President Barack Obama has had a personal connection to many of the causes he’s championed through his presidency. He often invoked his mother’s experiences with cancer while he advocated for the Affordable Care Act. He reminds voters he and Michelle only recently finished paying back their own students loans when he pushes for Pell grants and other education funding. He lost his composure when he addressed the nation on the day of the Newtown school shootings, saying he couldn’t help reacting as a parent.
And it turns out his early brushes with gun violence on Chicago’s South side may have planted the seed for some of the policies he’s pursuing today. That’s what Lisa Lerer chronicled in a new report.
In the spring of 1986, a grassroots organizer named Barack Obama was walking through a trash-strewn playground on Chicago’s South Side when the sound of gunshots pierced the air.
Obama ducked and glanced nervously at John Owens, an activist working for a local nonprofit, who was giving him a tour of the neighborhood’s parks. “He said: ‘You hear that? Whoa’,” Owens, recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘Well, he hasn’t been around here very long’.”
Lerer joined PoliticsNation on Wednesday to talk about her reporting. ”This was a startling experience for the president,” she said. “Here he was, basically a middle class kid who went to a prep school in Hawaii, all of the sudden as a community organizer he’s operating in some inner city neighborhoods of Chicago and hearing bullets whizzing by him.”
But that experience shapes his approach to poverty more than to gun control, she argues. “You see him taking, just as he did then, a holistic approach with his ‘promise zones.’ He’s looking to coordinate programs in education and housing, and target communities that really need that kind of help,” she said, “and that’s what he tried to do back in the 80’s when he was working in Chicago, of course on a much smaller, more local level.”
Some of Obama’s colleagues who worked with him during his Chicago organizing days have been puzzled at his lack of action in his first term on these issues they know he cared about. As Lerer explained, “While people on the south side of Chicago are happy that he’s getting involved now, they certainly would like to see him more.”