Though this fact may disappoint the most nativist of New Yorkers, Barack Obama is not the first American president of the last half-century to have lived in New York City before taking the oath of office. In 1927, a 10-year-old John F. Kennedy moved with his family to Riverdale and spent a few years there before heading off to boarding school; in 1944, a young Army captain named Ronald Reagan was briefly stationed in the city for the sixth War Loan Drive. Richard Nixon lived here, too, both before and after his presidency, and George Herbert Walker Bush spent two years in the city back in the early seventies, when he served as ambassador to the United Nations.
The crucial difference is that all of these men, though they may have lived in New York, were never really of New York. This city did not help make them who they were. Barack Obama, on the other hand, deliberately chose New York as a young man, transferring his junior year from Occidental College to Columbia, and all one has to do is crack the binding of Dreams From My Father to appreciate the authenticity of his experience. It’s all right there in chapter one, paragraph one, sentence four. “The apartment was small,” he writes, “with slanting floors and irregular heat and a buzzer downstairs that didn’t work, so that visitors had to call ahead from a pay phone at the corner gas station, where a black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle.” Before readers have even turned the page, he’s mentioned his stoop, his fire escape, and the Knicks.
It’s an article of GOP faith that big cities, New York especially, corrupt their denizens, while small towns deepen their integrity. But for Obama, the very opposite seemed to be true. “I stopped getting high,” he writes. “I ran three miles a day and fasted on Sundays. For the first time in years, I applied myself to my studies and started keeping a journal of daily reflections and very bad poetry.” Perhaps more important, though, New York of the early eighties contributed mightily to Obama’s political awakening. While he marveled at the city’s boom-boom vigor (“the beauty, the filth, the noise, and the excess, all of it dazzled my senses”), he also saw, in all their lurid ugliness, the city’s deep gulfs between black and white, privileged and poor, which in turn revealed to him a bad need for common ground. “Whether because of New York’s density or because of its scale,” he writes, “it was only now that I began to grasp the almost mathematical precision with which America’s race and class problems joined … It was as if all middle ground had collapsed, utterly.”
That middle ground is precisely where he built his presidential campaign just over two decades later.
Obama didn’t settle in New York, ultimately. After four years, he left for Chicago. But Obama is the first president since Kennedy who’s psychically, if not ancestrally, urban. He has an intuitive feel for cities. The résumé item that rolled so disparagingly off the tongues of Republicans during their convention—“He’s a community organizer”—wasn’t just a knock on his experience but his big-city life. It’s hard to think of another president in recent memory who could play a ferocious game of pickup basketball. Or would reach for a smoke in times of stress. And one could certainly never imagine Barack Obama retiring on a ranch.
One would be hard-pressed to name so much as five New Yorkers who served at any time over the course of the Bush administration (off the top of my head: Ari Fleischer, sort of, and Colin Powell). Obama’s team is already brimming with them, and he hasn’t even been inaugurated. There’s Eric Holder, headed for Justice, and Tim Geithner, headed for Treasury, and Hillary Clinton, headed for State. If Adolfo Carrión is made HUD secretary, that’s four Cabinet officials who’ll be from this city, and he’s only announced seven. Patrick Gaspard, the former lead political operative at the health-care-workers union, was just announced as White House political director. Paul Volcker spent almost his entire professional life in New York when he wasn’t in Washington. Even David Axelrod, the mustachioed ex-newsman who steered Obama to victory, didn’t start his life in Chicago, as much as he seems like one of the original Da Bears! enthusiasts from Saturday Night Live. He attended Stuyvesant High School. He grew up, in fact, on the Lower East Side.
Much has happened to East 94th Street since Obama moved out of his apartment at No. 339. Young professionals have taken over his building, for one thing. Some Realtors have also decided to include the area in their definition of Carnegie Hill. And in the early nineties, a luxury hotel, the Marmara Manhattan, opened just a few doors down the street. (When I recently phoned and inquired about the cheapest room, I was told it was $319 per night.) The neighborhood, clearly, has brighter prospects ahead. And so, at long last, do we.