We judge a president, or a presidential candidate, by his deeds, not his words.
On Sept. 21, the day after the Nationals clinched Washington’s first postseason appearance since 1933, President Barack Obama congratulated them. “I’m looking forward to a White Sox-Nationals World Series,” the Sox-fan-in-Chief said.
This was the latest of many public shout-outs to the White Sox since Obama’s political star began to rise after his famous “Red States, Blue States” speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Obama has been regularly seen in White Sox hat and windbreaker. He is pals with Kenny Williams, and he has never pretended to care about the Cubs.
The Bears and Bulls have received the presidential treatment, too. Obama hosted the 1985 Bears and the 2009 Bulls (sans championship) at the White House, and Obama has used his presidential motorcade to see Derrick Rose and company in D.C.
But, as election day nears and everything begins to feel like politics, Chicago sports fans might be inclined to wonder: Is Obama really a die-hard Chicago sports fan? And does it matter?
The answers, like so much in politics and in Obama’s life, are not simple.
Interviews with aides, colleagues, and journalists who covered him in Chicago, Springfield, and Washington reveal a portrait of a man who connects to Chicago sports much differently than your typical Grabowski. Obvious, right? Obama is the leader of the free world, a product of Hawaii, Kenya, and Harvard, and not your run-of-the-mill Sox fan from Back of the Yards.
“He definitely likes the Sox, but by no means does he live and die with them,” said former State Senator Denny Jacobs, who played poker with Obama when both men were in the state legislature.
“He’s a basketball junkie,” the former Illinois Treasurer, chairman of the Illinois Community Colleges Board, and Obama hoops buddy, Alexi Giannoulias said. “I think the Bulls are part of that.”
Then consider an interview from 2010 during a Washington Nationals telecast when Obama, after proclaiming he was a “South Side kid,” was asked to name his favorite White Sox player growing up. The president uncharacteristically stumbled and mumbled. Without naming names, he said, growing up in Hawaii, he was an Oakland A’s fan and even mentioned the Cubs, too. He then called Comiskey Park “Cominskey Park” (in another interview, he called it “Cominskey Field”).
There’s no denying the man knows his sports. Just listen to the 25-minute podcast he recorded with Bill Simmons at the White House earlier this year, where he spoke intelligently and in detail about the Bulls’ playoff hopes. Yet even then, he came across as knowledgeable more than passionate.
Did he have more important things to get worked up about? Of course. But it’s worth considering that Obama was 23 years old when he came to Chicago as a community organizer, well past the age at which the vise-like grip of a team usually takes hold.
As U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley put it: “Through no fault of your own, often you are your political party, religion, and sports team because of your parents—your dad, mostly. The reality is he came to it later in life. You can like the teams, but is he like the fanatics I know who remember their first games at Wrigley and the old Chicago Stadium? No.”
Yet the case can be made that sports have been important to the development of Obama—both as a Chicagoan and as a politician. As the president makes clear in his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” he has long played the role of outsider. He’s the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. His life has been a series of adjustments, an endless search for identity.
Obama arrived in Chicago confused and alone, in many ways, as he wrote in his memoir, “Dreams From My Father.” His organizing work at Altgeld Gardens, he wrote, helped “me break out of the larger isolation that I had carried with me to Chicago.” Chicago is also where he connected to a black heritage that had puzzled him for much of his life, and it was here where he would make a permanent home for the first time.
On Obama’s third day in Chicago, he wrote, he found a barbershop named Smitty’s in Hyde Park. He walked in to get a haircut and soon joined in the “familiar barbershop banter of sports and women and yesterday’s news.”
For someone who never quite belonged, Chicago represented a community that Obama could call his own.
“He discovered a lot of things in the tapestry of his life here–and sports is one of them,” said Andy Shaw, the former political reporter for ABC-7 and now head of the Better Government Association. Obama showed a gift for absorbing a new culture in Chicago, and that would be a key to developing the public image that would launch him to national office. That talent, Shaw said, “served him very well.”
When he does talk sports, Obama may not be a die-hard, but he seldom comes across as phony. In June, he thanked a Boston crowd for the trade that sent Kevin Youkilis from the Red Sox to the White Sox (the joke was followed by a chorus of boos, or Yo-uuuks, depending who you ask).
And when Kobe Bryant and the Lakers visited the White House in 2010, Obama warned Bryant that “Derrick Rose may have your number.”
Which brings us back to the question: Does Obama’s rooting interest matter.
The answer is yes.
It matters because these teams, as part of the fabric of this city, helped shape Obama’s character at a critical time in his life. Had he learned that he was too much of an outsider to ever connect with his neighbors and would-be constituents, had he discovered that his affection for sports didn’t make him feel like a part of the community, that he remained an outsider even in the adopted city that he loved, perhaps he never would have sought higher office.
Is he a diehard? Probably not.
But is he a fan? Is he one of us?
Let’s consider deeds, not words: When Obama leaves office—be it two months or four years from now—do you expect to see him making regular stops at the United Center and U.S. Cellular?
The answer, almost certainly, is yes.