Chicago Politics

by: Mike Lux

Thu Jul 24, 2008 at 09:52


Having not been impressed with the hilarity of their satirical cover, I hadn't bothered to read the actual New Yorker story on Obama that was inside, but a colleague thought it was interesting and gave me a copy to read. And, you know, the story inside was in some ways stupider than the cover itself.
Mike Lux :: Chicago Politics
I get really tired of holier-than-thou reporters in the traditional media who are so appalled by the messiness of politics. I am fond of quoting an old mentor of mine, Paul Tully, who used to say that "you can't take the politics out of politics." No, you can't, and you shouldn't try. Personally, I don't want a President who is not good at the political game, who doesn't know how to play hardball. But this article seems to imply that Obama is a sleaze because he survived and prospered in the minefields of Chicago politics.

The piece is full of lines like:

But Chicago, with its reputation as a center of vicious and corrupt politics, may also be the place that Obama needs to leave behind.

Lines that like reminded me of a Hillary  supporter from Boston I know who, during the primary, complained bitterly of the tough tactics Obama supporters were using in out-organizing Clinton forces during caucuses.

People think Obama is this idealistic reformer, but he's really just an old-time Chicago pol.

I'm quite familiar with Chicago politics. I knocked on doors for Harold Washington; I worked for Paul Simon; a former business partner was Richard Daley's campaign manager the first time he won the Chicago mayoral race; 20 years ago, I helped form the Chicago-based consulting firm The Strategy Group, (although I am no longer affiliated). And politics in the Windy City ain't beanbag. It's tough, it's complicated. Yes, there has been known to be some corruption from time to time. But can anyone let me know, outside of some pockets of small-town America and maybe a few college towns here and there, where in America politics isn't tough and complicated and occasionally corrupt? Is it my upset Hillary supporter's hometown of Boston? Is it in New York City where Clinton and the New Yorker is based? Or maybe it's in Texas where, as Lloyd Bentsen so eloquently put it 20 years ago, "politics is a contact sport"? What about pure government in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida? Or maybe in the South, where everything would be fine if those pointy-headed bureaucrats from the federal government would leave the poor locals alone? Perhaps things are more pure in the Clinton world of politics, or in the Republican party?

Well, no. Politics is a tough business, where sometimes you piss people off, and sometimes you have to cut deals with people who aren't pure, and sometimes you have to raise money from rich people, oh my. The fact that Obama has survived and flourished in a political environment like Chicago is a pretty good sign as far as I'm concerned. I'm fine with having a President with sharp elbows, one who is tough and aggressive and effective on behalf of the right things.


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Chicago Politics | 9 comments
I had a different reaction (4.00 / 4)
My take on the article, briefly put, was:

Contrary to what many of his supporters might think, Obama's history shows that he plays the political games; indeed, Obama thrived in Chicago by mastering the art of politics.

But I did not interpret the article as condemning Obama for being political. In fact, I personally found his political savvy to be reassuring.


Me, too. I found it fairly reassuring. (4.00 / 1)
Except, y'know, that I'm not sure Obama will use his political skills to promote progressivism. But if he didn't have those skills, the question would be moot.

And Mike, politics is pure and innocent in Maine; this is why we have two craven Republican Senators masquerading as moderates.  


[ Parent ]
Also agree (4.00 / 1)
I did think that Ryan Lizza was a little bit looking down his nose at Chicago politics and Obama's ability to, shall we say, shift (up) to those who could help him in his next race.  But it was interesting how few of the people he had not supported or bypassed at some crucial time later worked well with him or supported him.  

Obama is either hopelessly naive and fragile (Obambi) or he is cutthroat and without principles.  He can't be both, and I think he's neither.  He's pragmatic, smart, and extraordinarily capable of weaving a narrative of who he is and where he wants to take the country.  But he also has a pretty tough view of the world, operating, as Lizza says, consistent with Saul Alinsky's mantra in "the world as it is and not as we would like it to be."

I also found the toughness and increasing savvy portrayed in the article to be reassuring, along with his ability to get along and work with a very wide variety of people.  And it was also interesting that in 1996 while Clinton was moving (triangulating) toward more conservative positions, Obama was championing some pretty progressive issues like restoring benefits to illegal immigrants, ethics reform and making health care a universal right (the last didn't pass).  

MJ Rosenberg complimented Obama highly in a piece at TPM Cafe as someone who, in contrast to most politicians, is not staff-driven but has read and thought about issues and arrived at his understanding and positions himself, rather than digesting talking points.  He also seems to have developed a very strong strategic sense.  He thus can rely on the strengths of others on policy and strategy, but has his own well-informed instincts to rely on as well.

John McCain--He's not who you think he is.


[ Parent ]
Excellent Take, Mike (0.00 / 0)
I agree completely.  Politics is not, nor has it ever been, simply about the contest of ideas, played out with niceties by gentleman (and ladies), but instead about working hard, organizing, engaging in strategic moves and counter-moves, and the like.  Anyone that thinks otherwise just does not understand human nature and the dynamics of power - especially in a democracy where politics is the lifeblood of a functional government.  Also a dysfunctional government, but that's actually a different story.

This is actually one thing that has drawn me to Obama more, recently though.  I have never been an Obama supporter.  But I'm starting to become one after reading articles like this and some others about his real background in Chicago.  I thought he believed the hype about a "new politics."  I think he wants to change the way politics works - for the better - but not in a naive way, not in a way that ignores reality and history, and not in a way that takes the politics out of politics.

But can anyone let me know, outside of some pockets of small-town America and maybe a few college towns here and there, where in America politics isn't tough and complicated and occasionally corrupt? Is it my upset Hillary supporter's hometown of Boston? Is it in New York City where Clinton and the New Yorker is based? Or maybe it's in Texas where, as Lloyd Bentsen so eloquently put it 20 years ago, "politics is a contact sport"? What about pure government in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida? Or maybe in the South, where everything would be fine if those pointy-headed bureaucrats from the federal government would leave the poor locals alone? Perhaps things are more pure in the Clinton world of politics, or in the Republican party?

This is not about there being a reality of non-contact politics.  This is another example of a political media that does not actually like - or know - their subject matter.  Nor are they scholars or intellectuals versed in the history or theory of democracy, politics, or public affairs.  So they construct narratives that fit their small-minded, even parochial views about politics, the polity, and those that engage in the battles of democracy.  


the New Yorker wraps of the honeymoon (4.00 / 3)
I, too, disagree heartily with your analysis, Mike.  The New Yorker article is exactly the kind of reporting that we miss in the Main Stream Media.  And it's exactly the reason that I read the New Yorker.

We need to be looking behind all the curtains - Obama's, McCains, Rove's, Cheney's, Reagan's, Clinton's, you name it.  Long past time that we need to be doing that.

The country is moving relentlessly towards quite a few serious crises.  Mr. Obama is no more going to be able to dig us out by himself than any other of those who tried to win their party's nomination this cycle.  But knowing the types of skills that he brings to the task, and how well he's mastered them, is essential to make an informed choice in November.

Here's to the Ryan Lizzas, Sy Hershes and Mayhill Fowlers of our world!  Would that we had more.


I come at it from a different angle (4.00 / 1)
unlike some others, my concern has never been that Obama was too nice to make it to the presidency. He always struck me as a very skilled politician, with the ruthlessness needed to survive in Washington politics. Indeed, it seems to me that part of that skill is constructing the image of himself as a nice guy whom everyone can get along with, while hiding from public view the political machinations he makes to get ahead (and in this regard, he does resemble Reagan).

What I have been looking for is evidence that Obama will risk his own political skin to make the systematic reforms we need. And his past MO has been not to make too many waves, to tinker and nibble around the edges in relatively modest ways.

During his Senate career, he's had a history of accommodating the coal and nuclear industries (as can be seen here and here). Which would in ordinary times not be a fatal problem, but right now we are in the middle of a climate crisis.

And his reversal on FISA raises grave doubts about whether he'll make a serious fight on Iraq, the environment,  or if he'll settle for enacting unsatisfactory, corporate-friendly but politically expedient stopgaps.


True but... (0.00 / 0)
After President, there is no higher office to run for, so if he has progressive ideals he wants to put into motion, he knows he needs to use his awesome skills as a communicator and motivator to do them when he takes office.

So hopefully he uses the immense political capital he has after crushing McCain for good purpose.

And even if he wants to be cautious, we may have an overwhlemingly Democratic Congress, with people like Donna Edwards, Darcy Burner, Dan Seals, etc. pushing progressive legislation that he will have to sign.

I sincerely hope the Congress comes up with a better health care plan than either his or Hillary's, for example. Why NOT single payer? I am still waiting for someone to explain what value is added by using insurance companies as middlemen....


[ Parent ]
I tried to read the article (0.00 / 0)
and only got through 2 pages of the online version.  It was full of statements like, "Chicago is not Obama's home town, but it's where he chose to forge his identity."  Political identity maybe, but the assumption seemed to be that all you needed to do was look at Obama's political work in Chicago to understand him as a person.  The article plopped him down in Chicago and no other part of his life was relevant.

He didn't arrive in Chicago until he was 24 or so.  His formative years in Hawai'i are a fascinating part of his life most Americans don't fully understand.  Few mainlanders understand the world view of Hawaians who live in a stew of cultures unlike any other state.

Like Mike Lux, I'm not so naive about politics and it isn't that hard to see the shrewd politician that is also part of Obama's character.  Ironically my current read is "Plunkett of Tammany Hall" with topics like "honest and dishonest graft" so I find the dramatic language of the author hilarious because New York politics isn't exactly bean bag either.  


The article was about Chicago because (0.00 / 0)
Obama himself has written extensively about the earlier period in his life in "Dreams of My Father." Lizza explains that it's Obama's history in local politics that he has generally NOT written about, so this article was designed to fill in that gap.

[ Parent ]
Chicago Politics | 9 comments
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