President Barack Obama’s enemies like to call him a creature of the “Chicago machine,” but when it comes to the politics of his home state of Illinois, the White House doesn’t seem to know where the gears are.
Indeed, Chicago has delivered an unending stream of embarrassment, frustration and discomfort to the administration of its favorite son, from an indicted governor to a failed Olympics bid to a series of smaller political blows.
In the latest encounter with political quicksand, the White House — already burned by a series of failures to fill Obama’s Senate seat with a chosen candidate — has been forced to proceed with extreme caution toward the damaged Democratic Senate nominee, Alexi Giannoulias, waiting to see if he drops out even as some of its allies want the White House to take a heavier hand.
Giannoulias is only the candidate, after all, because Obama, a proud Chicagoan, first failed to persuade Illinois’s Democratic governor to appoint Valerie Jarrett, the perceived favorite — at least without cash on delivery. Then, after the governor’s indictment, the White House tried, and failed, to keep Roland Burris from warming Obama’s seat. After that, Obama couldn’t persuade Illinois’s popular attorney general to run for a federal office that would be seen, in most states, as an obvious promotion.
When it came to the final hours of health care legislation, a horde of Democratic legislators — including the brand-new inheritor of Rahm Emanuel’s own House seat — objected, from the left and right, and needed to be frantically corralled back into line. One Chicago Democrat, Rep. Daniel Lipinski, almost inexplicably voted to oppose the legislation.
Another Democrat in Chicago’s House delegation, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, has been a noisy critic of Obama’s inaction on immigration and was arrested last week in front of the White House in a protest over the slow progress of legislation. Then there is Obama’s old rival Rep. Bobby Rush, who continues to view him with an element of mockery.
“Barack’s walk is an adaptation of a strut that comes from the street. ... And he’s the first president of the United States to walk like that, I can guarantee you that!” Rush crowed to author David Remnick, before rising from his chair to imitate Obama. “But, lemme tell you, I never noticed that he walked like that back then!”
It’s all symptomatic of a broader truth: President Obama of Illinois, whose White House is run by three top Chicago political hands — Jarrett, Emanuel and David Axelrod — can’t seem to get what he wants in Chicago.
That the president from Chicago, and his Chicago-based White House circle, can’t control the elementary workings of Illinois politics is, from afar, puzzling. Up close, it’s the product of two things: Obama’s personal distance from the nuts and bolts of city politics and a unique, local political culture in which a member of Congress once retired simply to run for alderman and a White House chief of staff wants to be mayor when he grows up. (Emanuel has said openly that he’d like to succeed Richard Daley as mayor.)
“People go to Washington to be punished or for education,” said Paul Green, a professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, quoting an adage of the city’s political class.
The gap between Washington and Chicago begins with Obama himself. Though advisers Jarrett, Axelrod and Emanuel are all intimates of the city’s ultimate power broker, Daley, Obama always kept his distance from the mayor and the taint of organization politics.
“His relationship with the mayor was always very cordial, but it was not a very close one,” said Dawn Clark Netsch, a former state comptroller.
A Republican state senator who backed Obama’s presidential bid, Kirk Dillard, made a distinction between enjoying the support of the machine and being a power broker in one’s own right.
“While President Obama is associated with the Chicago Democrat machine, he’s never been part of their officers or inner workings,” he said. “While he’s been associated with it, having control of it and being an officer, so to speak, are two different things.”
But even if Obama had closer personal ties to Daley and the Chicago establishment — and his advisers, after all, do — it might not matter anyway. The simple fact is that Chicago Democrats are disinclined to take their marching orders from Washington.
“Right now in Washington, you have the three best political minds in Chicago — Axelrod, Emanuel and Jarrett,” said Green. “But they don’t have the power to force people out and force people in.”
And, he noted, any inclination to muscle the locals is counterbalanced by the fact that all three have to go home again. Axelrod’s business, Jarrett’s power base and Emanuel’s political future are all located on Lake Michigan.
The most obvious of the president’s hometown headaches is the situation surrounding his old Senate seat, where Obama’s wait-and-see posture is frustrating some Democrats in Chicago and on Capitol Hill who would like to see Giannoulias step aside for a Democrat whose campaign won’t be defined by the failure of a family bank.
White House officials have privately told allies that the best approach is to see whether Giannoulias, the state treasurer, can resurrect his flailing campaign through an advertising campaign that takes direct aim at Republican Mark Kirk. If he cannot accomplish that in the coming weeks, White House officials have told other Democrats they hope Giannoulias concludes that he cannot win the seat and that it’s time to call it quits for the good of the party.
“He’s got to come to a decision on his own,” said one Chicago Democratic strategist who’s closely following the race, characterizing the White House view.
But frustration is building among some top Democrats in Washington and Chicago who believe the White House has sent mixed messages to Giannoulias. While the White House has yet to forcefully endorse his candidacy, Obama in an official visit in downstate Illinois late last month embraced the state treasurer and called him a “soon-to-be senator.”
“They keep trying to put it off,” complained a senior Democrat.
Part of the problem facing the White House is that there’s no clear consensus candidate aside from the state’s attorney general, Lisa Madigan, who passed up an opportunity to jump into the race earlier this year. The other candidates who several Democrats believe are on the White House’s radar include state Comptroller Daniel Hynes, the runner-up in the Senate primary; David Hoffman; and possibly Rep. Melissa Bean.
But Giannoulias’s aides insist that he’s staying in the race and that the White House will fully engage in the campaign when the election nears. And Illinois’s senior senator, Dick Durbin, still pledges his full support to Giannoulias’s campaign.
White House officials note that chilly signals from Washington couldn’t keep Giannoulias out of the race any more than they could prevent any number of other small rebellions from occurring in Chicago.
“We’re not ward leaders in Illinois,” said a senior White House official, rejecting the expectation that they control the politics of Obama’s home state. “The White House is concerned principally with governing. Barack Obama is not the leader of the Democratic Party of Illinois, and his staff does not consist of folks who are trying to exercise influence there on a day-to-day basis. This president supports the Democratic ticket in Illinois, and Democrats and voters in the state need to make a set of decisions going forward.”
Gabriel Beltrone contributed to this report.