The “Making” of a Politician
July 13, 2008
Alice Palmer, Barack Obama, Chicago politics, David Axelrod, Democratic party
Got your attention? While the cover of this issue of the New Yorker will likely be the topic of countless blogs and tv spots tomorrow, don’t miss the article.
It is a fascinating piece on Obama’s early years in Illinois politics. Seems like some of his early supporters have buyer’s remorse. Many people have questioned how Obama could rise so quickly in Chicago politics. This article attempts to trace his rise and finds some interesting parallels to this year’s presidential race.
In a particularly interesting bit, the article tells how Obama looked to redraw the district he represented in Illinois after losing the congressional race to Bobby Rush.
. . . Obama began working on his “ideal map.” Corrigan remembers two things about the district that he and Obama drew. First, it retained Obama’s Hyde Park base—he had managed to beat Rush in Hyde Park—then swooped upward along the lakefront and toward downtown. By the end of the final redistricting process, his new district bore little resemblance to his old one. Rather than jutting far to the west, like a long thin dagger, into a swath of poor black neighborhoods of bungalow homes, Obama’s map now shot north, encompassing about half of the Loop, whose southern portion was beginning to be transformed by developers like Tony Rezko, and stretched far up Michigan Avenue and into the Gold Coast, covering much of the city’s economic heart, its main retail thoroughfares, and its finest museums, parks, skyscrapers, and lakefront apartment buildings. African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama’s new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated. It also included one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in Chicago.
“It was a radical change,” Corrigan said. The new district was a natural fit for the candidate that Obama was in the process of becoming. “He saw that when we were doing fund-raisers in the Rush campaign his appeal to, quite frankly, young white professionals was dramatic.”
While Obama’s current race for president portrays him as a black man running against white privilege and against long odds, Obama’s base has always been mainly upper-class whites. And he has always known this.
Also interesting is Obama’s current use of surrogates and un-official campaign advisors. As some of these people are now under the bus, the story has always been that they spoke out of turn or didn’t represent Obama’s real position or that Obama no longer “knew” these people. In that sense, Obama is seen as removed from some of the lower aspects of politicking. But in this article, the author asserts:
Obama also became more of a strategist, someone increasingly comfortable discussing the finer points of polls, message, and fund-raising. According to his friends, Obama does not delegate campaign planning.
I find this curious as well, because one of the hallmarks of the Obama campaign to date is its incoherence. Obama says one thing and his handlers say “what he meant was. . . ” Everyone contradicts everyone else, with the end point being no one knows where Obama really stands on much of anything. Given all of Obama’s “present” votes and non-appearance at votes, it feels as if the “fog of information” is really a campaign tactic. If you can’t be pinned down, you can’t be held accountable and you get to claim outcomes after the fact. If you don’t actually vote on something, you can easily claim to have been for or against it all along, with no penalty for the slight of hand.
Another interesting point not covered in the MSM is Obama’s history with the troubled administration of Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Although Tony Rezko links the two men, Obama has kept his distance. Recently though, Rahm Emanuel noted that Obama and he worked for Blagojevich’s campaign.
That year, he gained his first high-level experience in a statewide campaign when he advised the victorious gubernatorial candidate Rod Blagojevich, another politician with a funny name and a message of reform. Rahm Emanuel, a congressman from Chicago and a friend of Obama’s, told me that he, Obama, David Wilhelm, who was Blagojevich’s campaign co-chair, and another Blagojevich aide were the top strategists of Blagojevich’s victory. He and Obama “participated in a small group that met weekly when Rod was running for governor,” Emanuel said. “We basically laid out the general election, Barack and I and these two.” A spokesman for Blagojevich confirmed Emanuel’s account, although David Wilhelm, who now works for Obama, said that Emanuel had overstated Obama’s role. “There was an advisory council that was inclusive of Rahm and Barack but not limited to them,” Wilhelm said, and he disputed the notion that Obama was “an architect or one of the principal strategists.”
It’s important to note that the Obama campaign has since claimed Emanual’s memory on this issue is faulty. Must be a problem there.
As the presidential race continues, the Obama campaign continues to tout his achievements in the state senate as examples of his ability to govern and help his constituents. As many people know by now, this record is spotty. The New Yorker’s take on this period is clear.
In the State Senate, Jones [an important politician in Illinois] did something even more important for Obama. He pushed him forward as the key sponsor of some of the Party’s most important legislation, even though the move did not sit well with some colleagues who had plugged away in the minority on bills that Obama now championed as part of the majority. “Because he had been in the minority, Barack didn’t have a legislative record to run on, and there was a buildup of all these great ideas that the Republicans kept in the rules committee when they were in the majority,” Burns said. “Jones basically gave Obama the space to do what Obama wanted to do. Emil made it clear to people that it would be good for them.” Burns, who at that point was working for Jones, was assigned to keep an eye on Obama’s floor votes, which, because he was a Senate candidate, would be under closer scrutiny. The Obama-Jones alliance worked. In one year, 2003, Obama passed much of the legislation, including bills on racial profiling, death-penalty reform, and expanded health insurance for children, that he highlighted in his Senate campaign.
Interesting stuff indeed. Still, the core of Obama as a politician is muddy on the national scene. His supporters claim he is a person not “of the system” who practices “transformational politics.” Here at NoQuarter, we’ve been saying this is not the case. The New Yorker says the same thing.
Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. “You have the power to make a United States senator,” he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.
In addition to this, the New Yorker notes that Obama has alienated past supporters by his tendency to switch positions. Sound familiar?
Obama’s establishment inclinations have alienated some old friends. During the 2004 Senate primary, Obama sometimes reminded voters of his anti-machine credentials, but at the same time he shrewdly wrote to Mayor Daley’s brother, William, who had backed one of Obama’s primary opponents, asking for his support if he won the primary. As he outgrew the provincial politics of Hyde Park, he became closer to the Mayor, and this accommodation, as well as his unwillingness to condemn the corruption scandals ensnaring Daley and Blagojevich, both of whom he supported for reëlection, have some of his original supporters feeling alienated and angry.
Deja vu, much?
The title of this article is “Making It.” OK. But I think this story is more like the MTV show “Made” where young people are given a couple of weeks to learn something hard to do in order to “become” something they dream of, like the video gamer who was “made” into a martial artist. While you can’t help admire the pluck and effort of these young people, you still know that a video gamer doesn’t become Jackie Chan in a few weeks of hard work. It’s artificial. Whatever skills the gamer gets won’t be backed up by years of practice or depth of knowledge.
And while Barack Obama has, arguably, put in a few years of work in politics, his rise and experience suggest to me someone who has been “made.” There’s just no “there” there.
This article is definitely worth the read. In addition to the few bits I’ve highlighted are insights about Obama’s choice of church and Michelle Obama’s political connections.