Republicans may enjoy calling the president a typical Chicago politician. But Rick Perlstein argues that Obama isn’t Chicago enough—and that’s why he faces such a tough contest on November 6.
Obama’s Power Problem
THE OBAMA WAY: Republicans may enjoy calling the president a typical Chicago politician. But Rick Perlstein argues that Obama isn’t Chicago enough—and that’s why he faces such a tough contest on November 6.By Rick Perlstein
(page 1 of 4)
Over the summer, the Republican Party made a strategic decision: The 2012 presidential election would be, in part, a referendum on politics in Chicago. The city where “politicians quite often end up as felons in jail,” as John Sununu, who served as George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff, recently noted. Where “paying off your friends,” as a spokeswoman for Mitt Romney observed in July, is the coin of the realm. In his keynote speech at August’s Republican National Convention, New Jersey governor Chris Christie put it bluntly: “The president is nothing more than a Chicago ward politician.” Just like Richard J. Daley.
Chicago laughed. Boss Daley and Barack Obama? You could write a treatise on their diametrical oppositions. One was born and died on the same block, among Irish Catholic carbon copies of himself; the other wrote an entire book about how he wasn’t even sure what continent he belonged to. One spent years patiently climbing the political ladder set out for him; the other was famous for jumping the queue. One did politics best in backrooms; the other exemplifies an age when politics is lived on the screen. One could hardly spit out a coherent sentence; the other is the greatest political orator of his generation.
Of course, there is another Chicago political tradition, one that Republicans don’t seem to know exists: the high-minded tradition of reform centered in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood. “[Obama] represents the ideals of Hyde Park,” said the legendary reformist alderman Leon Despres not long before he died, at the age of 101, in 2009.
Both political traditions—that of the Democratic machine and that of the idealistic reformer—can successfully confer power. But what has become increasingly clear is that Obama has not harnessed the potential flowing from either. Indeed, the president’s biggest problem, come the election on November 6, isn’t that he’s too Chicago. It’s that he’s not Chicago enough.