By Michael Barone
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 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 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.
If in the process you’ve written legislation full of glitches and boondoggles, well, they can be fixed later. The typical vote in the Chicago City Council is 50-0. Republicans don’t count for nothing. Down in Springfield, they’re outnumbered 37-22 and 70-48.
Anyone who has spent much time in Chicago knows the city has impressive civic and business leaders, talented and cultured people who creatively support charities and the arts. But they also play team ball.
One measure of that is the $25.6 million that the 2008 Obama campaign raised from metro Chicago. An even more meaningful measure is the $5 million that Hillary Clinton’s campaign raised there — a virtual shutout in a city where the Clintons once raised huge sums. The word obviously went out: You back Barack, and you don’t back Hillary.
Now the Clintons are part of the Chicago Way team. As witnessed by Bill Clinton’s willingness to dangle some sort of job to Joe Sestak to get him out of the Pennsylvania Senate race.
To some, it may seem anomalous that Barack Obama, who began his Chicago career as a Saul Alinsky-type community organizer, should have taken to the Chicago Way. But Alinsky’s brand of community organizing is very Chicago-centric.
It assumes that there will always be a Machine that you can complain about and that if you make a big enough fuss it will have to respond. And that the Machine can always get more plunder from the private sector.
The problem with Obama’s Chicago Way is that Chicago isn’t America. The Chicago Way works locally because there is an America out there that ultimately pays for it. But who will pay for an America run the Chicago Way?