were. Much of Michelle Obama’s family remains there, as do the causes that ignited Barack Obama’s political career.
Even if they spend more time elsewhere, they may keep a Chicago address.
Does the decision the Obamas make in the coming months about where to live even matter now? Everyone exists in the cloud, right? You carry your office with you in the phone in your pocket. The couple did virtually take Chicago with them to the White House. Michelle Obama’s mother relocated to help care for their two daughters. Their longtime personal trainer began holding sessions for them at the White House. The first lady’s hairstylist, also from Chicago, has traveled the world with her. Friends from back home found jobs in Washington — some at the White House.
Surely the same kind of accommodations could be made wherever the Obamas eventually land.
That is Marcia Chatelain’s hope. The professor, who is teaching history and African American studies at Georgetown University, is a native of Chicago and the author of “South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration,” a book that looks at Chicago’s great migration from the perspective of black girls. Chicago has made its mark on the Obamas regardless of whether they return permanently, she said.
“Barack Obama’s embrace of Chicago and Michelle Obama’s pride in the South Side of Chicago has planted them firmly in the city’s history and their legacy will continue for generations,” Chatelain said in an e-mail. “I think they provided an education to the nation about the richness of the South Side of Chicago, despite its many challenges, and they also shed light on a black, upwardly mobile population that is invisible to many Americans, but has long shaped the city. No matter where their mailing address is, they will have a global impact and the very best of what they have to offer is rooted in Chicago.”
Timuel Black, a longtime Hyde Park resident who was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s political career, also says Chicago’s place in the Obama story is secure. Black, who is 96, helped introduce Obama to ministers in the area when the young man was establishing himself as a community leader. A retired community activist and advocate of Hyde Park-Kenwood, Black has a hard time believing the Obamas will not come back.
“The history of the Obamas in Hyde Park is a permanent kind of thing, and a reminder that in this South Side community there were always opportunities for aspiring young people as the Obamas were and enough support to encourage them,” Black said. “When [the Obamas] come home to visit, they’ll come here.”
In an article she wrote for More magazine this summer, Michelle Obama reminisced over a photo of her family sitting on the porch of their Chicago home just before her husband’s 2008 presidential campaign began. Her daughters were then young girls in ponytails.
“We have really fond memories of Chicago, and some of our best friends still live in the area,” she wrote. “This is still home for us.”
But, the old truism remains: You can’t go home again.