US presidential elections 2012: In Chicago for Obama’s return

Camden New Journal 8 November, 2012

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“WE are a nanosecond away from losing the greatest thing God put on this Earth… America.”

Joe Walsh, a badger-haired Republican Congressman who had ridden into office on the wave of Tea Party frustration a couple of years ago was mid-sermon, his voice straining only from a chatterbox hoarseness and still busy pulling familiar levers of fear.

“If you believe in a freedom, in limited government, if you believe in the power of churches and businesses and families, Illinois is a tough, tough state to live in,” he rasped.

Here Walsh was – 25 miles west of the conference centre in Chicago where Barack Obama was preparing to deliver a second presidential winner’s speech – explaining to his own victory party why he had lost, why he had been unseated from Congress in a crushing night of elections for like-minded Americans.

His supporters had spent Tuesday evening at the Shriners Medinah ballroom in Addison, watching defeat unfold on big screens. This is where the first shoots of Republican support are supposed to blossom beyond the strong, historic Democrat attachment inside Chicago.

The wine flowed and, for some of the most soggy-eyed losers, newscasters and pundits suddenly became “stoopid assssoles” with each report of Republican defeat. There was a stabbing wail when it was suggested that Obama had taken Florida.

When Walsh’s victorious Democrat opponent Tammy Duckworth, a US veteran who lost both her legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, then appeared on the projector there was heckling and the feed was switched to a shopping channel.

It’s not like in England where local candidates are brought together on stage for a final shake of hands and cordial thank-you speeches.

They are kept apart and trickling results are sent to these wrap parties set up for the candidates. Walsh tried to gee up the room with some “awwrights” that Neil Kinnock would have died for, but you could almost breathe in the awkward disappointment inside the Medinah, a curious enough location owned by a society of do-gooders known for wearing fezzes and helping children’s charities. A giant stone sculpture of a man in a fez, a shriner, stands outside.

Walsh is what Democrats would describe as the worst sort of Republican, outspoken on abortion, embroiled in a row over child support payments and happy to commit a baseline election sin of suggesting Duckworth talked too much about her war injuries.

In other areas Tea Party firebrands lost just as much for their social commentary as their uncompromising fiscal ideas and hopes for smaller government, reduced to panto villains in front of their own supporters. His defeat snagged national coverage.

Walsh’s downfall was one of the closest things to a contest – millions of dollars were spent on the battle just for a Congress seat – in this part of America where the Democrats are assured of electoral college votes in favour of the hometown hero, Obama.

As we drove back into downtown Chicago from Walsh’s party/wake late on Tuesday night, Mitt Romney was finally conceding the presidential election. There was no party in the park as had greeted Obama’s win four years ago, although drizzling rain did not stop people gathering in front of their own outside big screen.

In the student bars close to the university where Obama once worked as a professor, people whooped and cheered at the televisions behind the bar with a unity you probably wouldn’t find in London.

You can’t imagine a pub full of people wearing Cameron or Miliband T-shirts.

From the screen was another silver tongue pushing the right buttons, skirting, smoothing around the lack of deeper debate beyond a menu of centrist politics you’d expect a student audience to demand.

Cynics here (and further afield) suggest there’s not that much between red and blue in the middle ground, and that emotional students and the hipsters in the north side brunch queues are blinded by the symbolism of a black president.

The city is as segregated as it was four years ago. In rough southern neighbourhoods, gang activity does not mean grabbing a mobile phone or small-stakes weed-dealing.

People get shot, killed and it’s not really news. Life isn’t valued and there is no fear at shooting back at police. It’s enough to re-evaluate what we consider gangs to be in Camden.

The armchair cliché that neighbourhoods like Englewood, with its pretty blatant street corner hustlers, looks like an episode of The Wire rings true and clangs with messages of hope.

We drove for several miles over the weekend, through desolate streets of busted businesses, pot-holed roads and empty homes, in these poorer areas without seeing a white face.

In the richer areas, lovely places to be on the north side, you could do the same in reverse.

With ObamaCare health insurance reforms yet to properly kick in, it is hard for anybody living in the south to see how having a black president (whose smart house in Hyde Park is in one of the few areas of the city where white and black live together) has magically helped their lot. It would be patronising to assume that they had assumed it would have worked out any other way.

There is noticeable pride that Obama comes from Chicago – one over on New York – and moreover that he isn’t a white fud, but soulful speeches have yet to translate to cure for a city’s deeply entrenched ills. Where individual neighbourhoods have improved, it hasn’t involved much racial integration, just gentrification and rising rents.

It was late on Tuesday by the time I ran into somebody who voted for anybody other than Obama or Romney.

A green voter.

She explained how the gameboard was tilted against anybody who tried to shift the debate with the need for thousands of nominations just to get on a Congress ballot paper.

Incumbents do not need to jump through the same hoops and this all before the extreme battle of funds begins and the crippling cost of airtime.

A debate in Chicago last week involving all of the alternative presidential candidates – do you know any of their names? – dropped through the news columns unnoticed.

For those who might be concerned by that here, it was of higher importance that Mittmageddon was avoided, the Tea Party cracked and men considered dangerous, like Joe Walsh, sent packing.

Here Obama had done enough to earn more than a few nanoseconds to show Chicago there is better to come.

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