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May 22, 2024

The U.S. Department of War established the Bureau of the Colored Troops in 1863, an effort to help the Union Army in the Civil War.

President Obama and the District

POSTED: December 10, 2008, 12:00 am

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Historically the President of the United States has had a complicated relationship with the city of Washington, D.C. The expectation of a Barack Obama White House is different as residents and community leaders anticipate more outreach from the POTUS.

The President's relationship with Washington, D.C., has always been a little arms-length. Dwight D. Eisenhower sought to set a national example by making D.C. schools and public areas, like restrooms and waiting areas, the first to integrate after the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. No other president in the 208 years since the federal government moved to Washington can claim to have made a significant impact on the city where he lived and served.

In 1992, Bill Clinton visited some struggling businesses in a predominantly Black neighborhood a few miles from the White House. Residents welcomed him. It was not lost on residents that it was a first. Later, at a dinner party in Georgetown, Clinton said during a toast, "I hope to bring more of the country to the capital and more of the capital to the country." The Clintons socialized some in D.C., and Hillary and Chelsea Clinton were active in a local church. But, overall, their efforts continued a long tradition of very little outreach in the heart of the city. Observers say George W. Bush has been even less involved in the "other Washington," as some call the urban areas on the periphery of the memorials and marble columned buildings that define D.C. for the outside.

“The White House's level of involvement in D.C. is particularly important to the city's Black residents.”

The White House's level of involvement in D.C. is particularly important to the city's Black residents. Though Washington has a large, long-established Black middle-class, many of its Black residents live in the city's most blighted neighborhoods and attend the city's worst schools. Because the Obama's are Black and because D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty was a very early and enthusiastic supporter of the Obama campaign, the expectation is great from many residents for the incoming first family to have a different relationship with the community. "I do expect them to be extremely active, engaged members of the Washington, D.C., community — as they have been in Chicago," Fenty recently noted in reaction to a question about Mr. Obama. "I know he won't be a president who just happens to live in the White House. He will be a president who will see the issues of the city and want to do something about them."

One of the biggest issues for D.C. residents is voting rights. The city’s presidential votes count in the Electoral College, and in 1973 they were given authority to elect a city council and mayor. But D.C. residents have no voting representation in Congress. The movement to change that has support in D.C. but has gone nowhere in Congress. The overall presumption is that granting D.C. voting rights would result in a new Democratic senator, along with its representative in the House. Republicans, naturally, dislike the idea, and for moderate Democrats, the vote has no political upside because the issue doesn’t matter to their constituents. And the District lost one of its strongest Republican allies when Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia left the House.

President-elect Obama has said he supports voting rights for the city. It is a position both Fenty and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) point out. But Mark Plotkin, a longtime D.C. political analyst at WTOP radio who hosts The Politics Program, isn't convinced. "I interviewed Barack Obama. I found that his ardor for D.C. voting rights was less than desirable,” noted the radio host during one of his broadcasts. Plotkin is hoping Michelle Obama might take up the cause. "Maybe she could become the internal advocate and prod and push him, to say, 'Let's get this done now,'" he said.

Some people in the activist community say with the shift in political power, the District should seek more than a single seat in Congress. Some say it’s time to push for full statehood or at least two full seats in the House.

The expectations for where and how the Obamas will leave a mark on the city run the gamut: from education, crime, and affordable housing to community development initiatives.

President-elect Obama has been known to say that he will not only be a President for Black America, but for all of America. DC residents would like to feel included in the complete representation of that America, and have a President that shares that view.

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