In the new issue of The New Yorker there is a long piece about what makes Obama tick. The author, Ryan Lizza, went looking to find out and found that the ticking is just Chicago politics as usual. No change, no new direction. Just plain ole’ politics. It’s a long piece so I’ve taken only bits and pieces of it that are relevant to understanding the messiah.
They start with someone who was beside him early on in his political career but became quite disillusioned by him:
Preckwinkle soon became an Obama loyalist, and she stuck with him in a State Senate campaign that strained or ruptured many friendships but was ultimately successful. Four years later, in 2000, she backed Obama in a doomed congressional campaign against a local icon, the former Black Panther Bobby Rush. And in 2004 Preckwinkle supported Obama during his improbable, successful run for the United States Senate. So it was startling to learn that Toni Preckwinkle had become disenchanted with Barack Obama.
Preckwinkle is a tall, commanding woman with a clipped gray Afro. She has represented her slice of the South Side for seventeen years and expresses no interest in higher office. On Chicago’s City Council, she is often a dissenter against the wishes of Mayor Richard M. Daley. For anyone trying to understand Obama’s breathtakingly rapid political ascent, Preckwinkle is an indispensable witness—a close observer, friend, and confidante during a period of Obama’s life to which he rarely calls attention.
Although many of Obama’s recent supporters have been surprised by signs of political opportunism, Preckwinkle wasn’t. “I think he was very strategic in his choice of friends and mentors,” she told me. “I spent ten years of my adult life working to be alderman. I finally got elected. This is a job I love. And I’m perfectly happy with it. I’m not sure that’s the way that he approached his public life—that he was going to try for a job and stay there for one period of time. In retrospect, I think he saw the positions he held as stepping stones to other things and therefore approached his public life differently than other people might have.”
On issue after issue, Preckwinkle presented Obama as someone who thrived in the world of Chicago politics. She suggested that Obama joined Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ for political reasons. “It’s a church that would provide you with lots of social connections and prominent parishioners,” she said. “It’s a good place for a politician to be a member.” Preckwinkle was unsparing on the subject of the Chicago real-estate developer Antoin (Tony) Rezko, a friend of Obama’s and one of his top fund-raisers, who was recently convicted of fraud, bribery, and money laundering: “Who you take money from is a reflection of your knowledge at the time and your principles.”~~~
I asked her if what she considered slights or betrayals were simply the necessary accommodations and maneuvering of a politician making a lightning transition from Hyde Park legislator to Presidential nominee. “Can you get where he is and maintain your personal integrity?” she said. “Is that the question?” She stared at me and grimaced. “I’m going to pass on that.”
And then Ryan Lizza continues on to tell the whole story of his rise in politics, and those he ran over to get there:
Ivory Mitchell, who for twenty years has been the chairman of the local ward organization in Obama’s neighborhood—considered the most important Democratic organization on the South Side—was one of Obama’s earliest backers. Today, he says, “All the work we did to help him get where he finally ended up, he didn’t seem too appreciative.” A year ago, Mitchell became a delegate for Hillary Clinton.~~~
Obama seems to have been meticulous about constructing a political identity for himself. He visited churches on the South Side, considered the politics and reputations of each one, and received advice from older pastors. Before deciding on Trinity United Church of Christ, he asked the Reverend Wright about critics who complained that the church was too “upwardly mobile,” a place for buppies. Though he admired Judson Miner, he was similarly cautious about joining his law firm. Miner once told me that it took “a series of lunches” and hours of discussion before Obama made his decision. At the time, Obama was working on “Dreams from My Father.”
Many have said that part of the appeal of “Dreams” is its honesty, pointing out that it was written at a time when Obama had no idea that he would run for office. In fact, Obama had been talking about a political career for years, musing about becoming mayor or governor. According to a recent biography of Obama by the Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell, he even told his future brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, that he might run for President one day. (Robinson teased him, saying, “Yeah, yeah, okay, come over and meet my Aunt Gracie—and don’t tell anybody that!”) Obama was writing “Dreams” at the moment that he was preparing for a life in politics, and he launched his book and his first political campaign simultaneously, in the summer of 1995, when he saw his first chance of winning.~~~
In hindsight, little of his legislative record seems controversial. Some of the bills that he sponsored, statements that he made, and votes that he cast could be caricatured in a Presidential campaign. (In one 1997 column, he said, “I supported Governor Edgar’s plan to raise the income tax,” and in a 1999 debate, speaking of himself and his two opponents, he noted that “we’re all on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.”)~~~
Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them. When he was a community organizer, he channelled his work through Chicago’s churches, because they were the main bases of power on the South Side. He was an agnostic when he started, and the work led him to become a practicing Christian. At Harvard, he won the presidency of the Law Review by appealing to the conservatives on the selection panel. In Springfield, rather than challenge the Old Guard Democratic leaders, Obama built a mutually beneficial relationship with them. “You have the power to make a United States senator,” he told Emil Jones in 2003. In his downtime, he played poker with lobbyists and Republican lawmakers. In Washington, he has been a cautious senator and, when he arrived, made a point of not defining himself as an opponent of the Iraq war.~~~
Judging by the reaction to Obama’s most recent decisions—his willingness to support legislation to modify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, his rightward shift on interpreting the Second Amendment, his decision to “refine” his Iraq policies—some voters will be crushed by this realization and others will be relieved. In another episode that has Obama’s old friends feeling frustrated, Obama recently blamed his first campaign manager, Carol Anne Harwell, for reporting on a 1996 questionnaire that Obama favored a ban on handguns. According to her friends, Harwell was furious that the campaign made her Obama’s scapegoat. “She got, as the saying goes, run over by a bus,” Lois Friedberg-Dobry said.~~~
Obama has always had a healthy understanding of the reaction he elicits in others, and he learned to use it to his advantage a very long time ago. Marty Nesbitt remembers Obama’s utter calm the day he gave his celebrated speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in Boston, which made him an international celebrity and a potential 2008 Presidential candidate. “We were walking down the street late in the afternoon,” Nesbitt told me. “And this crowd was building behind us, like it was Tiger Woods at the Masters.”
“Barack, man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said.
“Yeah, if you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow,” Obama replied.
“What do you mean?”
“My speech,” Obama said, “is pretty good.”
This comes on the heels of the New York Times piece today about some other disillusioned Obama supporters:
In the breathless weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people here did: she registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Senator Barack Obama.
Now, however, after critics have accused Mr. Obama of shifting positions on issues like the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty — all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience — Ms. Shade said she planned to switch back to the Green Party.
“I’m disgusted with him,” said Ms. Shade, an artist. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he’s going to gain, he’s going to lose a lot of progressives.”
Get used to it lady, more to come. Talk Left is even more disillusioned:
How does anyone know what Obama really believes or, even more problematic, what beliefs he’ll decide are worth expending political capital on once he’s elected?
We don’t. I think that’s a direct consequence of his having campaigned on generalities like change. People who are unhappy with the current state of affairs just assumed he is on the same side of issues as they are. Since Obama wants change and they want change, they assumed they are all on the same page — like one big happy progressive family. There’s just no way to know that. …
It’s the bait and switch we hate and it makes Obama a tougher sell now. He wasn’t honest with us. He promised reform and a new kind of politics and is relying on the same old Washington play book that’s been in use for decades.
The ole’ bait and switch. But hey, its change we can believe in right?