Originally posted at the Chicago Reader.
Q&A: Rick Perlstein on how a dose of machine politics could benefit Obama
Posted by Micah Uetricht on 10.16.12 at 01:30 PM
If you tuned in to this summer’s Republican National Convention in Tampa or any number of the GOP’s stump speeches in the last few months, you may have been surprised at how eager Republicans are to bring up our fair city. Not to heap praise upon us, sadly (although vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan was a big fan of Mayor Emanuel’s stand against the Chicago Teachers Union), but to tell the American electorate that President Barack Obama, who soared into office on the wings of a compelling, high-minded appeal for hope and change, is a slimy, old-school machine pol—”nothing more than a Chicago ward politician,” in the words of New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
The comparison irked many Chicagoans—perhaps for no other reason than that we pride ourselves on our ability to identify those remnants of the Chicago machine’s heyday still kicking around our city’s political scene, and Obama has never really fit that bill.
Historian and journalist Rick Perlstein finds few traces of the Chicago machine in Obama’s governance, but says that’s not necessarily a good thing. Author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America—and a close observer of the American Right (he was in Tampa for the GOP convention)—Perlstein argues in his most recent article for Chicagomagazine, “Obama’s Power Problem,” that the Republican Party has only identified one of Chicago’s political traditions—the Richard J. Daley-style machine—while forgetting the other—the principled reform vision best exemplified by Mayor Harold Washington. Perlstein says Obama is neither machine operative nor reformer and could actually use a healthy dose of some aspects of both in his governance and campaign for reelection. (Perlstein is also the subject of a 2008 Reader profile by Harold Henderson.)
Perlstein trudged through the weekend rain away from his native island of idealistic reform, Hyde Park, to the far north side to discuss his piece with me.
Reader: You write, “Obama seems to think that if he shows himself to be a trustworthy steward of the public purse, Republicans will respect him and the voting public will be grateful. It hasn’t worked.” This seems to be a broader issue within the Democratic Party: they think their technocratic policy proposals are so soundly constructed that there’s no compelling appeal that needs to be made to the American public.
Rick Perlstein: They think that is a compelling appeal. The step they skip is that human beings think with our hearts and guts in addition to our minds.
There’s a tradition within the Democratic Party and liberal thinking that’s embarrassed by that fact. Obama occupies a curious and ambivalent place in that tradition. On the campaign trail, he pulled the heartstrings of his supporters like no one we’d seen for a generation. But on January 20, 2009, he suddenly became what I think he always was: someone who believed deeply in the notion that you persuade by governing well, and you govern well by getting together in back rooms and coming up with technically sound policy solutions. It’s an enormous irony—who could’ve predicted in 2008 that Obama would be our most technocratic and least populist president?
One of the great Chicago reformers, Abnar Mikva, was one of the guys who spotted Obama early on as a political up-and-comer, but said, “You can’t orate your way out of a paper bag. You gotta go to some black churches and learn how to preach.” So learning how to “testify” was one more ticket that Obama punched in the deliberate process of becoming an effective politician—but one that he immediately tucked away once he no longer needed it. He does not feel comfortable with it.
But we don’t see even that kind of rhetoric from him anymore, which is curious, since that rhetoric won him the election. Questions of fidelity to liberal principles aside, retreating from those grand, inspiring speeches seems unwise in keeping poll numbers up.
The question is, what did he believe he was inspiring people towards? If you go back and look, the object of those speeches was unspoken. It was contentless. Which is what all politicians do. But it turns out that what he thought was inspirational was this very notion that he could transcend political divisions, to get the lion to lie down with the lamb.
I almost feel like the thing that really animates his passion is what’s called in Washington “the grand bargain”—that somehow he’s going to get Democrats to give up their political shibboleth, that you’re not supposed to touch middle class entitlement spending, and the Republicans will give up their political shibboleth, that you’re not allowed to raise anyone’s taxes. His passion for it seems almost independent of the policy content of either of these ideas.
If it just so happened that Democrats said the sky was blue, and Republicans said the sky was red, Barack Obama would seem to derive a lot of passion from convincing people that they can agree that the sky is purple. Well, lo and behold, the sky is blue.
Cutting social security and Medicare is bad policy; raising taxes is probably good policy. But the thing that Obama seems excited about is compromise as such. It’s one of these paradoxes that he seems to throw up in profusion—the same kind of paradox we see in this guy who comes from Chicago but isn’t able to master the most useful lesson that Chicago has to teach, which is that you can deliver power to ordinary people in a way that increases your own power as a politician, too.
You discuss how Chicago machine pols prioritized slapping their name on every project they undertook. They branded their policies so Chicagoans associated public works that positively benefited their lives with those politicians. You say Obama does a poor job of this.
It’s the kind of thing he does kicking and screaming. In the article, I talk about when FDR passed the Social Security Act. This was a project of a guy named Jim Farley, the Postmaster General, the head of the DNC, and basically the patronage chief for the federal government. He and FDR put posters up in every post office in the US saying, “A monthly check to you for the rest of your life.”
They set up the social security system because they wanted to have a federal pension, for all sorts of sound policy reasons; but they knew that Americans don’t traditionally trust those kinds of government initiatives. So instead of taking the money out of the general revenue, they created this crazy thing in which you make a contribution that you see come out of your paycheck every week, FICA. Roosevelt admitted that as policy, it was perfectly absurd; their reason for doing it was purely political. They knew that if people saw social security as something they had a direct, personal investment in, they would never let a politician take it away, because that money belonged to them personally and individually.
Someone criticized my point about the way Obama chose to do his tax cut was in contrast to Bush: he did not have the federal treasury send out $700 checks to people with his name on it. He had it doled out in people’s paychecks as a cut in their FICA contribution, such that, as a political consideration, it was virtually invisible. That’s why the polls all said that people thought taxes must have gone up under Obama when they had really gone down.
The reason he did that was because those intellectually sound technocrats working in the back rooms showed him the computer projections showing that if tax cuts came to the American people almost invisibly in adjustments to their payroll taxes, people would be more willing to spend the money in a way that would better stimulate the economy. So why should he have done something that was not sound policy, just for political reasons? Well, look at FDR. He created the most successful program policy-wise in American history by making that one political compromise that guaranteed that it would become the “third rail in American politics.”
FDR understood that mere technocratic genius can’t stand on its own. No matter how outstanding of a steward of the administrative aspects of government you are, you don’t get to govern unless you win. And you don’t win unless you make your accomplishments as obvious as a two-by-four to the side of the head.
Do you trace a lot of what you see as Obama’s shortcomings in governing to his basic personality traits?
I think it’s partly his personality. This is the guy who saw his ability to conciliate different factions as the very soul of his political appeal, at least back to his time at law school. I have a friend who went to law school with him and remembers him saying, “I don’t even know if I’m a liberal or a conservative.”
But it’s also sociological. It has to do with how politics has evolved. The blunt, working class, transactional liberalism of an FDR or a Mayor Daley has come to be seen as an embarrassment—even to the people who run the Chicago machine now, which still has patronage, but the benefits don’t go to working class guys who get to work on sewers. They go to white collar guys who get to open a Jamba Juice using zoning variances.
The working class is no longer seen as an essential constituency for Democrats to court—unlike the white collar Jamba Juice guys.
It’s a complicated history, but it goes back at least to 1972, when the Democratic nominee, George McGovern—probably the furthest left Democratic nominee since FDR—distrusted labor and the working class as cultural reactionaries. And it evolved into Carter, a guy who deeply distrusted labor and Keynesianism and spending money to build things and was a budget hawk. Or even people like Michael Dukakis, who said he was going to run the government according to competence, not ideology. Democrats have become embarrassed to be seen as the party of the working class.
Now, Obama is doing what every Democrat does in a close election in the final innings: he is making a strong appeal to working-class voters. But it’s often too little and too late, and it’s something made of necessity rather than coming from the heart.
If Obama does not exemplify either Chicago-style machine politics or Chicago-style reform, how would you sum up his governance?
I would sum it up as the public policy case study method. When you get a masters in public policy from a place like the Harris School at the University of Chicago or other similar institutions, you’re basically taught problem-solving methods that don’t take politics into consideration. You’re asked to abstract out politics and say, “What would an ideal regulation look like?” Not what kind of constituencies do you need to bring to your side, or what are the alignments of power.
It’s the world of Cass Sunstein, the University of Chicago professor who Obama made his regulation czar. He took an office started under Reagan and continued its mandate to turn all regulations into a question of abstract cost-benefit anaylsis. Of course, it’s better to measure benefits against their costs than not to worry about such things, but that’s often impossible in the real world where the people who are regulating and judging have political interests.
Do you think this Obama-as-political-boss line that the right is pushing has gained any traction?
No. Right-wing rhetoric just appears to be on autopilot. They really are caught in this kind of feedback loop, where they’re just talking to each other. The right wing proceeds based on a set of ingrained legends that are like founding myths. One of those myths is that urban machines exploit gullible, working-class, minority voters in order to subvert democracy. If that doesn’t have any empirical relevance to what’s actually going on in 2012, well, that must mean that these malevolent forces are so cunning that they’re hiding it from us.
So they’re going to keep on riffing that out, regardless of the evidence. It’s just one more thing they’ve thrown at the wall to see if it sticks.
Do you think Obama and his advisors believe his centrist or even center-right governing record is going to prevent escalating attacks from the right?
No, he’s thinking like Charlie Brown in “Peanuts” and the Republicans are Lucy. He’s thinking that if he has one more kick at the football, they’re not gonna pull it away this time. But they will. There is a lesson Obama should have learned a long time ago: you cannot placate right-wing forces by governing from the right. They’ll always figure out some myth to throw in your face. How could the right be more impassioned, more convinced than they are now that Obama is a Marxist? So what the hell, why not govern from the left?
Now, another lesson he could have learned from Chicago is from the Hyde Park reform tradition, which is based on idealism and builds power by storing up moral capital. That’s what Obama promised—for example, that he was going to run the most transparent administration in history. But that’s tricky to do if you’re running a giant neo-imperial hegemon like the U.S.
Jimmy Carter once gave a speech in 1976 that got the crowd extremely amped up, much more so than a typical stump speech. One of his aides said to him, “Governor, why don’t you give that speech every time?” Carter responded, “I can’t give that speech every time—it’s a terrible speech.” The aide said, “What do you mean it’s a terrible speech? The crowd went wild!” He said, “I’ve raised their expectations too high.”
The problem with holding yourself before the public as this figure of transcendent morality is that all it takes is one stumble for you to lose your credibility. It was always a dangerous game he was playing. Jimmy Carter’s presidency was ruined within a few months when his treasury secretary Bert Lance was accused by partisan Republican columnist William Safire of irregularities when he was a banker in Atlanta. Lance was exonerated, but all it took was one deflation for the public to say, “Maybe Jimmy Carter is just another politician.” So Barack Obama always had an impossible challenge before him to maintain the expectations he raised with those soaring speeches.
Then again, I don’t think Jesus, or the Buddha, or Gandhi could run for a second term as President of the United States as an exemplary moral actor. It’s just not in the nature of the gig.
You don’t mention Obama’s widely panned performance in the first debate in your article, but your overall argument seems apt there: the President seemed to neither present a compelling moral vision—to put “moral excellence on dramatic display, adversarially, in the face of defiant opposition,” as you write about Harold Washington—nor to effectively make the case that he is personally responsible for policies that have tangibly benefited the American public.
Tragically enough, I think his performance in that first debate is a kind of X-ray scan of how history is going to look at his presidency. He has governed like a bureaucrat, and he debated like a bureaucrat: like someone who deserves to be reelected because he’s moved the organizational flow charts around in the right way. That’s a difficult story to take to an electorate that’s looking for someone to lie down on the train tracks for them.