David Hoppe

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:: The unmaking of the president

The unmaking of the president

By David Hoppe


In early 2008, when Barack Obama was running for president, some of his critics took pleasure in pointing out that the young senator from Illinois hailed from Chicago, a city known for its "machine" brand of politics. Obama, they suggested, owed his rapid rise through the Democratic ranks to connections with the city's mayor, Richard M. Daley, son of a previous Chicago mayor, the legendary Richard J. Daley, also known as hizzoner or, as another Chicago legend, the journalist Mike Royko, put it, Boss.

Over the holidays, I read Royko's 1971 take-down of the elder Daley, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago . Published when Daley was entering the sixteenth of what would finally be 21 years in office, Royko's book is a relentlessly focused attack on Daley's reputation as a mayor who made Chicago, as signs on its borders proudly proclaimed, "the city that works."

Royko doesn't deny Daley's accomplishments. As he points out, they are plainly visible for all to see: Chicago's downtown, the Loop, was revitalized and its skyline reinvented; a vast network of expressways connected all parts of the city and suburbs; a new airport, O'Hare, connected Chicago with the rest of the country and the world.

But this juggernaut of progress had a cost. As Royko observes: "Behind the high-rises are the crumbling, crowded buildings where the lower-income people live. No answer has been found to their housing problems because the real estate people say there's not enough profit in building homes for them. And beyond them are the middle-income people, who can't make it to the high-rises and can't stay where they are because the schools are inadequate, the poor are pushing toward them, and nothing is being done about their problems, so they move to the suburbs. When their children grow up and they retire, maybe then they can move to a lake front high-rise."

As Royko makes clear, Daley was able to get big things done in Chicago by keeping a vise-like grip on power, what Chicagoans came to call "clout." Daley ruled the city as a despot, which meant that things got done without the niceties of democratic process. In Chicago, connections and pay-offs were a part of doing business. Contractors were enriched, people were put to work and Daley kept it running by maintaining a steely discipline, often enforced by his police department, which operated in a kind of extra-legal zone.

Reading Boss today, one is outraged by Daley's egregious treatment of racial minorities, the disadvantaged and anybody else who didn't advance his bare knuckle agenda. But Royko's book also raises bigger, enduring questions about democratic governance. What would Chicago have been like if instead of command decisions, every building project would have been subject to rounds of community meetings and a conscientious process aimed at consensus?

Would there be an O'Hare Field? It was built in spite of peoples' concerns about noise and traffic congestion. A John Hancock skyscraper? Planners and architecture buffs argued such a big building would ruin the neighborhood's historic character. Or, for that matter, a Picasso on the city's Civic Center Plaza? The public thought a statue of baseball player Ernie Banks made more sense.

Fast forward to 2012. We are faced with a clutch of big picture issues, from implementing strategies to save the planet, to providing universal health care and viable forms of public transportation. We know these things are important. But a power outage at the top keeps them in a state of perpetual stalemate, subject to the me-first whims of special interests and squeaky wheels. Without clout, democracy has a way of chasing its tail.

That's how things have gone since President Obama took office. He said he was going to change the way things were done in Washington. He called for a new era of civility, for bipartisanship, when what he really needed was more old-fashioned clout.

It's turned out that whether he's dealing with health care reform, the economy, or global warming, Obama lacks the political will, the real power, or both, to govern effectively. Not even making Boss Daley's son, William, his Chief of Staff, in place of current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, has helped.

Which makes Obama's New Year's Eve signing of the National Defense Authorization Act, a law that makes United States citizens subject to arrest and indefinite detention by the military, more than a little ironic. The Obama Administration has said it would never take full advantage of this law but, as the American Civil Liberties Union has pointed out, the law has "no temporal or geographic limitations." Meaning a President Romney, let's say, could find the law's open-ended language a handy way of disappearing someone who was particularly annoying (mind your manners, Newt Gingrich!).

When this law was originally presented to Obama, he said he wouldn't sign it. Then a bipartisan group of senators, including McCain, Liebermann and Webb, pressed the issue and Obama backed down. Again.

Obama's now accused of grabbing power when it appears as likely he merely caved to pressure. This supposedly made man from Chicago must have old man Daley rolling in his grave.