Once Barack H. Obama (D) passes the presidential baton to Donald J. Trump (R) on Jan. 20, his presence will be missed mightily by D.C. residents and leaders. “President Obama was tremendous for the city,” D.C. Council member Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7) told the AFRO.
Gray served as mayor of the District from 2011-2015 and complimented the 44th president for his support of the city. “He visited our restaurants and neighborhoods,” Gray said. “He embraced our city in many ways that other presidents hadn’t. His predecessor, George W. Bush, was in the city but not of the city.”
Obama has long been a popular figure in the District. When he was a candidate for president in 2008, he won the Feb. 12 Democratic presidential preference primary with 75 percent of the vote, followed distantly by Hillary R. Clinton with 23 percent. In the historic Nov. 4, 2008 general election, Obama took the District decisively with 92 percent of the vote and in his bid for re-election in 2012, he did slightly worse on Nov. 6 of that year with 90.91 percent of the vote.
The Obamas dined in the city’s restaurants such as Ben’s Chili Bowl and Ray’s Hell Burger and did volunteer work with charities during the Thanksgiving holidays. Both President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama visited the District’s public schools, championing various academic causes and to announce progress in the administration’s educational goals.
The president, a sports fan, went to Howard University’s Burr Gymnasium on Nov. 27, 2010, to see his brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, coach the victorious Oregon State Beavers men’s basketball team over the Bison, 84-74.
One of the first places Obama came to dine was at Ben’s Chili Bowl’s famous U Street, N.W. location. Virginia Ali, co-founder of the eatery, told the AFRO she remembers the visit well. “It was a pleasure to have the president visit our restaurant while he was president-elect and Adrian Fenty was the mayor,” Ali said. “He seemed to enjoy himself and the staff was thrilled he was here.”
Ali said her restaurant must have made a positive impression because another high profile guest visited over a year later. “President Obama did recommend that France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy eat here,” she said. “They came by and had a good time. Obama’s presidency will be known as a major time for us.”
Vincent Orange, District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce president and former D.C. Council member representing Ward 5 and at-large, told the AFRO that the District was in an economic boom, “still going on today,” when Obama took office in 2009 and “[he] was a factor” in the city’s continuing growth. “He didn’t interfere with the work of the [D.C. Mayor Anthony] Williams administration in its plans to grow the population of the city,” Orange said.
However, Orange said, Obama provided symbolism more powerful than economic growth.
“President Obama showed that the Black family can work,” he said. “During his presidency, there were no major scandals and he showed that a Black man can go to work and work hard. He also kept this country safe.”
Ralph Chittams Sr., senior vice chairman of the District of Columbia Republican Party, disagrees with Obama on every major policy issue. What Chittams does agree with Orange on is Obama’s symbolism. “The biggest positive of Obama for D.C. and the country is the inspiration that he provided to people,” Chittams told the AFRO. “He proved to them that anything is achievable. That will be his biggest legacy to millions of people.”
The Obamas will stay in the District for at least two years after Jan. 20, so that Sasha Obama can graduate from high school at Sidwell Friends. Ali said she hopes to see Obama again. “I hope he stops by Ben’s as he settles into his post-presidency life,” she said, noting that he can eat there free.