Obama made DC look cool - will Hillary or Trump make it lame again?

By Lavanya Ramanathan

President Barack Obama and the first lady Michelle Obama. Photo / AP
President Barack Obama and the first lady Michelle Obama. Photo / AP

On November 9, in the post-election stillness, most Americans will adjust to the notion of a new president.

And the people of the District of Columbia will sigh and give an ambivalent shrug. Because every few years, we're the ones who have to adapt to something else entirely: a new neighbour.

A new neighbour who will roll into town with a cadre of political friends and hangers-on. Into stately Kalorama estates and Logan Circle condos, or maybe into the Trump International Hotel. Into our restaurants. Our gyms.

Into our very psyche.

Whether it's Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton who takes home the electoral votes, with a few plum appointments or a public excursion or two, a new president can turn the dial on a city that has been happily ambling along for the past eight years - you know, being anointed America's coolest city and the nation's Restaurant City of the Year.

Now we have, on the one hand, a candidate who has popped in and out of Washington, Whac-a-Mole-like, for more than two decades, yet somehow never seemed to actually live here. On the other, a New Yorker who doesn't seem to actually like it here.

She might fist-bump the staff at Ben's Chili Bowl and buddy up to our mayor. (But probably not.)

He might cloister himself at 1600 Penn. and hammer out plans to "drain the swamp in Washington, DC," never mind that the whole "Washington is a swamp" thing has always been a politically convenient tall tale.

"Who knows?" is what we're getting at here.

Who. Knows.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with daughters Tiffany and Ivanka Trump, and wife Melania. Photo / AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with daughters Tiffany and Ivanka Trump, and wife Melania. Photo / AP

Presidents and first families have tried for ages to ingratiate themselves with their adopted town.

"Socially, the presidents used to mingle a lot. Washington was the dinner-party town of the universe," said William Seale, a historian who wrote "The President's House," a two-tome account of chief executives' lives in the capital.

Abraham Lincoln frequently went to the theater. Eleanor Roosevelt turned the District into a pet cause, advocating for better living conditions and even becoming the first white member of the local chapter of the NAACP.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter enrolled their then-9-year-old daughter, Amy, in a DC public school whose student body, like the city, was majority-black.

George H W and Barbara Bush ate out. "They were real restaurant people," Seale said.

The first Bush administration was a step up from the Reagan years, recalls Paul Strauss, a D C shadow senator (D). "Bush 41 was someone who had spent a lot of time in the city," Strauss said. "He was a member of Congress. He lived in Spring Valley."

Then came Bill Clinton, a Southerner who was a Washington neophyte in more ways than one.

He took in the local flavour by going for runs on the city streets, full Secret Service complement in tow, reportedly creating epic traffic jams. Thanks to the horn-honking, fist-waving DC commuter crowd, the Clinton walkabouts eventually ceased, and the administration announced that it was installing a quarter-mile track on the White House grounds. (It's been waiting for you, Bill!)

District residents were more forgiving of the jams caused by the Obamas and their Shake Shack runs. We became resigned to emerging from our offices to find our routes home barricaded and policed like riot zones, all because the commander in chief had decided to dine at Mintwood Place or go to a basketball game.

Former President Bill Clinton, right, speaks to his daughter Chelsea. Photo / AP
Former President Bill Clinton, right, speaks to his daughter Chelsea. Photo / AP

In other ways, stuffy, nerdy, Hollywood-for-ugly-people Washington seemed transformed by their young energy. Their staffers ran around the city with starlets (ahem, Rashida Jones). Frank Ocean was a guest at a state dinner.

Now, said Simi Abrol, a fresh law school grad who has been pursuing a career in public service, "we have a family we're familiar with, the Clintons. But we don't have that many fond memories of them."

Abrol, who has been in Washington for a decade, is a millennial who says she felt the call to politics after Obama's election, landing fellowships in the offices of a DC Council member, among others.

No matter who wins this time, she said, "my passion for working for the government? That's probably going to dissolve."

She may not be the only millennial rethinking life in the District in the new political climate. The city is looking at one potential president who's a septuagenarian and another who's just a year shy of that. In the eyes of the world, will Washington return to being an insider-driven, stodgy, old power city?

Said Seale: "I have wondered that myself."

Often, a president's greatest impact on Washington comes in the form of the people brought along for the ride.

"A number of the outsiders have been criticised for bringing too many of their people," said Robert A Strong, a professor of politics at Washington and Lee University. During George W Bush's administration, Texas twangs could be heard all over town. The Clintons brought in their own when Bill took office, too, Strong said, and so did the Carters, who seemed to tote along half the state of Georgia. "In both cases, they were not well established in Washington. They did not have a lot of Washington connections."

If Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, however, no one expects quite the same shake-up in filling Washington's top jobs.

"I expect with Hillary Clinton, we won't see much change at all," mused Karlyn Bowman, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute who has run in Washington circles since 1970.

By now, the former first lady/senator/secretary of state knows everyone. She plays by the capital's dusty old rule book. And Bowman and several others interviewed for this story say that they expect her to turn to the same Beltway insiders who have been in the inner circle since Bill Clinton won the White House in 1992. They already live here.

Strong believes that Hillary Clinton has so many allies, in fact, that she won't have enough jobs to go around, leaving many Washingtonians sore. But it's Republican presidential nominee Trump who could have the most marked effect on the District's population: The city's GOP establishment could hate going to work in the morning.

Trump, Strong said, "has tense and perhaps toxic relations with people on Capitol Hill. He does not have the full support of his political party; he doesn't know the Washington establishment." He has also "operated with one of the smallest campaign staffs in modern history."

"Who knows who's going to be in his inner circle," Strong said.

And when it comes to knowing the city, Hillary Clinton, like George H.W. Bush, has been in and out of the District numerous times in the past 25 years. She and her husband have long owned a multimillion-dollar estate near Massachusetts Avenue's Embassy Row.

Trump has a home base here now, too, if the Trump International Hotel can be called that. And he already has an opinion about the city surrounding it: "You look at the violence that's taking place in the inner cities: Chicago," he remarked at the second presidential debate. "You take a look at Washington, DC"

What does Washington, so far removed from its days as the nation's "murder capital," have to say about being called a violent inner city?

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wasted no time tweeting her retort to Trump's seeming slur: "(Shaking my head) at DT who comes to DC for profit on the 1 hand, badmouths it on the other."

"DC is a great urban center. If you're talking about it from a statistical metropolitan area standpoint, well, sure," Strauss, the DC shadow senator, said. "If you're trying to use that in an obnoxious code ... well."

Of a Trump move into the White House, which lies at the heart of this inner city, Strauss said: "That is too apocalyptic for me to contemplate."

But he's firm that no president could undermine the city's gains in the past few decades.

Fear not, Strong agreed.

"The city is still going to be filled with young and ambitious people," he said. "As it always has been."

- Washington Post

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