An interesting thing about Barack Obama is that he chose, on two occasions, to live in Chicago — even though he didn’t grow up there, had no family ties there, never went to school there.
It was a curious choice. Chicago has a civic culture all its own, and one that is particularly insular. Family ties and personal connections are hugely important. Professionals who have lived and worked there for a quarter-century are brusquely reminded, “You’re not from here.”
Nonetheless, Obama moved upward in the Chicago civic firmament with apparent ease. The community organizer joined the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church in search of street cred in the heavily black South Side. The adjunct law teacher made friends around the University of Chicago area, from libertarian academics to radical organizer William Ayers. The young state senator designed a new district that included the Loop and the rich folk on the Near North Side.
Obama could not have risen so far so fast without a profound understanding of the Chicago Way. And he has brought the Chicago Way to the White House.
One prime assumption of the Chicago Way is that there will always be a bounteous private sector that politicians can plunder endlessly. Chicago was America’s boomtown from 1860 to 1900, growing from nothing to become the center of the nation’s railroad network, the key nexus between farm and factory, the headquarters of great retailers and national trade associations.
The Mayors Daley have maintained Chicago’s centrality in commerce by building and expanding O’Hare Airport and by fostering a culture of crony capitalism with the city’s big employers and labor unions. Chicago survived depression and recessions to thrive once again. Sure, small businesses and some outfits lacking political connections fell by the wayside. But the system seems to go on forever.
So it’s natural for a Chicago Way president to assume that higher taxes and a hugely expensive health-care regime will not make a perceptible dent in the nation’s private-sector economy. There will always be plenty to plunder.
Crony capitalism also comes naturally to a Chicago Way president. Use some sweeteners to get the drug companies and the docs to sign onto the health-care plan. If the health insurers start bellyaching, whack them a few times in public to make them go along. Design a financial reform that Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase can live with even while you assail “Wall Street fat cats.”
The big guys will understand that you have to provide the voters with some political theater while you give them what they want. As for the little guys, well, hey, in Chicago we don’t back no losers.