Saturday, April 01, 2006

Clinton reformer rips Obama

U. S. Senator Obama was criticized last week in a Chicago Tribune Op-ED by a bona fide reformer:

[Senator] Obama missed a real chance to use some of the vast reservoirs of political capital he has built to unequivocally demonstrate his commitment to reform and good government. He has weakened his moral authority by seemingly safeguarding his political career.

I--and many others--cannot understand how someone can be considered presidential when he refuses to take a stand on the most important race in recent memory in his own back yard [The contest for President of the Cook County Board, Democratic Primary, March 21, 2006].

The author of the above, Sunil Garg, among other responsibilities in the Daley Administration, served as the principal advisor to Mayor Daley on inner city issues and managed mayoral initiatives on economic development and re-engineering city department. Garg also was a White House Fellow during the last year of the Clinton Administration, working as a senior adviser to the deputy director of the White House OMB.

In short, doesn’t seem like anyone is likely to challenge either Garg’s reformer credentials or his partisan commitment to the Democratic Party.

Yet, Garg’s analysis [See here] tracks closely that of my own [See here] and that of center left Chicago Tribune opinion journalist/blogger Eric Zorn [See here].

Garg writes:

It seems Obama decided to play it safe. He offered some kind (and almost whispered) words about Claypool on the eve of the election [Ed. Note: Senator Obama told NBC-5 News’ Dick Kay and his viewers that a lot of the negative things being said about Forrest Claypool by his opponents were not true; However, Obama’s words were far short of an endorsement and clearly were not intended to have a significant impact on the election]. I think he was probably reluctant to create any ill feelings within the African-American community and the machine by endorsing Claypool. Bottom line: There was possibly a downside but no real upside to endorsing Claypool, because after all, where are reformers in Illinois going to go but with Obama?

Obama’s not so random act of kindness directed at his friend, Claypool, created, I am told, quite a buzz in the black community on Primary Election day. Cliff Kelly, a Stroger supporter on WVON radio, which has a large African-American audience, kept reminding his listeners on election day that Obama did not endorse Claypool.

Garg, for all his insights, does seem a bit confused about why Obama chose to sit on the fence:

… [U]nlike many other African-American politicians, Obama is not dependent on the black vote. His appeal has transcended race in a way that has contributed to his celebrity-like status.

Well, not transcended race completely. Obama, during the 2004 Democratic U. S. Senate Primary, which turned out to be the general election, was fond of saying, as he said on “Public Affairs,” “While my roots are in the African American community, I am not limited to it.” And, indeed, Barack Obama was not, almost winning Dan Hynes dad’s [Tom Hynes] own powerful Democratic machine white ethnic 19th Ward [southwest side of Chicago] and, of course, winning outright many other primarily white areas, shocking most professional pundits with the breadth and size of his statewide margin of victory [53% to 24%] over 2nd place finisher, State Comptroller Dan Hynes, in a seven candidate Democratic primary.

However, notwithstanding Obama’s strong performance in many white areas of the State, it was Obama’s dominant performance [about 85%] in the black communities that made the Democratic Senate primary election a blow-out.

Without his dominance with his African-American base, Obama would have won, but probably by 5 to 10 points, instead of 29 points. Put another way, if Obama’s father had, like his mother, been white, rather then Kenyan, but everything else about Obama had been the same: his articulate, careful, thoughtful delivery of speeches and engaging conversation, his keen sense of how to combine politics and public policy, his personable charming nature; his position on the war, on racial profiling, tax-cuts, education, etc., Barack Obama would have won that race, but by a much, much smaller margin. Race mattered for Barack Obama in 2004, but in a positive way.

As an aside, I should note, in support of the above assertion, Obama was “only,” polling about 45% in the African-American community about two weeks before election day in the U.S. Senate Primary. That was before his massive television ad blitz had kicked in, which included superbly done political ads, e.g., Senator Paul Simon’s “endorsement from the grave,”, the product of David Axelrod [one of the best in the business].

One important thing the ads accomplished was to make Obama’s African American base aware of the fact that Obama is black, which helped increase his numbers in African-American communities by election day to about 85%. Not African-American former Illinois Comptroller and Attorney General Roland Burris numbers, or even President Bill Clinton numbers for that matter, but still very good—especially for a guy many professionals thought was not known generally to be Black, and, indeed, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington wrote that many blacks could not identify with Obama [with Laura referring to her uncle's comments about Obama's expensive overcoat—Barack chuckles about that allegation, noting that his wife, Michelle, is often critical of his frayed clothing].

Indeed, Senator Obama comes as close to transcending race as did former President Bill Clinton, and in that sense they are in “a league of their own.”

Nevertheless, Senator Obama knows this very well: never forget the importance of tending to your base. President George Herbert Walker Bush did and he was denied a second term. His son, President George W. Bush, didn’t and he is serving his second term. It is that simple.

So sensing, perhaps, what would happen on election day-- what even Claypool described after the election, as a tremendous outpouring [by the African-American community] of love and affection for County Board President Stroger, Senator Obama decided to play it safe. I am sure Obama knows in his heart of hearts that (1) Forrest Claypool would do a great deal to advance the cause of reform that Obama cares about and (2) a primary beneficiary of the Claypool reform would he the low income minorities who either receive health care and other services from Cook County Government or who must deal, disproportionately, with such inefficient and inhumane Cook County systems as the County Jail and Temporary Juvenile Detention Center. Obama knows further that Stroger or his replacement on the ballot will do little of that.

But, Obama, as talented and as strong politically as he is, was not sure he could persuade, over the efforts of the Daley-Stroger machine, the African American voters, his base, that they should buy into the above arguments about reform, and understand that even though many of their friends or family would lose patronage jobs, as Cook County Government was made more efficient and more responsive, the gains to them as a community would offset the losses—including the symbolic loss to the Black community of having a County Board President who is white.

So, U. S. Senator Obama didn’t make the bet that he had the political muscle to carry the day. Obama didn’t support his friend and ally, Forrest Claypool, knowing that Claypool would help the community Obama cares so much about much more than Stroger or his ballot replacement. Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., albeit not as close to Claypool as Obama, stayed neutral [See here], too, for many of the same types of considerations. Cong. Jackson has started down the road of reform and transcending race, not nearly so much as Obama, but he has made the start and he would like to continue it. But, like Senator Obama, Cong. Jackson has to tend to his base, and know when he can make the case to them and know when he can’t. Good politicians know their limitations as well as their potential.

So, when put this way, I think my fellow blogger and Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn will understand and perhaps give Senator Obama and Cong. Jackson a pass. Maybe reformer Sunil Garg will as well, Indeed, even I might be inclined to do so. However, one thing that distinguishes Zorn and me, from other media members, and Garg from other reformers-- we at least noticed and raised the issue. And, in that sense, didn’t give the automatic pass that our colleagues bestowed on the good Senator and good Congressman.
Jeff Berkowitz, Show Host/Producer of "Public Affairs," and Executive Legal Recruiter doing legal search can be reached at