Obama and the Chicago Machine

One of the more puzzling developments in Obama’s career is how he has been able to position himself as a reform style politician – as an outsider who can come in and clean up the mess politicians have made. This simply doesn’t match reality. And yet the media seems uninterested in exploring and explaining Obama’s past.

At the start of his career you could make the argument that this is the kind of politician Obama was seeking to become, but his ambition seems to have quickly pushed this idealism aside. Making his career in Chicago, and Cook County Illinois, gave Obama the chance to put some substance behind his words. But at practically every opportunity he has chose the safe route rather than the route of reform; of challenging the system. Back in July Michael Van Winkle, a Chicago resident, offered a quick rundown of this rarely talked about aspect of Obama’s career:

He has a track record of putting party over principle.

In 2006, he endorsed the re-election of Rod Blagojevich, despite very real concerns about the Governor’s ethics. Since the endorsement, Blagojevich has come very close to full blown indictment, so close that some Illinois Democrats tried to have him recalled. But Obama’s voice has been silent on the matter.

In 2007, incumbent Cook County Board President and long-time Machine candidate, John Stroger, faced a tough challenge from a reform candidate in the Democratic Primary. Obama refused to make an endorsement.

When John Stroger was incapacitated by a stroke two weeks before the election, Obama was silent. When the Machine told us Stoger was fine and only admitted the seriousness of the stroke once the deadline for candidate filings had passed, Obama remained silent. And when the Machine replaced John Stroger with his inexperienced and unimpressive son, Todd, well Obama endorsed him.

Since Obama’s endorsement, Todd Stroger has gone on to break promises, lie to the public, and raise taxes to support six-figure salaries for his family and friends.

Even now, Obama is putting politics over principle in Illinois. Illinoisans have a chance to reform state politics by voting “yes” for a consitutional convention on a November ballot question. But Obama’s own campaign mastermind, David Axelrod, has been hired to oppose the effort.

I’m not blaming corruption in Illinois on Obama; let’s be clear. But he’s done very little to stand up for principles and good governance in a state that deperately needs principled and bipartisan leadership.

[Tom Bevan provides] (http://time-blog.com/realclearpolitics/2008/06/obamasnoicantmoment.html) further details on the consequences of Obama refusing to take a stronger stand in the Cook County Board election:

Whether Obama’s endorsement would have mattered or not is beside the point. Endorsements are, as a matter of practical politics, mostly symbolism. By choosing to stay neutral in the race and to not go the extra distance to endorse Claypool, Obama signified that he was for reform and change – but only up to a point.

As it turned out, there was a bizarre epilogue to this race – and one that proves these kind of decisions have real world consequences. A week before the primary, Stroger suffered a severe stroke. The resulting outpouring of sympathy played at least some part in the final outcome: the reformer Claypool lost by six points, 53 to 47.

Stroger stayed out of sight for weeks and eventually it came to light that after recognizing he would not be able to stand for re-election, he engineered a deal from his hospital bed to install his son, Todd Stroger, on the ballot.

The move was decried by many, including Claypool, for what it was: a bald act of nepotism. Despite Todd Stroger’s youth, inexperience, and his reputation as a corrupt, machine-style ward boss, Obama not only endorsed Stroger in the general election but heaped praise on him as a “a good progressive” – a claim that no one who knows him could make with a straight face.

In the end, Todd Stroger won election in November 2006. Since taking office as Cook County Board President, however, he has been an unmitigated disaster. With runaway tax increases and the county hospital system in crisis, Stroger has been busy packing the County payroll with allies at the expense of taxpayers, including more than a dozen friends and relatives making more than $100,000 per year.

As I noted yesterday, Obama likes to talk about his stance against the war in Iraq as difficult and courageous when it was really just smart politics. Here was a true chance to be courageous, to put real political capital on the line, and Obama refused to stand up to the political machine. And there were real world consequences in the form of continued corruption, nepotism, and bad government.

Only those who view Obama through rose colored glasses, however, will be surprised by any of this history. Obama’s political mentor, and the politician who gave Obama what little legislative accomplishments he has, was a member of the Chicago machine and continues to treat public office like a family business.

Nobody expected Obama to become a one issue crusader against corruption in Chicago. Even most anti-machine politicians attempt to work within the system. But it is one thing to remain silent and another to use the system to climb the ladder and then claim to be something different. Obama’s record is the record of a politician accommodating himself to the system not challenging it. But of course, it is hard to win elections running as just another politician.

Obama’s reformer image is an illusion and a dangerous one because it hides his real record and masks his real character.