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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 4 of 4)

Those dreams burned bright in late 2007, when Obama, then a U.S. senator, gave a speech to inspire his Iowa caucus activists. He consecrated them in the name of “a band of unlikely patriots who overthrew the tyranny of a king . . . the legacy of abolitionists . . . those women’s suffragists and freedom riders who stood up for justice.” He told them: “I hope you remember this as a moment when your own story and the American story came together, that moment when history bent once more in the direction of justice.”

Words like this once stirred political reformers like Despres, who, you’ll recall, told this magazine a few months after Obama’s inauguration: “[Obama] represents the ideals of Hyde Park.” But does he still?

That’s what I asked another of Obama’s Hyde Park mentors, Quentin Young. A physician and an outspoken advocate for single-payer health care, Young was deeply stung when Senator Obama abandoned the fight for single-payer coverage—even after he admitted it was the best approach to fix a broken system—and when, early on, President Obama threw in the towel on a “public option” in his health care plan. To my question about Despres’s quote, Young responded: “It’s a wonderful compliment from a wonderful man. But I don’t think it’s accurate.”

Running the Country the Chicago Way

If Obama wins a second term, he might have a better shot at delivering on his promise of change by letting one of the two great Chicago political traditions—the old machine (as practiced by the first Mayor Daley) or idealistic reform (as practiced by the late alderman Leon Despres)—be his guide. Here are four examples.


Old Machine: Build lots of stuff—and, just as important, be seen as the builder.
Idealistic Reform: Aggressively curb Wall Street malfeasance by holding accountable those financiers who brought the economy to near collapse.


Old Machine: Create green jobs, thereby boosting employment in construction and manufacturing, and take credit for creating them.
Idealistic Reform: Ignore the oil company lobbyists and turn the nation into a global leader in curbing greenhouse gas production.


Old Machine: Put more money back in typical taxpayers’ pockets and make sure they know who did it.
Idealistic Reform: End the Bush tax cuts for the nation’s wealthiest people.


Old Machine: Dole out favors to other heads of state to put them under obligation; cut backroom deals left and right.
Idealistic Reform: Follow international human rights protocols and institute greater transparency here at home to reestablish the world’s trust.

The Hyde Park dream is to leverage moral power into conventional political power and, in turn, to leverage that into the most lasting power of all: the power, as Obama said that day in Iowa, to bend history, to transform institutions that had previously been seen as intractable. That’s the promise that many disillusioned Obamaites feel he has squandered. Even among his supporters, few now see Obama as a torchbearer of moral transcendence. Critics say that his presidency has been not just cloutless but morally centerless. And that ain’t the Hyde Park way.

Those who worked for him hardest during that historic 2008 run can now recite their disappointments chapter and verse. Al Gore, for instance, who threw a green inaugural ball for Obama, has blasted the president for having “simply not made the case for action” on global warming.

Others say that Obama has broken his promise to create the most open government in history. Instead, it’s been one of the most tightly controlled. For instance, the White House demands all quotations from even mid-level officials that appear in the media be approved in advance. And many bureaucrats fighting for transparency have found their lives hell. Consider what has happened to bureaucrats like Thomas Drake, who fought to tell the truth. A National Security Agency whistleblower who in 2010 revealed details showing a new surveillance program to be a costly failure, Drake found himself charged under the 1917 Espionage Act, which, in essence, deems those convicted under it to be enemies of the United States. The felony charges were dropped after the case was widely publicized. Still, the Obama administration has charged more whistleblowers under the act—six in all—than all previous administrations combined.

Then there’s the president’s unilateral authorization of drone strikes, even against those who are American citizens. Jimmy Carter, another president to win a Nobel Peace Prize, cited drone strikes and their record of killing innocent civilians in a June New York Times op-ed article arguing that Obama has violated 10 of the 30 articles of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Our country,” wrote Carter, “can no longer speak with moral authority on these critical issues.”

Whatever one thinks of these robot killings from above as a military tactic or a humanitarian issue, the Hyde Park president’s response to questions about the strikes has hardly fulfilled his promise of transparency. When he was asked in September by a TV reporter in Toledo, Ohio, about how he justified having a “kill list,” Obama’s answer was downright Orwellian. The reporter was “basing this on reports in the news that have never been confirmed by me,” he said.

When it comes to economic policy, some critics say that the Chicago tradition Obama honors most is the Chicago school of economics. Take his first public remarks after JPMorgan Chase revealed in the spring that it had lost an estimated $2 billion trading in derivatives meant to be hedges against such losses. He called JPMorgan “one of the best-managed banks there is” and the firm’s chief executive officer, Jamie Dimon, “one of the smartest bankers we got.” Estimates of losses were later revised upward to $7 billion.

If you have built your appeal on moral power, it’s hard to be taken seriously once the world sees you as having feet of clay—unless, that is, you can successfully revert to that other, entirely different way of getting things done: the way of clout. Neither the brass-knuckled Chicago pol right-wing fantasy nor the Hyde Park reformer of liberal dreams, Obama finds himself in a weird in-between region where he derives no benefit from either side but somehow absorbs the demerits of both.

Obama’s retreat from principle has the same result as his lack of mastery of the less corrupt lessons of the old machine: It leaves power on the table. And if he loses to Romney on November 6, his failure to adhere to either one of Chicago’s two mighty political traditions will be the reason.


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