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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.

(page 3 of 4)

Richard J. Daley, Leon Despres, and President Barack Obama

Obama reaches out in good faith to negotiating partners who have no intention of offering good faith in return. He has, after all, pledged his presidency to transcending the old tit-for-tat politics of “us versus them” and pledged himself to a better, nobler version of government. And that’s where Chicago’s second political tradition, the Hyde Park tradition of reform, comes in.

A distrust of the dirtier aspects of power is its calling card. Consider one of Obama’s old Hyde Park mentors. Leon Despres was a warrior against the brute transactional efficiencies of pay-to-play politics from his initial election to the City Council in 1955—the year Daley became mayor. His first successful ordinance was a ban on selling curb cuts, and he went on to distinguish himself as the city’s moral light in crusade after crusade. Hyde Park rewarded him by repeatedly returning him to City Hall. But Despres so mistrusted power that he gladly gave it up. In 1975, at the height of his influence and the nadir of Daley’s, he surrendered his City Council seat.

Another Hyde Park reformer provided the inspiration that Obama says attracted him to Chicago in the first place: Harold Washington. Washington was a complicated man with a complicated legacy, and because he suffered a fatal heart attack months after his 1987 reelection, we’ll never know whether he could have truly transformed the institutional framework of the city. One fact, though, is undeniable: During his four years as mayor, he managed to handle his recalcitrant political foes aggressively while remaining true to his ideals.

And their recalcitrance was epic. “I won’t work a day for that man,” announced Richard Brzeczek, the police superintendent, who resigned two days after Washington took office. The black power brokers who had helped get Washington elected knew just how the mayor should respond: by filling vacancies like these with “his own,” using patronage payback to shut out those who had held blacks in check for so long. Washington refused. “No one, but no one, in this city is free from the fairness of our administration,” he said. “We’ll find you and be fair to you wherever you are.”

He meant it. Washington was the first mayor to comply fully with a federal court order to end political patronage jobs, and he imposed a cap on campaign contributions from those doing business with the city. His less idealistic black backers were agonized. “Why change the rules,” Alderman William Beavers wanted to know, “just when we’re getting into the game?”

Washington stuck to his guns, even though all it would have taken to jump-start city government was to cut a deal with the Vrdolyak machine that had so successfully shut things down. The approach worked. Four years later, he won reelection with wider margins in the primary and general elections than he had in 1983.

It was hardly for his record of accomplishments: Thanks to the Council Wars, Washington hadn’t really been able to govern at all. He won by taking unpopular positions and becoming popular for it. Machine stalwarts such as Richard Mell wound up defecting to his side, for he had the power—power that he had built the reformer’s way. Harold Washington showed, for a brief, shimmering moment, something that all scholars of truly transformational figures know: that putting moral excellence on dramatic display, adversarially, in the face of defiant opposition, is another way to store and deploy political power.


Photography: (Daley) AP photo file; (Despres) Chicago Tribune; (Obama) Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images


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