x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Washington needs you, Mr Obama

Our correspondent Richard Pretorius writes an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama.

Ben's Chili Bowl is a melting pot of Washington.
Ben's Chili Bowl is a melting pot of Washington.

To: Mr president-elect Barack Obama From: A longtime Washington resident Re: Being a good neighbour Order a half-smoke (akin to a plump, spicy hot dog) and get to know the people at Ben's Chili Bowl. Celebrating its 50th anniversary, Ben's is in the heart of what was once known as the Black Broadway. It survived the riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr's assassination, the white flight to the suburbs, the digging up of the surrounding neighbourhood to build the subway system and the crack-fuelled drug wars. Now, as the U Street neighbourhood is regentrifying, Ben's is one of the city's true melting pot hangout spots. Pull up a seat next to a Hispanic lawyer, a black postal worker or a white lobbyist.

Serve a meal to a homeless person at Miriam's Kitchen, about a 15-minute walk from the White House. The homeless can be found all over your new neighbourhood, often sleeping on heating grates in freezing weather. They deserve your attention and commitment to help, too. Visit Ballou High School, where nearly 80 per cent of the students are so poor they qualify for a government-paid-for lunch. Thousands of DC residents are hoping you will be an important part of the city's make-up, believing your wife when she said as much on 60 Minutes. Michelle said you both believe you "can have an impact in the DC area in terms of making sure we are contributing to the community we immediately live in".

You have had an apartment in Washington since you joined the US Senate. But with the family staying in Chicago and you spending much of the past two years running for president, the city's residents do not really know what kind of neighbour you will be. During your Senate term, one would be hard pressed to find any news of your involvement in the affairs of the city. Word comes that you plan to head back to your home in Chicago. Please remember Mrs Obama's words and treat the District of Columbia as your home, too. Rest assured Washingtonians do like you; 93 per cent of those who voted in November picked you over John McCain. DC residents understand you will be busy trying to solve the economic crisis and dealing with foreign policy and other issues that demand a president's attention. However - and this is a big however - the average Washingtonian would like to have a president who does not divide the city between them and the ruling elite with their Embassy Row parties, traffic-blocking Secret Service-escorted motorcades and incessant babble about the real people of America living somewhere else. Sarah Palin obviously had her head in an Alaska glacier when touting such nonsense about who are the Real Americans.

Adrian Fenty, the Washington mayor, was one of your earliest supporters. He will surely tell you that the problems he deals with every day are as real as they get: nearly one in five of the city's residents lives in poverty, with 32 per cent of the children doing so, the highest child poverty rate in the US. The HIV/Aids and infant mortality rates are also among the worst in the nation's big cities. With the crack-related violence waning in recent years, Washington can no longer lay claim to the title of US murder capital. But violent crime is still more than three times the national average.

Coming from Chicago, a much bigger city, and having started your career in community service, you are obviously aware of the shameful plight of inner-city youths. This year, more than 3,122 of them have been arrested in Washington, up eight per cent from 2007. Only 59 per cent of them graduate from high school after four years, a staggering dropout rate that is in no small way connected to the city having the nation's highest incarceration rate as well.

Of course, many DC residents were disappointed you decided not to send your young children to public school. What a symbolic show of support for the city's troubled school system that would have been. You do earn points for saying during the last debate with Mr McCain that Michelle Rhee, the "wonderful new" school chancellor, is "working very hard with the young mayor there" to turn public education around.

No one can honestly fault you for picking Sidwell Friends. The private Quaker school is greatly experienced in educating and dealing with the security needs of the sons and daughters of politicians and diplomats. Chelsea Clinton is a graduate, and Sidwell has a sterling reputation of producing well-rounded youths. Students of colour make up nearly 40 per cent of the enrolment. Post-racial might be the label applied to you and Fenty, the mayor. But Washington, a majority African-American city, celebrated with special pride on your historic night. They will expect you and your wife to be more a part of the community than any of your predecessors.

When Bill Clinton walked Georgia Avenue, long the scarring image of the blighted inner city, filled with liquor stores, cheque-cashing places and takeaway food joints, a few weeks after winning the election in 1992, he raised hopes that his presidency would be different - that he would truly care about local concerns as well as national and international ones. But as Mary Levy, of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Right and Urban Affairs, said: "Democrats tend to start off with attention to DC, but it fades very quickly. Part of that is, political reality sets in." Meaning, of course, that there are only so many hours in a day and a president's time is limited.

Do make time for the city; it will offer you much in return. And remember to drop by Ben's. Washingtonians are glad to have you as a neighbour. rpretorius@thenational.ae