This undated black-and-white photo provided by the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., shows the Democratic presidential hopeful while a student of Harvard Law School. National Journal

Barack Obama's utter ignorance of Chicago provided a light moment in an otherwise serious job interview at a coffee shop on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. The 23-year-old had answered a want ad and was trying to persuade Jerry Kellman to hire him to be a community organizer in Chicago. It was 1985, and Obama was ready for just about any question. But he was momentarily thrown off his stride when Kellman asked what he knew about the city he wanted to live in. "Hog butcher for the world," he said, reaching back to Carl Sandburg's famous poem. But the poem had been written in 1916, and Kellman told him that the stockyards were no more. Obama recovered quickly, though, citing a Chicago factoid bound to be true in just about any century: "The Cubs never win."

He was hired.

Only two decades later, the president is quite a bit more knowledgeable about his adopted hometown, a city now so closely linked to him that Republicans routinely decry what they see as Obama's attempts to bring "Chicago ways" and "Chicago politics" to Washington. It is a vital part of the Obama narrative, but one whose influence continues to be understated.

Obama's Chicago timeline is well-known: From his arrival in July 1985 to his departure for Harvard Law School; from his first dates with Michelle Robinson when both were working at a Chicago law firm to his return to the city; and from his joining a church to launching his political career in 1996, the future president was embraced by the city and spread roots there unlike anything he had known elsewhere. It was in Chicago that he built a political résumé — a voter-registration project led to the state Senate, and a losing run for Congress led, in 2004, to election to the U.S. Senate.

But such a chronology is bloodless, just cold dates recalling the career paths of so many other politicians. It does not hint at the pivotal role that Chicago has played in Obama's life. In just a few short years, his move to the heartland shook up every aspect of his life, fundamentally reshaping his racial identity, his politics, his religious beliefs, his sports allegiances — his very sense of who he was. Never in American history has any president gone through such a profound personal metamorphosis as a result of a move to a new city as an adult. Before Chicago, Obama was rootless, a young man searching for something to anchor a life that had provided few role models and no real family foundation. With a father he had barely met and a mother who was with him only intermittently, he had spent his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii before he attended college in Los Angeles and New York. He didn't truly belong anyplace — and he knew it.

Obama hoped that this new job in Chicago would give him, at last, a home. As he was preparing for the move, Obama talked about it with a close friend in New York, Mir Mahboob Mahmood. As recounted by David Maraniss in his 2012 book, Barack Obama: The Story, Mahmood saw the move as a case of "Obama taking the necessary step of credentialing himself in the black world as he made his way to a political future." It was a crucial step for a young man who had spent so much of his life trying to fit in.

"Since his early teens, he had been really trying to figure himself out as an African-American," Maraniss told National Journal. "And it was very difficult in Hawaii because there were very few other blacks there.... So he had to teach himself how to be an African-American. Obviously, because of his skin color, he dealt with that aspect of it from the time he was born. But culturally, he had no touchstones.... It wasn't really until he got to Chicago that he was for the first time spending most of his day on the South Side, where it was 95 percent black."

WALKING THE PATH

Decades later, when he was campaigning for president in Iowa, Obama called his days on the South Side "the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School." He added that the lessons he learned on those streets as a community organizer is "seared into my brain." For the first time, he was dealing with black churches, forging coalitions, and recruiting allies. He started with a battle to save jobs at a shuttered steel mill, added the struggle for youth jobs, enlisted in a high-profile fight against asbestos in a housing project, and ended up involved in almost every community scrum before he left the Developing Communities Project three years later for Harvard Law. And those who worked with him in those days saw him evolving with every campaign.

Perhaps the most important person helping Obama in that evolution was the Rev. Alvin Love, then as now the pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church. He vividly remembers his first glimpse of the gangly Obama. "He just walked up to my church," Love says today. "My first impression when I looked at him through the glass doors was that this was somebody [who was] going to ask me for money to go buy a sandwich because he was so skinny."

WALKING THE PATH

Decades later, when he was campaigning for president in Iowa, Obama called his days on the South Side "the best education I ever had, better than anything I got at Harvard Law School." He added that the lessons he learned on those streets as a community organizer is "seared into my brain." For the first time, he was dealing with black churches, forging coalitions, and recruiting allies. He started with a battle to save jobs at a shuttered steel mill, added the struggle for youth jobs, enlisted in a high-profile fight against asbestos in a housing project, and ended up involved in almost every community scrum before he left the Developing Communities Project three years later for Harvard Law. And those who worked with him in those days saw him evolving with every campaign.

Perhaps the most important person helping Obama in that evolution was the Rev. Alvin Love, then as now the pastor of Lilydale First Baptist Church. He vividly remembers his first glimpse of the gangly Obama. "He just walked up to my church," Love says today. "My first impression when I looked at him through the glass doors was that this was somebody [who was] going to ask me for money to go buy a sandwich because he was so skinny."

There were also the frustrations of being a community organizer. "Sometimes I called a meeting, and nobody showed up," Obama recalled years later when addressing a meeting of the still-active Developing Communities Project. "Sometimes preachers says, "˜Why should I listen to you?' Sometimes we tried to hold politicians accountable, and they didn't show up. I couldn't tell whether I got more out of it than this neighborhood."

"GO TO HELL, OBAMA"

His debut as a political candidate was not without its own frustrations and controversy, however. It even sent the signal that this newcomer to Chicago could master the city's famously tough politics. In 1995, longtime state Sen. Alice Palmer decided to run for Congress and endorsed Obama as her successor. But after she fared poorly in her race, Palmer asked Obama to step aside and let her reclaim her seat. He declined. She filed signatures to get on the ballot. And Obama's team challenged the signatures, denying her a ballot spot and allowing him to run unopposed.

For years, Obama would be criticized for "brass knuckle" tactics. But the man who became Obama's mentor in the state Senate told National Journal that those critics were wrong to blame Obama. Emil Jones, the then-state Senate president, says that Obama was too naïve to pull that off. "What they say happened just isn't true," he says. Jones blames Palmer for never coming to him to tell him she wanted back into the race. "Had she come to me and said, "˜Listen, I'm running for my seat after all,' I would have been obliged to help her, as I do all my members in the Senate. But she never came to me, so I told my campaign people to keep doing what you're doing." So, he concluded, "don't blame him; blame her."

Jones is Exhibit A of something else Obama learned in Chicago — the importance of mentors. When he arrived in Springfield, he went to Jones's office and told him he liked to work hard, and would he please give him work? "That's unusual for a person coming in to want to work hard," says Jones, who recalls that other state senators gave Obama a hostile greeting, making fun of his name and freezing him out because he had defeated their friend, Palmer. But he persevered with the help of some plum assignments from Jones. "He was naïve, totally naïve, but a damn nice kid. And very lucky."

Part of his luck was having Jones as an ally. He gave Obama just what he asked for — work. Jones made Obama the Senate Democratic representative on the committee drawing up an ethics and campaign finance bill. It provided the young senator with a legislative accomplishment. But it also gave him a bunch of headaches because other senators were dead-set against the reforms Obama was pushing. "When he went in front of the caucus to report to the 26 senators, they booed him out of the room — "˜Go to hell, Obama' and "˜Forget it, Obama,' " recalls his aide, Shomon. "They did give him hell," Jones agrees. "So I told him, you cannot always get the meal the first time around. Just take a sandwich and then come back another year and take another piece, and eventually you end up with the whole meal." It was an important lesson for Obama about the need to compromise.

Obama's legislative style often frustrated Shomon. "He was averse to attacking anyone. And sometimes I would say, "˜You need to go after that guy,' " Shomon says. "But that was not his style." Nor was patience a part of his makeup. Bored with the Legislature, Obama rashly jumped into a long-shot congressional race in 2000, taking on longtime incumbent Bobby Rush. He was slaughtered. But Shomon, who was his campaign manager, counts it as another Chicago lesson that shaped today's Barack Obama. "That campaign became the boot camp for his ability to run for the U.S. Senate. I contend if he hadn't had that campaign he would never have been ready for 2004," he says. "It toughened him up.... And he learned how to get a high crossover vote. He won over a majority of the white vote."

There was, of course, something else — or someone else — to help him make Chicago his home. That was Michelle Robinson, the beautiful young lawyer who mentored him at one of the Chicago law firms that hired him during summers away from Harvard. They met in 1989, married in 1992, and, by 2002, had two daughters. For Maraniss, the marriage was a critical part of Obama's search for credentials in the black community. "The biggest credential came with Michelle," he says. "That is the end point of his search for identity — Michelle and marrying an African-American woman. Before that, he had mostly dated white women."

Until then, so much of Obama's quest kept coming back to his efforts to understand where the son of a white Kansas woman and a black African man fit into black America. "Chicago gave him his social roots," Love says. "It anchored him in the African-American community as an African-American. I think mentally, he may have made the decision that he was an African-American, but he was able to work out the dynamics of that here in Chicago." Love adds, "And Chicago also gave him his cultural roots. And it gave him his organizing skills ... and, not least, his religious convictions."

Obama himself put it simply in an interview with the Hyde Park Herald, saying, "I came home in Chicago." Long since shed of the outdated notion of the city as "hog butcher for the world," he told the community organizers in that 2008 speech: "I grew up to be a man, right here, in this area," adding, "I found my calling."

David Axelrod, like Obama a Chicago convert and now the campaign's senior adviser, says that it was appropriate that Obama donned a scruffy White Sox cap for the final conversation before he decided to run for president. "He identifies with the city right down to that weathered, old, beaten White Sox cap that he still wears," Axelrod told NJ. "He grew up in Hawaii. But his roots are here. This is where he really established himself and so much of who he is. He was formulated here. This is where he met Michelle. This is where he found his faith."

And this is where he first gave hope to other African-Americans that one of them someday might actually win the White House. "I always had my eye on the hope that one day an African-American would ascend to that position," Sen. Jones says emotionally. "And, lo and behold, he came along. And it wouldn't have happened without Chicago.

"GO TO HELL, OBAMA"

His debut as a political candidate was not without its own frustrations and controversy, however. It even sent the signal that this newcomer to Chicago could master the city's famously tough politics. In 1995, longtime state Sen. Alice Palmer decided to run for Congress and endorsed Obama as her successor. But after she fared poorly in her race, Palmer asked Obama to step aside and let her reclaim her seat. He declined. She filed signatures to get on the ballot. And Obama's team challenged the signatures, denying her a ballot spot and allowing him to run unopposed.

For years, Obama would be criticized for "brass knuckle" tactics. But the man who became Obama's mentor in the state Senate told National Journal that those critics were wrong to blame Obama. Emil Jones, the then-state Senate president, says that Obama was too naïve to pull that off. "What they say happened just isn't true," he says. Jones blames Palmer for never coming to him to tell him she wanted back into the race. "Had she come to me and said, "˜Listen, I'm running for my seat after all,' I would have been obliged to help her, as I do all my members in the Senate. But she never came to me, so I told my campaign people to keep doing what you're doing." So, he concluded, "don't blame him; blame her."

Jones is Exhibit A of something else Obama learned in Chicago — the importance of mentors. When he arrived in Springfield, he went to Jones's office and told him he liked to work hard, and would he please give him work? "That's unusual for a person coming in to want to work hard," says Jones, who recalls that other state senators gave Obama a hostile greeting, making fun of his name and freezing him out because he had defeated their friend, Palmer. But he persevered with the help of some plum assignments from Jones. "He was naïve, totally naïve, but a damn nice kid. And very lucky."

Part of his luck was having Jones as an ally. He gave Obama just what he asked for — work. Jones made Obama the Senate Democratic representative on the committee drawing up an ethics and campaign finance bill. It provided the young senator with a legislative accomplishment. But it also gave him a bunch of headaches because other senators were dead-set against the reforms Obama was pushing. "When he went in front of the caucus to report to the 26 senators, they booed him out of the room — "˜Go to hell, Obama' and "˜Forget it, Obama,' " recalls his aide, Shomon. "They did give him hell," Jones agrees. "So I told him, you cannot always get the meal the first time around. Just take a sandwich and then come back another year and take another piece, and eventually you end up with the whole meal." It was an important lesson for Obama about the need to compromise.

Obama's legislative style often frustrated Shomon. "He was averse to attacking anyone. And sometimes I would say, "˜You need to go after that guy,' " Shomon says. "But that was not his style." Nor was patience a part of his makeup. Bored with the Legislature, Obama rashly jumped into a long-shot congressional race in 2000, taking on longtime incumbent Bobby Rush. He was slaughtered. But Shomon, who was his campaign manager, counts it as another Chicago lesson that shaped today's Barack Obama. "That campaign became the boot camp for his ability to run for the U.S. Senate. I contend if he hadn't had that campaign he would never have been ready for 2004," he says. "It toughened him up.... And he learned how to get a high crossover vote. He won over a majority of the white vote."

There was, of course, something else — or someone else — to help him make Chicago his home. That was Michelle Robinson, the beautiful young lawyer who mentored him at one of the Chicago law firms that hired him during summers away from Harvard. They met in 1989, married in 1992, and, by 2002, had two daughters. For Maraniss, the marriage was a critical part of Obama's search for credentials in the black community. "The biggest credential came with Michelle," he says. "That is the end point of his search for identity — Michelle and marrying an African-American woman. Before that, he had mostly dated white women."

Until then, so much of Obama's quest kept coming back to his efforts to understand where the son of a white Kansas woman and a black African man fit into black America. "Chicago gave him his social roots," Love says. "It anchored him in the African-American community as an African-American. I think mentally, he may have made the decision that he was an African-American, but he was able to work out the dynamics of that here in Chicago." Love adds, "And Chicago also gave him his cultural roots. And it gave him his organizing skills ... and, not least, his religious convictions."

Obama himself put it simply in an interview with the Hyde Park Herald, saying, "I came home in Chicago." Long since shed of the outdated notion of the city as "hog butcher for the world," he told the community organizers in that 2008 speech: "I grew up to be a man, right here, in this area," adding, "I found my calling."

David Axelrod, like Obama a Chicago convert and now the campaign's senior adviser, says that it was appropriate that Obama donned a scruffy White Sox cap for the final conversation before he decided to run for president. "He identifies with the city right down to that weathered, old, beaten White Sox cap that he still wears," Axelrod told NJ. "He grew up in Hawaii. But his roots are here. This is where he really established himself and so much of who he is. He was formulated here. This is where he met Michelle. This is where he found his faith."

And this is where he first gave hope to other African-Americans that one of them someday might actually win the White House. "I always had my eye on the hope that one day an African-American would ascend to that position," Sen. Jones says emotionally. "And, lo and behold, he came along. And it wouldn't have happened without Chicago.

And Love was not the only one to be struck by Obama's physique. Maraniss found that one of the things Chicago introduced Obama to was the world of older African-American women, "who embraced him completely in a way that he had never really felt before. And that helped him feel a sense of home that he had never felt before." Love laughs at the memory as well. "There were two or three ladies who took care of him. It was kind of like when a new pastor goes to a church and he is skinny and everybody wants to fatten him. They were always trying to feed him." But, he adds with another laugh, "it didn't work because they would go out to eat and all he'd eat is a salad."

Love and Obama also bonded over philosophy. Community organizers then were very much guided by the principles first outlined by Chicagoan Saul Alinsky. Obama bought into Alinsky's belief that you have to see the world as it really is, and that you have to identify the self-interest of the people you are trying to help. But Obama rejected Alinsky's confrontational tactics. "That is probably why he and I hit it off right away," Love says, "because both of us had the same idea, that in Chicago when you run out with big announcements and confrontation, all you do is chase people to their corner. And they become defensive, so you get no real communication." Instead, he says, Obama's "goal came to be to find where we're in common."

Love also watched Obama grow from a professorial, halting speaker to the effective orator the nation first met when the young Illinois state senator spoke to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. "He was very choppy as a speaker early on," the reverend recalls. "Then, he was very syncopated in his delivery and didn't really like to do it much. He much preferred to stay in the background and not have to say anything." Dan Shomon, who was a top staff aide, campaign manager, and political director for state Sen. Obama from 1997 to 2006, counts oratory as one of the major talents Obama developed in Chicago. "Sometimes he would go visit five, six, seven, 10 churches a day," he says. "I contend that the thousands of churches — most of them African-American, but not all of them — were where he honed his speaking style."

"He was naïve, totally naïve, but a damn nice kid. And very lucky." — State Sen. Emil Jones

But those visits to churches were not without some awkwardness for Obama. He was working for an organization formed by eight churches and allied with many others. But he resisted entreaties to join a church, and he rarely attended services unrelated to his organizing duties. He was the son of a Muslim-turned-atheist father and a Christian-turned-agnostic mother. His childhood was spent in both Catholic and Muslim schools. Churchgoing was not something he had learned, and he was confused in his beliefs, relying heavily on his own reading of St. Augustine, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Graham Greene. In Chicago, he was influenced by Catholic Cardinal Joseph Bernardin on social justice and by the vibrant black church community. Still, he resisted joining a congregation.

The pressure grew from the ministers with whom he was working. But Love urged him to not join a church just because of that pressure. "I told him that he had to have an actual real relationship with the Lord. I encouraged him to take his time, to pray on it." He sent Obama to another pastor, and that pastor gave him the name of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, minister of Trinity United Church of Christ — a name that would become known nationwide in the 2008 campaign when his controversial preachings prompted Obama to disavow them. But, 20 years before that break, Wright filled a void in Obama's life.

That was a slow process, though, and one not completed until the end of his three-year stint as a community organizer. As he was getting ready to leave for Harvard in 1988, he answered an "altar call" at Trinity, striding down the center aisle to publicly state his faith. Later, he stressed that this "wasn't an epiphany," calling it "much more of a gradual process for me.... I think it was just a moment to certify or publicly affirm a growing faith in me." In a speech to the African Methodist conference in 2008, Obama said that it was "on the South Side of Chicago when ... I let Jesus Christ into my life." He added, "When I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works, it was that newfound faith that fortified my commitment to the work I was doing in the community."

Just as his work as a community organizer led him to the black church, it also gave him an education in politics, allowing him to make contacts — an essential element of ascending the political ladder in Illinois — and to learn lessons that would be invaluable when he became a candidate. Again, Obama confided often in Love. "We both used to talk about making change ... and we both came to the conclusion that the structures are so huge and so entrenched that unless you get on top of them you really can't effect long-lasting change," says Love, who watched Obama become more convinced that his calling was in elective office and that politics would be the most effective way for him bring about change.

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