Obama's “Daley Standard Time”

We are moving toward a closer entanglement of business, finance and government than anything the United States has known since the end of World War II. In another political system, the interpenetration of power and money would spark justified fears of authoritarianism. The vice of the American political system is not authoritarianism. It is corruption.

Shrum has generously volunteered to save Republicans from the political dangers of “Hoover time.” But who will save America from the economic dangers of Chicago’s “Daley time?”

Few American states have a more notorious history of corruption than Illinois. As Chicago’s FBI chief said when announcing charges against Governor Rod Blagojevich, “If [Illinois] isn’t the most corrupt state in the United States, it certainly is one hell of a competitor.” So it is not exactly heartening that at this moment of maximum susceptibility to corruption, the United States has entrusted itself to its first president trained in the Chicago school of politics made famous by Mayor Richard Daley and his progeny.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Barack Obama is no Rod Blagojevich. But he was also no reformer in a state that desperately needs one. Ryan Lizza, in a generally sympathetic profile of Obama’s Illinois career in The New Yorker, observed: “Getting close to the sullied political leadership in Illinois was probably an unavoidable cost of winning the U.S. Senate seat.”

The question is: how close?

In June 2007, the Obama campaign released the list of Obama’s requested earmarks for fiscal 2008. Obama had asked for some $300 million in federal funds for local projects; tens of millions were slated for a single state senate district represented by Illinois senate president Emil Jones. It was Jones to whom Obama famously had appealed for help in 2003: “You have the power to make a U.S. senator,” Obama told him.

In fact, Jones did—and he used that power to advance Obama’s career.

As Todd Spivak recounted in the Houston Press in February, 2008:

Jones appointed Obama sponsor of virtually every high-profile piece of legislation [enacted in 2003], angering many rank-and-file state legislators who had more seniority than Obama and had spent years championing the bills.

"I took all the beatings and insults and endured all the racist comments over the years from nasty Republican committee chairmen," State Senator Rickey Hendon, the original sponsor of landmark racial profiling and videotaped confession legislation yanked away by Jones and given to Obama, complained to me at the time. "Barack didn't have to endure any of it, yet, in the end, he got all the credit.

"I don't consider it bill jacking," Hendon told me. "But no one wants to carry the ball 99 yards all the way to the one-yard line, and then give it to the halfback who gets all the credit and the stats in the record book."

During his seventh and final year in the Illinois state senate, Obama's stats soared. He sponsored a whopping 26 bills passed into law—including many he cited in his presidential campaign when he was attacked as inexperienced.

Lizza wrote in The New Yorker: “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.”

The existing institutions of Washington include 535 members of Congress, each with his or her own fundraising imperatives, favored constituencies and networks of former staffers in search of remunerative employment. The new federal role in finance offers those 535 legislators large and exciting opportunities. They have every incentive to exploit those opportunities, and few if any to refuse.

Look at the history of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for examples: these institutions became at once retirement communities for former staffers, piggy banks for congressional campaigns, and conduits for supporting congressional projects without the awkward need for taxes or appropriations.

TARP, the government bailout fund for the finance industry, will be a super-Fannie. The only person who can protect it from abuse is the president—and then only if he can resist the temptation to abuse it himself. Can Obama resist? Will he stand up to his political allies in Congress?

To put it more bluntly: Will Obama discover more independence in Washington than he ever showed in Springfield? We’ll soon see, but recent history inspires little confidence.

In summer, 2008, the Illinois state legislature passed a bill that would have curbed some of the excesses of the state’s "pay to play" political system. The bill banned large state contractors ($50,000 and up) from making donations to the officeholders who hire them. Basic, right?

Governor Blagojevich vetoed the law in August. Senate president Jones seemed not very eager to override the veto, and local reformers began calling on Obama to intervene. Only after almost three weeks of uncertainty—and of escalating criticism from the McCain campaign—did Obama endorse the proposal.

Obama hesitated because Emil Jones didn’t like the reform. Now that Obama is president, suddenly there are a lot more Emil Jones figures in his life, with a lot more to like and dislike.

When the first Mayor Daley defeated a “goo-goo” candidate to become Mayor of Chicago in 1955, Daley loyalist Paddy Bauler famously jeered, “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.” Half a century later, it still ain’t.

But with the U.S. government owning a big chunk of the nation’s financial system—and soon the automakers, too—it may no longer be just Chicago that isn’t ready for reform. From Atlantic to Pacific, the whole country may soon be running on “Daley time.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.