US President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle leave Spiaggia restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– The leavetaking begins today.
It’s a pretty good time to be in Chicago if your name is Barack Obama, but today he and his wife depart for their visit to the White House, and the countdown to the president-elect’s real farewell has already begun.
Over the weekend people on North Michigan Avenue were pausing in the frigid air at the corner where it intersects with Oak Street, and were staring up at the windows of a restaurant that has been there for many years, yet has never been the object of this kind of general curiosity.
It is a fixture on the corner– Spiaggia is its name, and although it sounds like an import from old Europe, it was opened not by a famous chef from Naples, Italy, but by Larry Levy from Ladue, Missouri, by way of Northwestern University– and the reason it was receiving long gazes was that Barack and Michelle Obama had dined there Saturday night.
Those who have also eaten there in the past were wondering aloud: Did Senator and Mrs. Obama sit in the main restaurant, or the more casual café down the hallway? Early news reports varied. But the fact that there even were news reports about the dinner– news reports sent with some urgency around the world– was a sign that Chicago, at least until January 20, has at this late point in its long civic history become a center of international attention in a way it has not quite seen before, and it has seen a lot.
And if this feels bizarre for the city, think how it must feel for the family in the middle of all of it. Across the Atlantic Ocean, political analysts over the weekend were deciphering what it signified that British prime minister Gordon Brown spent ten minutes on the phone with Obama, while French President Nicolas Sarkozy got a reported 30 minutes. Was there meaning in this? Could it be attributed only to the language difference, and the possible need for translation? As recently as 2004 Obama was hanging around downstate Springfield, Illinois, as one of 177 state legislators, and now the political giants of Europe were competing for bragging rights over how much phone time he allotted to them.
Newborn babies, or so it was said, were being named not just for Obama, but for his wife and children. On the AOL home page over the weekend, the main news story carried the headline: “Who Can Beat Barack Obama?” It referred to the Republicans’ chances in the 2012 presidential election. Never mind that Obama has not even been inaugurated. Never mind that he doesn’t even live in Washington yet.
Never mind that, a week ago today, he didn’t know for certain that he would win the presidency.
Things change exceedingly quickly; the warm and glorious weather in Grant Park on Election Night last Tuesday is gone, and snow flurries drifted over the Chicago Bears’ loss to the Tennessee Titans in Soldier Field Sunday. The real estate market in the United States is lousy, but the Obama family isn’t looking to buy; the residence to where he is going for today's visit is just the most exalted version of temporary corporate housing: the executives from out of town who stay there for four or eight years at a time may get used to it, may even grow to love it, but it can never be theirs.
They don’t even carry a front-door key in their pocket when they go out.
An observant writer could spin quite a moving tale about what it is like to be the person in the center of all this, but of course Obama is an observant writer, a fine and eloquent one, and maybe when this is all over he will let his readers know. In the meantime, his dinners are news, and soon he will be gone from Chicago, but for now there sure do seem to be a lot of helicopters around here.