WASHINGTON – It was a typically busy Saturday at D.C.’s culinary landmark, Ben’s Chili Bowl, when Secret Service agents entered the restaurant and told one of its managers that Barack Obama would be stopping by for a bite to eat in 20 minutes.
“They told me the guy on the button on my shirt was on his way in,” said Maurice Harcum, who was working behind the counter last weekend serving up the restaurant’s famous chili dogs and cheese fries as soul and funk music blasted from the speakers.
Before long, the restaurant went wild with cheers and applause when Obama strode inside, stepped up to the counter and asked: “Where’s the food at?”
He ordered a half smoke – a plumper, spicier version of a hot dog, split, grilled and smothered with chili. He later asked for some shredded cheese atop his dog, Harcum recalled, “not the melted Velveeta.”
Obama’s choice of a popular African-American hangout, a thriving eatery for 51 years in its predominantly black inner-city neighbourhood, speaks volumes about the president-elect’s stated intention to invest and participate in D.C.
“This was probably the most important spot in D.C. next to his new home,” Harcum said of the famed diner where comedian Bill Cosby courted his wife in the 1960s. “With him coming to visit us, that’s a sign that he’s going to be out in the community.”
Washington and the District of Columbia occupy two distinct worlds.
One involves the Capitol, the White House and the power brokers operating within them. The other is made up of eight wards populated primarily by working class African-Americans.
Obama’s dining companion that day, D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty, reported after their lunch that the president-elect is keenly interested in the challenges facing the city.
“He’s very concerned about city issues; we talked about schools, affordable housing (and) voting rights here in Washington, D.C.,” Fenty said.
“Within one week of being in D.C., he’s already getting out and about. That’s a great sign for him and the country.”
Since his historic election on Nov. 4, both Barack and Michelle Obama have said that unlike previous first families, they want to truly immerse themselves in the D.C. community.
To that end, the couple has ensured that everyday D.C. residents are on the invite list for both Obama’s swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at the Capitol and for almost a dozen inaugural balls to be held later that night.
The Neighborhood Inaugural Ball, in particular, offers lower-priced and free tickets, with a portion of them set aside for D.C. residents. The ball will be televised, and the Obamas are expected to hang out at the party with the common folk longer than they will at any other gathering on Tuesday night.
“Both Barack and I believe we can have an impact in the D.C. area, in terms of making sure we’re contributing to the community that we immediately live in,” Michelle Obama said shortly after her husband’s election.
Since moving to D.C. from Chicago just two weeks ago, Obama has not only stopped by Ben’s for a chili dog, but has also played basketball at a public school and scouted churches for his family.
“It is tougher as president. This is not just an issue of going to church, it’s an issue of going anywhere,” he told ABC’s “This Week,” noting he doesn’t want fellow church-goers to be harassed by media because of his family’s presence.
“And so, we’re going to try to not be disruptive to the city, but also saying we want to be part of Washington, D.C.”
For most U.S. presidents, taking up residence in D.C. has involved living in the swank confines of the White House and being ferried via limousine to various landmarks, government buildings or posh receptions.
Some have even privately complained that they don’t much like the place.
Even though Bill Clinton, for example, once famously walked along a stretch of Georgia Avenue, a main north-south thoroughfare in northwest D.C. stretching far into the leafy suburbs of Maryland, he apparently wasn’t a fan of the city and didn’t do much beyond that post-election stroll in 1992 to participate in the town.
Things will likely be different under the Obamas.
“They’re going to be District residents, not just Washington-area residents,” D.C. council chairman Vincent C. Gray said recently.
Those who live, work and raise families in the city are hopeful they won’t be largely ignored like they have been by previous commanders-in-chief.
“If he comes and goes to the heart of the city, he’ll be a different kind of president, but if he just stays in the White House, he’ll be just like all the rest,” said Muhammed Leach, a 37-year-old construction worker, as he sat down one recent afternoon at Ben’s for a turkey dog and a slice of lemon cake.
Harcum, who plans to attend at least one of the inaugural balls next week, has faith that Obama will become a true D.C. resident during his years in office.
“I know he can. There will be obstacles in the way, but I know he can and I know he will.”