Article — From the June 2010 issue

In the Loop

Obama’s hometown takes Washington

A surprising number of the Chicagoans I met in Washington, on hearing of my interest in their growing ranks within the Obama Administration, delivered the same punch line to a well-worn story about home. Sixty years ago, when a future U.S. congressman and federal judge named Abner Mikva tried to volunteer at his South Side ward office, the boss there asked him, “Who sent you?” After the young Mikva admitted no one had, he was rebuffed: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” By reciting this kicker, the Chicagoans were staking their own claim to the city’s pugnacious political history while at the same time implying they had traveled far from that world. It was a way to say they had come out of Chicago with all the valuable lessons and none of the taint. Barack Obama himself sometimes proclaimed on the campaign trail, “Nobody sent me,” announcing both his ties to his adopted city and his arrival as a force for change.

Over the past year and a half, the administration’s Chicago roots have been credited with just about all its failures and accomplishments, the word “Chicago” serving as shorthand for everything from extremism to incompetence to conciliation. The core group of Chicagoans close to the president, all of whom worked for Mayor Richard Daley, have been accused of tone-deafness and insularity. Within the course of a few weeks earlier this year, the Beltway punditry issued competing calls for Rahm Emanuel to step down as chief of staff and to take over the reins in the White House; cast as a bat-wielding Al Capone, he was seen as both the administration’s corrupter and its savior. The passage of health-care reform, in March, was hailed as the triumph of a “Chicago Way,” just as two months earlier the bill’s impending death had been chalked up to the Obama team’s provincial innocence.

In reality, this group of Chicagoans has hardly distinguished itself from past administrations. They are eager to cozy up to power when it suits their interests; they have pointedly given little offense, social or ideological, to the Washington oligarchy and the system over which it presides. Progressives who back in December felt betrayed by compromises in the health-care bill and other unfulfilled promises now are thrilled at the passage of legislation in any form, their elation made possible only by their diminished expectations. An administration that seemed adrift for its first year—that often appeared out of touch and unable to communicate what it stood for—may have emerged from Chicago with some of the taint and not enough of the hard political lessons.

When I spoke to Mikva, long a friend and mentor to the president, I asked about the appropriation of his ward-boss anecdote. “Barack took it on as if it happened to him,” Mikva said, his voice betraying just a hint of irritation. “I had to remind him where he heard the story. I had to tell him that it was my story, and it really happened.”

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is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine. His previous article for the magazine, "End of the Road," appeared in the August 2009 issue.

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October 2019