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.

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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."