Richard Daley’s decision to retire as mayor of Chicago at the end of his term has thrown the city into a minor panic. After two decades in office, Daley is often credited with transforming Chicago from a racially polarized Rustbelt disaster to a flourishing global metropolis. Though widely admired for his vision and effectiveness, Daley has also been called out for his authoritarian streak, a pale but unmistakable reflection of the notoriously thuggish methods employed by his father in the same office. With Daley fading from the scene, there is no clear successor to inherit his patronage networks. And so there is a rare opportunity for the right candidate to build a new Chicago dynasty, and to set the city on a new course. So far, speculation has centered on Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s hotheaded chief of staff, who has told anyone who’ll listen for years that he intends to succeed Mayor Daley. But as President Obama struggles on the national political scene, he should give serious thought to resigning from office and running for mayor of Chicago himself.
It is possible that Barack Obama’s unique talents are actually wasted on the White House.
As a young community organizer on Chicago’s South Side, Barack Obama was inspired by the extraordinary political success, and the momentous political struggles, of Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor. A skilled coalition-builder and a gifted orator, Washington defeated the handpicked candidates of Chicago’s Democratic political establishment, including a young Richie Daley, before winning a narrow victory over a feisty Republican opponent in a racially charged general election. A surge of black voters, many of whom were casting ballots for the first time, gave Washington his historic victory in 1983. And by the time Obama arrived in Chicago in the summer of 1985, Washington remained extremely popular in the heavily black precincts of the West Side and the South Side, despite his weaknesses as an administrator.
• Richard Wolffe: Is a White House Shakeup Ahead?Even then, Obama felt passionately about his adopted city, and a handful of friends and mentors saw him as a future mayor. As recently as 2000, when he ran an uphill primary campaign against Bobby Rush in Illinois’ 1st Congressional District, running for mayor seemed like a logical next step. Washington had followed a similar trajectory, from the state legislature, to Congress, to mayor, and so it was Obama’s 2000 defeat that set him on a very different course. Obama’s primary campaign was a miserable failure by any standard. As David Remnick writes in The Bridge, “too often, Obama reminded reporters and voters of the great sacrifices he had made by forgoing a Supreme Court clerkship or a mega-salary downtown to engage in public service,” sacrifices that didn’t necessarily resonate in a congressional district that included some of the country’s poorest, most violence-scarred neighborhoods.
Recognizing that his unconventional background made him an awkward fit for the South Side, Obama recovered from his defeat by building a broader, more diverse political coalition, one that, like Washington’s coalition, included large numbers of affluent white “lakefront liberals.” Obama’s long-shot campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004 built heavily on this new base of Howard Dean voters, a constituency that, as we know, propelled him to victory.
And so Barack Obama left the neighborhoods he first served as a community organizer behind to devote himself to issues of national and international concern. Just as Obama’s premature congressional bid was a failure, his political career since 2004 has been an extraordinary, history-making success, perhaps the most rapid ascent to power in modern American history.
But is the presidency the right job for Barack Obama? Some critics would suggest that while Obama proved to be a gifted candidate, he doesn’t have the right temperament or the right skill set for the White House. In a similar vein, George W. Bush had a gift for connecting with sympathetic audiences during his 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns, yet his experience as governor of Texas, a state with an unusually weak executive, didn’t necessarily prepare him for the rigors of office. Bill Clinton, in contrast, was a long-serving hands-on governor of a poor state, and the experience served him well. George H.W. Bush also had considerable executive experience, having served as CIA director and as vice president before taking the helm.
This isn’t to suggest that voters chose the wrong candidate in 2008. John McCain didn’t have much in the way of executive experience either. Rather, it is possible that Barack Obama’s unique talents are actually wasted on the White House. In a status-obsessed society, it seems odd to think that the most prestigious and powerful job isn’t necessarily the right job. Yet that’s often true, and the president would send a powerful signal to that effect were he to take the courageous and difficult step of resigning.
In all seriousness, we all know that Barack Obama won’t resign from office to run for mayor. Sarah Palin was a rare political figure willing to acknowledge that high office wasn’t right for her, and she’s had considerable success in her new career as a professional rabble-rouser and political pundit. I’m recommending that the president take a far more strenuous path, one that doesn’t involve enriching himself and his family but rather subjecting himself to a job at least as demanding as the presidency.
Regardless of what the president, or for that matter Rahm, ultimately chooses to do, Chicago badly needs a new generation of political leaders. While Mayor Daley has left the commercial heart of Chicago in good shape, and his quality-of-life efforts have helped revitalize a number of North Side neighborhoods, there are large swaths of city that never experienced the boom, and have been particularly hard-hit during our Great Stagnation. These are the neighborhoods that Barack Obama promised to serve over two decades ago, where young boys are more likely to wind up in prison than in college. There is, of course, much that can be done for these neighborhoods from the White House. But it seems clear that a mayor can have a more palpable impact, free from the need to focus on Afghanistan’s civil war or trade disputes or any number of other issues.
The filing deadline to run for mayor isn’t until November 22nd, weeks after the midterm elections. Would you rather be mayor of one of the world’s great cities or spend your days scrapping with Speaker John Boehner?
Reihan Salam is a policy advisor at e21 and a fellow at the New America Foundation.