What does Chicago want from President Obama?

What does Chicago want from President Obama?

What does Chicago want from President Obama?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 10 2008 7:52 PM

Chicago Hope

The Windy City gave us Obama. What can it expect in return?

In the days before the election, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley downplayed drama surrounding Barack Obama's logistically nightmarish election-night rally in Grant Park. "Could you see me saying no to Senator Obama?" he asked. Now that Obama has won and the rally is over, the question can be flipped: Can President Obama say no to Mayor Daley?

Obama spent much of his campaign crusading against the kind of chit-calling, favor-trading, and back-scratching that are a hallmark of politics in Chicago (and, to be fair, pretty much everywhere else). Still, Obama's adopted hometown will benefit hugely from his presidency—whether or not he intends it.


The biggest boon may be to the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics, which the IOC is scheduled to award in October 2009. Chicago is one of four cities competing for the Games that year, and it's fair to say that Obama has the other would-be hosts—Madrid, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro—in a panic. "I have a sense of crisis," one Japanese committeeman told the AP. Mayor Richard Daley has had his heart set on the Games for years, and Obama is expected to meet with the Olympic committee when it comes to Chicago in the spring. (Similar efforts by Tony Blair were seen as partly responsible for London's win in 2012.)

But the Olympics bid is only the most prominent example of what could be a fruitful relationship for the Daley administration. The Obama-Daley connections run deep. Bill Daley, the mayor's youngest brother, served as commerce secretary under Clinton and is now part of Obama's economic transition team. (He's also a potential Cabinet member.) Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, and David Axelrod all worked for Daley at some point in their careers: Emanuel as a fundraiser, Jarrett as a deputy chief of staff, and Axelrod as a consultant.

Meanwhile, Mayor Daley has had Obama's back repeatedly during the presidential campaign. He broke his longstanding tradition of not endorsing during the primaries by backing Obama against Hillary Clinton in December—of 2006. He spoke up when Obama's prior drug use became an issue. His support culminated in the election-night blowout, which cost $2 million (the campaign promised to reimburse the city) and attracted 240,000 people—and which doubled as a not-too-subtle display of Chicago's logistical acumen (cough Olympics cough).

Another obvious boon is access to federal funds. That doesn't necessarily mean a quid pro quo. But it may mean that Obama makes urban issues a priority, which will inevitably help Chicago. Daley has long been pushing to upgrade the city's mass transit system, including a "circle line" to link up the existing lines of the Chicago L and a new high-speed rail to O'Hare International Airport. (An expansion of O'Hare itself is already under way). "If the progressive Democratic wing of the party follows through on a green revolution in transportation, that can't help but benefit Chicago," says Bill Savage, who teaches Chicago literature and history at Northwestern University. Same goes for education reform and better funding for public housing.


Surely some earmarks will get through. "I think you'll see the city gets more than its share of federal funds," says Laura Washington, a former aide to Mayor Harold Washington (no relation). The challenge for Obama, says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, will be "to make sure his fingerprints aren't on the earmarks."

Less measurable than federal funds, but no less important, is access. At the very least, Chicago politicians will have the ear of the administration. Between Jarrett, Axelrod, Emanuel, Daley, and Obama himself, there will be no shortage of ears attuned to Chicago. It's not as if Chicago's national political profile was low—George W. Bush celebrated his 60th birthday there, and Daley's father famously went to great lengths for JFK—but it never hurts to have your mayor and your president on a first-name basis.

Yet the high profile cuts both ways. Expect more scrutiny of Chicago's famously corrupt political machine. So far, Obama has managed to convince people he's from Chicago but not of it—a phenomenon one Chicago columnist dubbed "hopium." But just as the national media are now obsessed with Alaskan drilling, they're also likely to scrutinize city politics and speculate about potential ties to Obama. There may be only one Tony Rezko, but the media can be counted on to try to find others like him.

How else will Chicago change because of Obama? Well, people will go there—at least that's the hope. The state tourism board plans to promote a three-day vacation package featuring sites related to Barack Obama. The Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau has already set up a "Presidential Chicago" page dedicated to the Obama family's favorite shops ("The soon-to-be First Lady is frequently seen wearing designs by Chicago's Maria Pinto") and eateries ("Obama pegs MacArthur's—which serves fine soul food in a family atmosphere—as one of his top Chicago picks"). A Chicago restaurant even made T-shirts that read, "Obama Eats Here." No plans yet to sell jars of air exhaled by Barack Obama, but just wait.

Spurring tourism will be the inevitable Chicago makeover. Right now, Chicago may be known best for the Cubs and Al Capone. (And, to those of a certain age, for Biker Mice From Mars.) But if all goes well, images of futility and crime will be replaced by pictures of the motorcade cruising down the Kennedy Expressway, barbershops on the South Side, and the rustic brick of the University of Chicago. Goodbye, America's grundle. Hello, "capital of the new decade."

Chances are the city will get safer, too. Hyde Park-Kenwood has just become "the safest urban neighborhood in America." When Obama was in town for his acceptance speech, police blocked off all roads within a quarter-mile of his house. When he's not in town, the Secret Service still keeps an eye on his house. We've already seen what happens when you try to mess with the motorcade.

Some expectations will no doubt be dashed. Federal agencies will not brim with Chicagoans. Obama will not move the capital to the Windy City, as he did his campaign. The Cubs will not win the World Series. But at the very least, Chicago will force the world to acknowledge that America is more than the sum of its coasts.