After Barack Obama’s election there was a lot of press about how Chicago was cool because we’d produced such a cool presidential candidate. While President Obama is still enjoying his political honeymoon (no matter what Rush Limbaugh says), Chicago no longer seems so cool. The city’s political class has now entered its post-Obama hangover.
A dreary winter, continuing political scandals, and an economy in free fall have demoralized everyone here. But yesterday I got a small sample of what’s going on right now in city politics, and based on an admittedly small sample, it looks like the city’s office holders, their staffers, their political consultants, and the rest of the city’s legion of political animals have reached a reckoning point. Over the next six to eighteen months, the political landscape of the city and, to a lesser degree, the state will change substantially.
Nearly everyone in Chicago’s Democratic political establishment was involved in one way or another with the Obama presidential campaign, and they know it was the most important and exciting political event they’ll ever be involved in. During the transition effort, which was based here in Chicago, Obama’s innermost circle (Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett) got plum White House jobs, but those Democrats in the second and third rings around Obama had to make a choice: become a mid-level nobody in the Washington bureaucracy and last maybe 18 months, or remain behind in Chicago and play the same penny-ante games they’ve been playing for ten years or more. The prospect of balancing budgets over the next two or three years isn’t making anyone happier, either.
In this current climate Rod Blagojevich’s freakish greed appears more understandable, even prescient. Before he was removed from office, he was a career politician with young children living paycheck-to-paycheck with his chance for higher office probably gone. Obama’s Senate seat wasn’t just an opportunity to get his hands on a big pile of cash; it was his exit strategy from Illinois politics. In their much quieter—and legal—ways, I’ll bet other Illinois politicians and consultants are working on similar projects.