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Radnor Geopolitical Report

Chicago, December 2008



Strategic geopolitical intelligence for decision-makers





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Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.







Will Obama escape Chicago corruption?

by Ken Feltman

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood.

- Daniel Burnham

Daniel Burnham was the architect and urban planner who supervised the design and building of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. That grand and graceful exposition set the tone for future fairs and for today's Chicago. Burnham was the architect of Chicago's lakefront parks, which stretch for miles along Lake Michigan, a public treasure imitated but not yet duplicated. His buildings and parkways continue to rank among the favorites with practicing architects and urban planners. They are enjoyed by millions every day, from Manila to New York.

Daily, thousands pass through Washington's elegant and functional Union Station, most never realizing that it was once simply Burnham's dream. Dreamer and relentless planner, Burnham may remind us of another Chicagoan: President-Elect Barack Obama.

Obama has big plans and we are realizing that he has been working on them for years. Everything seems thoroughly thought out. But he will confront crises, as the charges against Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich demonstrate. Obama and Blagojevich share political friends and financial contributors. Most observers believe that Obama will be able to escape the corruption of Chicago politics. But other rising stars have not. Sooner or later, they have been mired in the muck. The few who have escaped the taint have had more than just big dreams and ambitious programs. They have had discipline and the force of will to get things done. Does Obama? We may soon know as he confronts the economic crisis as well as the distracting Blagojevich political crisis. We can learn how he goes about things by looking at his planning in one policy area: Healthcare reform gives an indication of his style.

Rumor then, fact now

The rumor first surfaced during the weeks leading up to the Iowa caucuses: Former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle could become healthcare reform czar in an Obama administration. Some reporters following the Obama campaign repeated it, then dropped it. It seemed implausible. Daschle was not known for his interest in healthcare reform, although he had written and spoken about the issue with increasing frequently. Beside, most reporters viewed an Obama presidency as very unlikely. They were more interested in Hillary Clinton's views on reform of the healthcare system.

In March, the rumor surfaced again and some reporters compared the Obama healthcare plan to Daschle's writings and statements on healthcare. They found similarities. Obama, in fact, had praised Daschle's ideas. Few wrote about it. All seemed to miss the fact that Daschle is a master at getting bills passed, no matter what the bills are about. He smiles as he cracks ribs with a "friendly" embrace.

Next, in April or May, I picked up a rumor that Rahm Emanuel, the fourth-ranking House Democrat and veteran of the Clinton White House, would get serious consideration for chief of staff in an Obama administration. Like Obama, Emanuel is a Chicagoan. Unlike Obama, Emanuel is a tough political and legislative infighter. He is the kind of guy to have on your side in a brawl. He know which arms need twisting and relishes applying the twists.

Emanuel and people close to him were typically closed-mouthed. I asked friends close to Speaker Pelosi about the Daschle and Emanuel rumors. They seemed surprised at my question and had no helpful information. A source close to Senate Democratic Leader Reid discounted the rumors: "Obama won't pick political nitty-gritty types. He'll go for policy types."

Hoyer and Durbin: Get-things-done politicians

So I asked people close to Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking House Democrat and one of the best politicians and legislation-movers in the House. They conveyed a different impression altogether: Emanuel was likely to be on a "short list" for the chief of staff job and Daschle might get a cabinet post with healthcare reform as part of the deal. They explained that Obama would advance an ambitious legislative program, starting quickly and keeping the pressure on Congress to pass implementing legislation. Obama wanted to be president to accomplish things. Both Presidents Bush gave the impression that becoming president was their main goal. Once elected, they had limited legislative ambitions and events overtook them. Arguably, the last president who wanted the office to get things done was Reagan.

What were the Hoyer people sensing? Hoyer was not an early Obama supporter. He was an uncommitted super-delegate from Maryland, hardly close to Obama. But he saw which way the winds were blowing. We may be able to learn a great deal about how Obama thinks and works by following this one issue - healthcare - and the rumors, statements and appointments surrounding it.

The problems created for Barack Obama by Rod Blagojevich should not be underestimated. His key advisors seem to have some involvement or misstatements to explain. Obama appears to have kept a wise distance from the disgraced governor. But if Blagojevich gets panicky, he may "sing." And if he sings, he may not get the songs quite right.

To gain favor with the authorities, he may engage in an old Chicago strategy: He could assert that Obama is more deeply involved in questionable behavior than is the case. This happens. It is difficult and time consuming to untangle. That worries the Obama camp.

Meantime, the political career of Jesse Jackson, Jr. appears to be dangling by a thread. How many other careers will be damaged? When Bill Clinton was elected president, a friend in Arkansas told me to watch Clinton's Arkansas cronies get bogged down in sleaze and corruption. Sure enough, many did.

Years ago, my mentor warned me not to get too close to certain politicians. She was always right. She is retired now but I am certain she spotted Blagojevich early in his career. He was just too obviously on the make, with that blend of unwarranted arrogance and less than superior intelligence that characterizes many corrupt pols.

After listening to the Hoyer people, I asked folks around Dick Durbin, the Senate's second-ranking Democrat and the senior senator from Illinois, Obama's home state. Nothing was said on the record but I came away with the idea that they believed that Emanuel was the best choice for chief of staff. - and that he was high on Obama's list. Daschle's role was less clear but to the extent that the Durbin folks got specific, they associated Daschle with healthcare reform.

Would Obama really select such rough and tumble practitioners of intimidation politics? What would his more liberal supporters say? Would Washington tolerate blunt-force lawmaking? Most supporters of Pelosi and Reid said no.

But at the Democratic convention in Denver, Emanuel and Daschle - and their friends and allies - seemed to be very close to the Obama campaign leadership and to Obama himself. Pelosi and Reid were not so close.

Newsletters past

Many have asked if we are planning to publish these newsletters in book form. The answer is no. Ken Feltman believes that old newsletters, like old soldiers, should fade away. (He remembers that General MacArthur seemed surprised when he did fade away so quickly after making his remark!)

We have a compromise. Here are the most popular newsletters from recent years. If you think we should "look back" more often, please let us know.

2008: Beyond the bells (February)

2007: Do they still play the blues in Chicago? (October)

2006: Evy Dubrow: A life worth living (July)

2005: New Orleans will recover. What about Bush? (September)

2004: Japanese-style baseball (April)

Shortly after the election, I asked the Pelosi and Reid sources who they saw as chief of staff and healthcare czar. No one picked either Emanuel or Daschle for anything. They named the usual suspects from think tanks, academia, organized labor and public policy groups allied with the left wing of the Democratic Party. They predicted that Clinton White House officials would not be recycled by Obama.

But Hoyer people said that Emanuel and Daschle would be good choices. A Durbin staffer went off the record to say that a few details remained but that it looked like Emanuel and Daschle.

The lesson (if any) is that the politicians who move legislation through the Scylla-and-Charybdis of the House and Senate, the compromisers and arm-twisters, the vote-counters and dispensers of favors, have been of the same mind with Obama for some time. The party leaders may have come out for Obama early but they did not know his mind. His choices now seem practical if we assume that Obama wants to get legislation passed. In fact, now that they think about it, some Pelosi and Reid intimates say that Obama's choices are brilliant.

Not everyone sees the same reality. When the folks close to Pelosi and Reid discussed the possible appointment of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, they discussed it more in foreign policy terms. The folks close to Hoyer and Durbin saw the possible Hillary Clinton appointment as a political maneuver designed to keep the Clintons in the tent. President Johnson summed up this strategy when he said that he always tried to get political opponents "in the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in."

Get ready and get out of the way

When a party is out of power, it tends to select House and Senate leaders who represent the more extreme views of the party. They posture and philosophize. They attack the party in power and try to build support to "throw the bums out." When that party wins the White House, the House and Senate leaders tend to reflect the more moderate - and more practical - elements of the party. Do Pelosi and Reid need to adjust to avoid peril? Hoyer and Durbin will be more powerful, it seems.

Pelosi may not understand. She is resisting. Since the election, she has supported or encouraged liberals within the House Democratic caucus to challenge moderates for key positions. She has banished some more moderate Democrats. Will she pay the price? Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay did. Obama is building a big tent and is filling it with a team that knows how to play the game and how to win.

Get ready for legislation as well as rhetoric. Obama intends to get his way. He has a good background for legislating. He was successful in the Illinois Senate even though he was not well liked by his peers and skipped votes on controversial issues.

Everything you need to learn about getting bills passed, you learn quickly in Chicago - or you're gone. One thing you do not learn in Chicago is subtlety. A former crime syndicate boss - who "controlled" the votes of several Chicago alderman - claimed that he was subtle because he used a baseball bat when other gang bosses used a gun.

Former House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D) of Chicago was one of the two or three most powerful people in Congress a decade and a half ago. He used to say: "Don't try to stop my legislation. If it isn't quite right the first time, I'll fix it next time. Just stay out of the way." Rostenkowski went to jail - but he went for doing things in Washington that, for the most part, were perfectly legal in Illinois. We have just been reminded that Illinois has somewhat different standards of conduct for public officials.

Count on it: Legislation is going to get put on the fast track in Washington. Obama needs to have a lot of things happen in Washington. Otherwise, people may pay too much attention to Chicago.

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