The New Yorker Magazine cover that will soon be a right wing tee shirt—a cartoon of Obama in Arab garb, Michelle as a AK47 toting revolutionary, the U.S. flag burning in their fireplace and Osama bin Laden's photo hanging on the wall—is getting all the attention. But the more important article for those wanting to understand Obama is on the inside.
“Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama,” by Ryan Lizza, is a lengthy and interesting sketch of Obama in his Chicago years. Lizza documents Obama’s carefully planned entry into Chicago politics—making the connections he needed to make with the wealthy, liberal establishment as well as with Chicago’s black political leadership for the political career he evidently had in mind. His willingness to move from being an agnostic to a Christian and join the church with the most political influence after checking them all out demonstrates his willingness to move for political purposes. The allies he was willing to step on to get where he wanted to go—using the traditional Chicago tactic of throwing opponents off the ballot so he was unchallenged in his state senate campaign. Nothing remarkable—typical Chicago pol activity—but perhaps that is the remarkable thing because so many see Obama as something different than the usual pol.
The New Yorker has been generally favorable toward Obama. Their defense of the cover is that they were mocking Obama’s right-wing critics—so their publication of this honest history of Obama’s political rise is even more interesting. It is important for progressives to know this Obama—not the stuff he put in his two autobiographies (both books, Lizza points out, timed around political campaigns), since it will give voters clues as to what to expect of him when he is President.
Two points in the article deserve to be highlighted. First, the author describes—as the “most important event in Obama's early political life”—the redrawing of his state legislative district to Obama's liking. The new district became the base of his run for the U.S. Senate and the Presidency. The district was redrawn to include the wealthiest and most politically influential part of Chicago.
Obama ran against an incumbent member of Congress, Bobby Rush, in 2000. Rush, a former Black Panther, had lost a race for mayor, and therefore Obama thought he was vulnerable. Obama was mistaken—he lost the race in a landslide (the only real political campaign he ever had to run). In losing Obama learned that he had greater appeal among whites than blacks, the wealthy than the poor, liberal elites rather than working class poor. As a result Obama constructed his “ideal” election district with that in mind.
The article describes Obama entering the "inner sanctum" one year after his loss to Rush and one year after Democrats took control of the state. Illinois Democrats were in the process of redrawing the political map to their own liking—much like Tom Delay in did in Texas. The author writes:
"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."
Obama picked his voters. They were the wealthy, lawyers, philanthropists, developers, upwardly mobile white professionals and business interests. Recent comments by Rev. Jesse Jackson that Obama talks down to blacks and Ralph Nader that Obama is “talking white” and not challenging the “white power structure” are consistent with the voters Obama decided he wanted to represent.
Lizza points out that Obama’s new district contained the seeds of his future political success: “In the end, Obama's North Side fund-raising base and his South Side political base were united in one district. He now represented Hyde Park operators like Lois Friedberg-Dobry as well as Gold Coast doyennes like Bettylu Saltzman, and his old South Side street operative Al Kindle as well as his future consultant David Axelrod.
Obama knew that redistricting was a manipulation of democracy. In an article in the Hyde Park Herald he described how ‘partisan’ and ‘undemocratic’ Illinois redistricting had become. When Obama was asked for his views he was candid. Lizza reports he said: “There is a conflict of interest built into the process. Incumbents drawing their own maps will inevitably try to advantage themselves.”
It is disappointing that someone who started with registering voters seemingly to strengthen democracy became a pol who selecting his voters rather than having the voters select him. Redistricting is one of the sins of U.S. democracy. Redistricting abuse is one of the many manipulations of democracy that puts the lie to the claim that the U.S. is the greatest democracy on Earth. Obama is part of that system—indeed his political career was born out of that system.
The second point to highlight from the article is what kind of politician Obama is. Lizza gives a quick summary of Obama’s politics—a description that summarizes what we probably can expect when he is elected president:
“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 channeled 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.”
The Obama campaign is built on rhetoric of change. The author writes Obama runs “on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game.” This analysis is consistent with a candidate who promised to run within the public funding system but then decided not to when he saw advantages to doing so.
What can we expect when Obama becomes president?
Probably many of his supporters who want paradigm shifting change—consistent with his campaign rhetoric—away from the corrupt politics of big money and corporate control of government and see it in Obama will be disappointed. As the article points out, Obama demonstrates to his supporters—when he disappoints them—that “superheroes don't become President; politicians do.”
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