When Barack Obama decided to run for state senate, in 1995, he already had his political career mapped out. He laid it out to Jesse Ruiz, a former law student he was hoping to enlist as a campaign volunteer. First, the state senate. Then, Congress. Finally, mayor of Chicago. Just like Obama’s idol, Harold Washington, the man who had drawn him to Chicago in the first place.
Ruiz scoffed at Obama’s ambition.
“Barack,” he said. “Mayor Daley’s going to be there forever.”
Obama won the state senate seat, but the second leg of his plan was delayed when he lost a race for Congress against Rep. Bobby Rush. Had Obama won that seat, he might be mayor of Chicago today. Instead, he ran for the U.S. Senate, and thanks to a dynamic speech at the Democratic National Convention, became a national political star before he even won the election.
Rahm Emanuel also had a plan. After leaving the Clinton White House, he returned to Chicago to take a job as an investment banker. But it was only a refueling stop to fill up his savings account so he could pursue his real ambition: to become the first Jewish Speaker of the House. Emanuel was only in Chicago for three years before he got back on the Washington track by winning a seat in Congress. By 2006, he was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, raising money and recruiting candidates to help Democrats take over the House of Representatives for the first time in 12 years. He was on his way.
But Emanuel’s ambitions were derailed as a result of Obama’s local ambitions turning national. When Obama asked him to serve as White House Chief of Staff, he couldn’t say no. But to take the job, he had to give up his House seat, and his dream of becoming speaker.
Emanuel wanted to use Chicago as a path to power in Washington. Obama wanted to use Washington as a path to power in Chicago. It worked out the opposite way for both of them. Basically, Obama is having the career Emanuel wanted, as a powerful D.C. figure. And Emanuel is having the career Obama wanted, as mayor of Chicago.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!