The Making of a Politician
- Please send as far and wide as possible.
Editor, The Konformist
The "Making" of a Politician
July 13, 2008
Alice Palmer, Barack Obama, Chicago politics, David Axelrod,
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 basehe had managed to beat Rush in Hyde Parkthen
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
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
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
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
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.