President Obama’s arrival in the White House two years ago inspired unabashed optimism among civic leaders in the District, who had long yearned for an ally to trumpet their quest for statehood and voting rights in Congress.
As the country’s first black president, Obama’s words and biography suggested an innate appreciation for political disenfranchisement. If anyone could understand the plight of a second-class citizenry, it had to be a former community organizer on Chicago’s South Side.
That Obama has not met those expectations is disappointing enough for those who view the District’s status as nothing less than the deprivation of a basic civil right. But their frustration is magnified by who Obama is and what they wanted from an African American president residing in the nation’s most prominent and predominant black city.
“The expectations were very high that, since he had made human rights an important part of his platform, he would speak out for D.C.,” said Philip Pannell, a former member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee and longtime advocate for statehood. “It seems that President Obama’s heart and his conscience are missing in action.”
Obama is no different than his predecessors. No president has rushed to invest political capital in a city that Republicans have mocked as a symbol of urban dysfunction. What benefit could there be in championing the rights of 600,000 residents of a city with a sordid history of crime and political corruption?
Yet what distinguished Obama from his predecessors was the anticipation his arrival generated. In the past week, the same people who saw hope in Obama’s jaunts across the city just before his inauguration — remember that half-smoke he ate at Ben’s Chili Bowl? — have excoriated him for relegating the District to the status of bargaining chip in a broader budget game with House leaders.
“John, I’ll give you D.C. abortion,” Obama reportedly told House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) before reaching a deal, effectively trading away the city’s right to fund abortions for lowincome women.
The District’s political leadership was infuriated.
In a city in which Obama won 93 percent of the vote, a D.C. Council member threatened to withhold her support in the next presidential election. The city’s congressional delegate shouted an invective on television. The mayor and six council members were handcuffed in a protest on Constitution Avenue.
After his release, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) called Obama’s stance on the abortion issue disheartening. “The District should not be a bargaining chip in budget negotiations at the national level,” he said.
A once iron-clad bond was now frayed.
“This is personal,” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic political strategist. “I believe the president is sincere when he says that he believes in D.C. voting rights and home rule. But, as you know, D.C. residents like proof.”
Mark Plotkin, a WTOP political commentator who has made District statehood something of an obsession, said he sees little to distinguish Obama from his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush angered voting rights advocates by refusing to place the D.C. “Taxation Without Representation” license plate on the presidential limousine. Obama also has not added the plate to his limousine.
“The greatest assault is indifference, and he has the hubris to take us for granted,” Plotkin said of Obama. “He went to Cairo to talk about democracy. He won’t go to Brentwood or Deanwood. He has not made one utterance about D.C. to D.C. in D.C.”
Asked about Obama’s relationship with the District, Hannah August, a White House spokeswoman, said: “Given the severe impact of a government shutdown on the Washington, D.C., economy, the president is confident that the budget agreement that he reached with congressional Republicans is not just in the best interests of the American people, but also the best interests of District residents.”
In North Michigan Park, among the city’s most politically active neighborhoods, the feeling is the budget compromise left the District in a “bad position,” said Ernest Harris, a retired federal employee.
“I didn’t expect him to just be able to do everything that we might want him to do. I understood that he wasn’t just the black president,” said Harris, 74. “But in terms of D.C., he’s throwing us under the bus. He caved too easily. He should have stood up. I know statehood and full representation is a long way off, but he’s taking us for granted. And he can’t do that anymore. . . . I’m not sure if I’m going to vote for him again over this.”
Presidents have long had a tenuous relationship with their host city. Richard M. Nixon ventured into the District in the early days of his first term, when he went to inspect the remnants of the 1968 riots along Seventh Street NW. Bill Clinton, as president-elect, went for a stroll along Georgia Avenue and then spent most of his next eight years here inside the White House. For a rare night on the town, George W. Bush preferred a Mexican restaurant in Virginia.
Beyond the marbled monuments, the District has not always provided an illustrious backdrop, whether it was when Marion Barry was caught smoking crack on videotape or when the city’s homicide rate earned it the title “Murder Capital,” or when the government fell into bankruptcy and Congress ordered its spending monitored by a financial control board.
Even as memories linger, the District is not the same city it was a generation ago. Since moving to the White House, Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have gone about town, whether to their daughter’s soccer games or to eat in restaurants or visit public schools.
The president has expressed support for the District’s cause, his strongest statement uttered as a Democratic candidate when he said, “Residents of Washington, D.C., shouldn’t be treated as tenants, fortunate enough to share the same space as our government.”
Obama was more cautious after his victory, describing himself as a “strong proponent” of voting rights even as he added that “this takes on a partisan flavor, and, you know, right now I think our legislative agenda is chock- full.”
A year ago, while commemorating D.C. Emancipation Day, Obama issued a statement that said in part: “I urge Congress to finally pass legislation that provides D.C. residents with voting representation and to take steps to improve the Home Rule Charter.”
That’s not enough for Robert Jenifer, 76, a Brookland resident who said he thinks that the District’s overwhelming support of Obama has not paid any dividends.
“He probably looks at the District and sees us as automatically supporting him because he’s our first black president,” Jenifer said. “But if you look, on many things, he doesn’t seem like he’s for us. So you have to look at it like your wife says to you: ‘What have you done for me lately?’ ”
If D.C. civic leaders want more from Obama, they might be setting a demand that’s impossible to meet in this highly partisan town and for a president managing a full slate of national and international affairs, including two wars.
Even when Democrats held the White House and majorities in the House and Senate, advocates for the District were unable to advance their voting rights agenda.
“Nothing runs more deeply in American ideals than the promise of self-government and voting rights,” said American University law professor Jamie B. Raskin, a Maryland state senator from Montgomery County. “But nothing runs more deeply in American politics than the idea of keeping some people from voting and participating.”
What might be required to enact change, Raskin said, is a “mass movement of protest to test the conscience of the nation. It’s clear that President Obama does not intend to be the personal leader of a liberation struggle. He’s dealing with multiple crises. . . . This is not a crisis until the people of Washington make it one.”
Yet, Raskin added, the city’s traditional role and demographics “make it tricky.” While longtime residents make up a sizable portion of the population, many are transients, as has been the case since the District was established as the nation’s capital.
That complicated reality hasn’t stopped the District’s quest for autonomy, which reached a historic milestone in the early 1970s with Congress’s enactment of home rule. D.C. voters could choose their mayor and council, but the District could not enact a budget or other significant legislation without congressional review.
The quest for self-determination endures. A voting rights proposal died in Congress two years ago when Republicans made its passage contingent on repealing the city’s gun-control laws.
“Historically, it’s not an easy road, regardless of who’s in the White House,” said Douglas Patton, a former D.C. deputy mayor. “It’s just the history of presidents. Not second-class citizens.”
Staff writer Chris L. Jenkins contributed to this report.