Windy City Blues

Chicago’s Woes Could Hurt Obama’s Chances for Re-Election

Joblessness, a soaring murder rate, and union unrest could weaken Obama’s campaign, writes James Warren.

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a pit bull in pinstripes, hit the Democratic National Convention stage Tuesday, he briefly left behind hometown problems that might just complicate the reelection of his former boss.

President Obama can’t avoid at least one of those problems—the economy—since it’s a national problem as well. But two others of a distinctly local coloration—labor unrest and crime—pose unforeseen complications that Republicans may well try to exploit.

The economy is most obvious, with a small window provided at a North Side food pantry in a fashionable Chicago neighborhood, a few blocks from where the mayor himself lives.

As Emanuel, or the tightly coiled missile as tagged by this writer, began a rather mechanical address at the convention in Charlotte, volunteers at the Chicago food pantry were just finishing cleaning up after serving several hundred people at All Saints Episcopal Church’s weekly pantry. Nearly 200 plastic bags of milk, bread, and cans of beef stew, peas, apple sauce, turkey chili, peanut butter, salmon, and chicken gumbo were distributed, while nearly 100 or so individuals came for a sit-down dinner of breaded pork chops, vegetables, salad, rolls, and chocolate pudding.

The weekly persistence of these large numbers is evidence of certain unalterable urban realities, such as mental illness and homelessness. But there is also the overall economy. In some cases, those who showed up looked, and even dressed, rather similarly to some of the delegates in Charlotte, or in Tampa the week before.

There was a woman in beige khakis and an Arthur Andersen T-shirt and men in neatly pressed jeans and sports shirts fit for a country-club round of golf. They were evidence of an economy that gives new meaning to model Heidi Klum’s trademark admonition about the fashion world on Project Runway: one day you’re in, the next day you’re out. It’s sort of like that logo of the now-defunct Andersen, the longtime accounting giant.

Watching later convention punditry on both national and local television outlets, I mildly desired to magically transport some analysts to the church. Their tactics-obsessed discussions of the race between Obama and Mitt Romney, with the terms “job creation” thrown about like dollar bills at an arcade, were at times fairly bloodless and verged on pedantry from airy arena skyboxes.

A voter’s take on the weak overall economy and his or her household situation is, obviously, a driving force in the election. But it’s also possible that some distinctly Chicago maladies might bite an incumbent whose home remains on the South Side.

The first is persistent crime. The roots of the high murder rate can be endlessly debated and even juxtaposed, as the mayor does, with a general decline in city crime. But the homicide rate itself remains a national curiosity as underscored by a Meet the Press interview Sunday when host David Gregory concluded a session with Emanuel on Obama’s reelection by mildly miffing a notoriously thin-skinned politician, it seemed, with queries about the crime mess.

Meanwhile, the mayor apparently cut short his stay in Charlotte to return home late Wednesday and avoid any chiding for being absent as negotiations with the teachers union climax. The union has set a possible Monday strike date, meaning there is at least the hypothetical scenario of organized labor, a key Obama backer, hitting the bricks in his hometown and at least embarrassing his former chief of staff.

Some Democratic observers see neither an uptick in crime nor a teachers’ walkout as a bank shot that injures Obama after surely bruising Emanuel. But they don’t all discount the possibility that Republicans might try to make hay, especially via their burgeoning super PACs.

“Do I think this could be helpful to the Republicans, even determinative? No,” said Eric Adelstein, a Chicago-based national Democratic political consultant. “But with the amount of money they have, I am sure they will try.”

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And as a Chicago lawyer and Republican consultant put it, “I think it would be exploited. As for crime, look at the Drudge Report and its weekly, sometimes daily, Chicago murder count.”

“And if there is a strike, it will be exploited. It would be very, very cynical. But it’s a presidential election.”