“Mr. Obama’s Neighborhood,” The Root, 17 November 2008
Chicago’s power class comes to Washington.
Chicago, the town where Barack Obama arrived without knowing a soul in 1985, is suddenly the center of the political world and—if past and present trends are any indication—will continue to wield considerable influence after Obama sets up shop in the White House.
If his recent interview with 60 Minutes was any clue, Obama loves Chicago, and for now, doesn’t mind governing from home. He favored local reporters at the Chicago Hilton during his first press conference as president-elect, and at a media briefing in Washington, transition co-chair John Podesta confronted grumbles from the press corps about the White House on the Lake, wondering just where they were supposed to be for the major Cabinet announcements over the next two months. “Do we have to go and camp out there next week?” one reporter asked. “This is known as triangulation,” Podesta joked, acknowledging the strong pull of the city on the transition team.
Of course, Chicago is known as much for its Great Migration melting pot as it is for its legendarily hard-nosed politics, and though Obama rode to power on a unique coalition of blacks and upscale white supporters, it is the large reservoir of black political and government talent in Chicago that gives him a uniquely diverse pool from which to choose.
According to Laura Washington, a local columnist and professor of humanities at DePaul University, beginning in the days when Harold Washington ran the city, black talent has occupied (for better or worse) an increasing share of positions in the city and state machine. “One of the main reasons Barack chose to come to Chicago was because Harold Washington was mayor at the time,” she said.
The Chicago base has been a strategic boon to Obama; it has been cited as one of the key reasons Team Obama was able to stay focused during the long primary and general election campaigns. Ensconced in its Michigan Avenue office space rather than in Ballston or Arlington, Va., where the Hillary Clinton and John McCain campaigns were headquartered, the Obama campaign was able to avoid the swirl of Beltway gossip and recriminations that afflicted both Clinton and McCain. And shortly after winning the nomination, Obama ordered hundreds of Democratic National Committee staffers to Chicago—a move that effectively consolidated messaging and tactical operations.
Now that Obama is set to swap Lake Michigan for the Potomac, Chicago is coming with him.
First, there is the conscription of Rahm Emanuel—the Chicago-bred campaign aide and Clinton White House alumnus—to be chief of staff in the Obama White House. Emanuel currently represents Illinois’ 5th congressional district, which is made up of neighborhoods on the northwest side of Chicago. Both he and Obama are close allies of Mayor Richard M. Daley, and they share a progressive streak cultivated in a city that is overwhelmingly and intensely Democratic. More importantly, Emanuel’s congressional ties—he is the fourth most senior member of House leadership—as well as the support of friends like Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Bobby Rush, and senior Illinois senator Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate and one of Obama’s earliest patrons, will be critical to enacting Obama’s legislative agenda.
And then there are the connections to the University of Chicago, where Obama spent years teaching constitutional law. Smart minds from Harvard and Columbia—the other elite universities at which Obama has spent time—will undoubtedly have the candidate’s ear, but the talent at the University of Chicago has the advantage of being very familiar to Obama. Faculty members like Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the School of Business, and law professor Cass Sunstein, now at Harvard, were advisors to his campaign. Colleagues Sunstein, law professor David Strauss and 7th Circuit Justice Diane Wood are frequently mentioned as potential Supreme Court nominees.
Richard Epstein, the libertarian former dean of the University of Chicago law school, currently on leave at NYU, says, “The new FOBs, ‘friends of Barack,’ are very different from the friends of Bill [Clinton]. He is a man who has no cronies—he just likes everybody.” Sounds quaint; but the university community—whose faculty bankrolled Obama over McCain by nearly 200 to 1—rather likes Barack, too. Epstein suggests that several of the brightest lights at the University of Chicago are already at work in advisory positions, but adds: “I think the personal connections will matter only at the highest levels.”
These top-tier advisers are mainly of Chicago, as well. Valerie Jarrett, transition co-chair and close friend to both Obama and his wife, Michelle, is a longtime Hyde Parker who sits on the committee to bring the Summer Olympics to Chicago in 2016. If Jarrett does not end up in a cabinet-level position (or, as discussed here, in Obama’s Senate seat) she will most likely play the role of fixer—speaking and spinning for Obama in Washington.
Naturally, not everyone can come along—after Obama’s 2004 Senate race, his then-campaign manager, Jim Cauley, appears to have been jettisoned, most recently working as chief of staff in the Kentucky governor’s mansion. And suffice it to say Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright will not be paying calls to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But David Axelrod, another Chicago fixture and chief architect of Obama’s win, recently signed on to work in the White House as a top political adviser, and rumors that campaign manager David Plouffe could replace outgoing DNC chair Howard Dean in Washington have begun to circulate.
Other campaign vets like David Katz, who has been a traveling photographer for Obama since late 2003, may come along, too. Katz is son of Lucinda Katz, former director of Chicago’s private Laboratory School, where Obama’s daughters are currently enrolled. According to one Hyde Park insider with knowledge of the incident, Obama told Katz, “Well, first I have to appoint my cabinet, and then we’ll think about you.”
Of course, the sheer breadth of the task before Obama makes it tough to keep Chicago counsel alone. On foreign policy especially, new advisers—many from the Clinton years—will take the reins. But one important sign of the Second City’s influence came the day after the election, when Obama announced the creation of a White House chief of urban policy—a sort of city planning, housing and urban renewal czar. According to Jarrett, “because [Obama] began as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, he understands at the local level is really where you can impact change and that local government can play a vital role as we try to jump-start our economy.”
That’s a big job, but we’re talking about a city of broad shoulders.