Politics & Policy

Obama’s ‘Chicago Way’

The administration’s political tactics are straight out of the Daley playbook.

The scandals swirling around the Obama administration have many journalists scratching their heads as to how “hope and change” seem to have been supplanted by “arrogance and fear.” Perhaps it’s time they revisit one of their original premises about Barack Obama: that he wasn’t influenced by the Chicago Daley machine. You know: the machine that boosted his career and whose protégés — including Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, and his wife, Michelle — he brought to Washington with him.

The liberal take on the president was best summed up by Slate magazine’s Jacob Weisberg, who wrote last year that Obama “somehow passed through Chicago politics without ever developing any real connection to it.” It’s true that Obama initially kept some distance from the machine. But by the time he ran for the Senate in 2004, his main political Sherpas were Axelrod, who was then the chief consultant to Mayor Richard M. Daley, and Jarrett, the mayor’s former deputy chief of staff. As Scott Simon of NPR noted: “While calling for historic change globally, [Obama] has never professed to be a reformer locally.” The Daley machine, which evolved over 60 years from a patronage-rich army of worker bees into a corporate state in which political pull and public-employee unions dominate, has left its imprint on Obama. The machine’s core principle, laid out in an illuminating Chicago Independent Examiner primer on “the Chicago Way,” is that at all times elections are too important to be left to chance. John Kass, the muckraking columnist for the Chicago Tribune who for years has warned that Obama was bringing “the Chicago way” to Washington, sums up his city like this: “Once there were old bosses. Now there are new bosses. And shopkeepers still keep their mouths shut. Tavern owners still keep their mouths shut. Even billionaires keep their mouths shut.”

“We have a sick political culture, and that’s the environment Barack Obama came from,” Jay Stewart, the executive director of the Chicago Better Government Association, warned ABC News when Obama ran in 2008. He noted that Obama had “been noticeably silent on the issue of corruption here in his home state.”

Joel Kotkin, an urban expert who still considers himself a “Kennedy Democrat –– John F. Kennedy,” wrote at Forbes: “Most of us would put up with a bit of corruption and special dealing if the results were strong economic and employment growth. But the bare demographic and economic facts for both Chicago and Illinois reveal a stunning legacy of failure.” Since 2007, the Chicago region has lost more jobs than Detroit has, and more than twice as many as New York. The city’s murder rate is a national disgrace, and its teachers’ union is so powerful that a strike it called last year forced new mayor Rahm Emanuel to back down from his attempt to curb union power.

The Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch tags Chicago as the fifth most heavily taxed city in the country: Its sky-high effective sales tax of 9.75 percent makes the tax burden on a family earning $25,000 a year the fourth highest in the country. From 1991, two years after Richard M. Daley first took office as mayor, to 2011, the year Emanuel took the reins, the average debt per Chicagoan grew from $600 to $2,600, an increase of 433 percent. As Dick Simpson, a former reform Chicago alderman who now teaches at the University of Illinois, put it: “There’s a significant downside to authoritarian rule. The city could do much better.”

Conservatives in Chicago, an embattled breed, say the Obama scandals now coming to light — the IRS, the intimidation of journalists, the green-energy boondoggles such as Solyndra — could have been anticipated. “The 2008 Obama campaign perpetrated a fraud that he was a reformer,” says Chris Robling, a former journalist who has served as a Republican election commissioner. “All of the complaints — from the lack of transparency to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s shaking down corporations to promote Obamacare — stem from the culture of the Daley Machine.” For decades, Robling says, Mayor Daley “encouraged” contributions to his favorite charities, with the implicit understanding that the “encourager” controlled the city’s inspectors and regulators. “That sounds an awful lot like what Sebelius was doing to prop up Obamacare,” Robling notes. “Obama’s ideology may come from Saul Alinsky’s acolytes, but his political tactics come straight from the Daley playbook.” Indeed, friends of Bill Daley, Mayor Daley’s brother, say that one reason Bill left his post as Obama’s White House chief of staff after only one year was that even he thought Team Obama was too much “all politics, all of the time” and not enough about governance.

Journalists used to know that presidents are in part a product of their past: where their careers were nurtured and where their politics were shaped. They understood this as a given when it came to Ronald Reagan and California; they basically grasped it about Bill Clinton’s Arkansas, and certainly nailed it on George W. Bush and Texas. But when it came to Barack Obama, all that went out the window. Speaking at the University of Southern California, at a post-2008 conference on the election, Mark Halperin, then of ABC News, said that the media’s treatment of Obama had been “the most disgusting failure of people in our business since the Iraq war.” It was “extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage,” he concluded.

That media failure continued throughout Obama’s first term. Perhaps now, as Obama’s “Chicago Way” is coming into focus, the media will want to redeem itself. With Obama, it’s become all too clear: You can take the politician away from the machine, but you can’t take the machine out of the politician.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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