The first quarter of the Obama administration is finally over. The key issue was not health care, not terrorism, not jobs. Nor was it the promise of “transformational change” that permeated the presidential campaign. The key issue was power—how the power of Washington’s political culture would respond to the power of the Chicago political culture imported by the Obama team.
When the media mentioned the administration’s “Chicago tactics” or when opponents complained that the White House staff behaved like “Chicago pols,” they were saying that the Obama team could be aggressive, tough, even mean.
That mild and broad critique missed the more important features of the Chicago way of doing politics: an approach that translated brilliantly in the presidential campaign and miserably after the inauguration. Here are those features—as I’ve observed them for 50 years, first as a young person growing up in a blue-collar Chicago neighborhood, then as an organizer in Chicago, New York, and elsewhere—and a look at how Washington has responded to their presence.
The Man on Five. The mayor’s office in Chicago is on the fifth floor of City Hall. The Man on Five is the hub, center, source of all good, generator of all punishment. This has nothing to do with charisma. The two mayors named Daley and most other machine mayors have had little personal pizzazz, no speaking skills, and a more transactional than transformational approach. Decade after decade, they have methodically consolidated and centralized power and influence. There is no counterweight—no House of Representatives, no Senate, no independent committee chairs. The City Council is a vaudeville show directed by the mayor. His power is unilateral, one-way, top-down. The key White House staff—Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett—inhaled this culture and carried it with them to Washington.
But their new reality includes an outnumbered opposition that will not cringe at a call from the White House, fellow Democrats who value self-preservation over sweeping legislation that may cost them votes, and middle-level bureaucrats who have seen administrations come and go. The Washington crowd knows how to play defense, if nothing else—how to block, obstruct, stymie. At this stage, Obama may be more like Eisenhower than any other American president. When Ike, the victorious general who had commanded millions of men, took office, outgoing President Truman said, “Poor Ike, he’ll say do this and do that; and nothing will happen.”
Control is God. The organizing principle in the Chicago political culture is control—control of who gets to the Man on Five and who doesn’t, control of how a bill or event burnishes the mayor’s myth or doesn’t, control of who runs for other offices and who doesn’t. The mortal sin of this culture is independence based in any value higher than loyalty to the Mayor.
The organizing principle of Washington is also control, but scores of power brokers exercise it, each with his or her own turf and perks, each resisting encroachment. Mutual deference is fundamental. This leads to a perfectly calibrated and balanced system of non-action or minimal action. Many people were puzzled when they heard wailing from the White House over the loss of the 60th Senate vote, but the administration’s despair was logical in the context of the Chicago political culture. In the Windy City, if you don’t have total control and the ability to dominate, you have no control and are check-mated. The art of using an overwhelming majority of 59 to 41 has not been practiced for generations in Chicago. Faced with anything other than incontestable clout, the Chicagoans who went to Washington might as well have been asked to speak Greek.
Elections Mean Everything. The one thing that the political machine excels at is managing the electoral process from start to finish. Selecting and grooming candidates. Buying or scaring off reformers. Marshaling election lawyers to knock out other candidates’ petitions. Using only paid public employees to work (illegally, but with almost no chance of being caught and prosecuted because of the care taken to avoid detection) in campaigns and on election day. Filling vacancies produced by indictments and convictions of insiders with even tighter insiders. Nobody does it better. This is why the presidential campaign did so well in caucus states and less well in those with open elections: the machine thrives on narrow or limited voting situations. But it founders on the kind of fluid and shifting series of skirmishes that, say, the health care struggle became. The president’s decision to bring his Chicago team into the White House may, therefore, have been his worst. Axelrod, Jarrett, and even Emanuel are much more suited to electoral than legislative campaigns. Imagine if a different threesome—Richard Ravitch, Donna Shalala, and George Mitchell—had filled those positions this past year. http://www.bostonreview.net/BR35.2/gecan.php