Obama in town this evening for the usual reason | Bleader

Obama in town this evening for the usual reason


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  • Anne Fitten Glenn
President Obama will be in Chicago this evening. I wish I could say he was coming to tour the ghetto just a mile west of his Kenwood home and raise awareness about the concentrated poverty and racial segregation there.

But he's visiting for the usual reason. He'll attend a fund-raising concert at the University of Illinois at Chicago around 5 PM. Then he'll be driven to Lakeview for a fund-rasing party at the home of Fred Eychaner, CEO of the Newsweb publishing company ($35,000 a couple). Then it's off to a reception at the Hyde Park home of the manager of a private equity firm (tickets $7,000 to $20,000). And then it's back to Washington.

This is what presidents do nowadays when an election is approaching, for them or for Congress, which of course is much of the time.

I've no doubt that Obama cares about the troubles of ghetto residents. He isn't venal or corrupt. But he's the hostage of a venal and corrupt system that has muted him.

The crimes of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich and his ilk seize our attention, but our leaders are rarely criminally corrupt, Lawrence Lessig observes in his recent book, Republic Lost. The problem is deeper and more troubling than that. "A much more virulent, if much less crude, corruption does indeed wreck our democracy," Lessig writes, "a corruption practiced by decent people, people we should respect, people working extremely hard to do what they believe is right."

That corruption is our campaign-finance system, according to Lessig, who directs the Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard. It has two features. One is that government is responsive to the rich and powerful rather than to most voters. The second is that because of the first feature, voters see democracy as a charade. "Participation thus declines, especially among the sensible middle. Policy gets driven by the extremists at both ends." Until our campaign-finance system is radically changed, Lessig writes, "there won't be progress on a wide range of critically important public policy issues."

The sprawling black ghetto west of Obama's home is full of abandoned buildings and vacant lots, and has all the other conditions that concentrated poverty so dependably produces—joblessness, poor health, violence, high rates of single-parenthood and school dropouts. Though the distressed economy hasn't helped, it didn't cause this ghetto's ills; the area's been beleaguered now for decades. There's another large one like it on the west side, and plenty more in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and other big cities and their adjacent suburbs. Since the middle of the last century, the main thing that's improved regarding these places is our ability to ignore them.

Their residents voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008—they rewarded him with 99 percent of their vote in many precincts. Forgive them if they believed their plight might begin to change, or that Obama would at least make their circumstances a public priority. Politically, there's little advantage in him doing so. If he did he might appear too black. The vote of ghetto residents can be safely taken for granted. And, of course, his chief job is raising money, not awareness.

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