Liberals who have no grasp of Chicago political culture are dazed and confused by the recruitment of Chicago pol Bill Daley to replace chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
But the explanation is really pretty simple: Obama wants to survive the next two years and get re-elected in 2012, yet not surrender his peculiar form of political correctness. So he has to do two things with the current White House staff shake up – first, confuse the center about his real goals, and second, appoint a team that won’t threaten his core political values.
Obama’s sit down a few weeks ago with former President Bill Clinton was a perfect example of his approach: it signaled his apparent willingness to “move to the center” as Clinton was forced to do in the 1994. Of course, Clinton was, in fact, a centrist Democrat and an adherent of Tony Blair-style “third way” politics so such a move was well within his strike zone.
Obama is not going to change his (zebra) stripes anytime soon. He intends to use Daley as a beard for his now even smaller inner circle. Keep in mind how small that circle really is: it’s Valerie Jarrett, Michelle Obama and Barack Obama and whoever they hand pick to look to for advice and act as their agents. But it never really included Emanuel and it won’t include Daley or the new economic advisor Gene Sperling. Recall, for example, the dressing down delivered to the white staffers on the Obama campaign team by Harvard professor Chris Edley in Valerie Jarrett’s living room.
Actually the more interesting question to ask is why Bill Daley is willing to take the job. Does he really know what he is up against inside the White House? Already there are rumblings about his need to bring in his own people to confront the crowd around Obama. That’s where it helps to recall the dynamics of Chicago politics.
Sure, at some level, the Obamas, Jarrett, and the Daleys all come from Chicago. But they don’t come from the same Chicago. Bridgeport (where Bill and his brother Richie Daley grew up) is as close to Hyde Park culturally as Mexico is to God. The bottom line about the Daleys’ view of people like Jarrett and the Obamas is that they don’t really understand them. The Daleys, for more than seventy years, operate as quintessential political realists. It’s all about the deal: what can you do for me and what will I do for you. It is not about ideology, race, political correctness. It is not about absolutes. That is how the Daley machine survived for so long in a city as divided by class and race as Chicago has always been.
One can more easily say that a Bill Clinton reflected this kind of political realism more effectively than Obama ever has. The lame duck Congressional session showed signs of Clinton’s influence, but it is not likely to stick with some one like Obama who, while certainly someone with an incredibly strong personal ego, is fundamentally driven by ideology. And so Daley will press for realistic demands and compromise while Obama continues to drive the fundamental direction.
An example is the approach already in place with respect to national security. People like John Brennan and Tom Donilon are fundamentally political hacks not serious global strategists. We have come a long way from the era of Kissinger and Brzezinski. There is, in fact, a vacuum in US national strategy. Even someone as effective as Hilary Clinton has not been able to fill it.
Obama is the President and at the end of the day that gives him enough power to limit any effort she, or others like Bob Gates or Leon Panetta, might make to devise a new post-9/11 world view for the exercise of US power. As Bob Woodward makes clear in his book on the Afghanistan war, Obama is able to obstruct, delay and undermine what the national security team wants to do in order to preserve his political values. He made a half hearted effort in the campaign to say that he would fight the “good war” in Afghanistan not the “war of choice” in Iraq” but fundamentally he is not comfortable with his formal responsibility for the exercise of US power in the world. Recall his inability to comprehend why generals salute him when he walks into the room – a reflection of the fact that the chain of command runs from him to them. He is supposed to be the “decider.”
Of course, he had made a decision before the intense debate described in such detail by Woodward took place: he did not want to get bogged down in Afghanistan. His problem, one he shares with the genuine liberal left, is that he is not capable of devising a strategic alternative to that of the Pentagon because his political training in the politically correct culture of Chicago’s south side rendered him helpless as President of the global capitalist power house that is, in fact, the United States. So instead he uses people like Donilon and Brennan to undermine the direction of the national security and defense apparatus. No wonder Defense Secretary Gates was quoted by Woodward as being fearful of the appointment of Donilon as national security advisor.
Witness one recent problem: the US backed International Monetary Fund is hammering Pakistan with an austerity package in order to get paid back a measly $11 billion loan. The result is the fragile liberal government there – our best chance in years to break Pakistan’s backing of the Taliban – is under great stress and may fall apart. This kind of incoherence – the right hand not knowing what the left is doing – is symptomatic of the vacuum in national security strategy.
Thus, while the left fears Bill Daley will have a real impact, that is likely true only to the extent that it helps Obama get renominated by the party and re-elected in 2012. Since the party that has to renominate Obama remains a left of center party and the electorate remains to the right of center this will be a delicate balancing act. Far from a firm turn to the center, the White House will remain “contested terrain” just as it was during Emanuel’s tenure.
Daley’s one point of leverage is that he is likely now seen by Wall Street Democrats as their point man in the party. Jarrett’s efforts at outreach to major business leaders, couched in her peculiarly politically correct rhetorical garb, have been met with a thud. If financial and industrial leaders are to pony up for Obama’s reelection they will look for the right signals from Daley. Of course, the labor movement, the black community and white liberals no longer are part of the calculus. Having surrendered their independent voice in the party to the “zebra nation” worldview of people like Jarrett, Obama, Ayers and Dohrn, they are now being taken for granted.