You Can’t Tell a Magazine by Its Cover

The New Yorker Magazine, cover that will soon be a right wing tee shirt — a cartoon of Obama in Arab garb, Michelle as a AK47 toting revolutionary, the US flag burning in their fireplace and Osama bin Laden’s photo hanging on the wall — is getting all the attention. But the more important article for those wanting to understand Obama is on the inside.

“Making It: How Chicago Shaped Obama” by Ryan Lizza is a lengthy and interesting sketch of Obama in his Chicago years. Lizza documents Obama’s carefully planned entry into Chicago politics — making the connections he needed to make with the wealthy, liberal establishment as well as with Chicago’s black political leadership for the political career he evidently had in mind. His willingness to move from being an agnostic to a Christian and join the church with the most political influence after checking them all out demonstrates his willingness to move for political purposes. The allies he was willing to step on to get where he wanted to go — using the traditional Chicago tactic of throwing opponents off the ballot so he was unchallenged in his state senate campaign. Nothing remarkable — typical Chicago pol activity, but perhaps that is the remarkable thing because so many see Obama as something different than the usual pol.

The New Yorker has been generally favorable toward Obama. Their defense of the cover is that they were mocking Obama’s right wing critics. So this honest history of Obama’s political rise, from a seemingly pro-Obama magazine, makes it even more interesting. It is important for progressives to know this Obama — not the stuff he put in his two autobiographies (both books, Lizza points out, timed around political campaigns) — since it will give voters clues as to what to expect of him when he is president.

Two points to highlight in the article. First, the author describes as the “most important event in Obama’s early political life” the redrawing of his state legislative district to Obama’s liking. The new district became the base of his run for the US Senate and the presidency as he redrew his district to include the wealthiest and most politically influential part of Chicago.

Obama ran against an incumbent member of Congress, Bobby Rush in 2000. Rush a former black panther had lost a race for mayor and therefore Obama thought he was vulnerable. Obama was mistaken — he lost the race in a landslide (the only real political campaign he ever had to run). In losing, Obama learned that he had greater appeal among whites than blacks, the wealthy than the poor, liberal elites rather than working class poor. As a result Obama constructed his “ideal” election district with that in mind.

The article describes Obama entering the “inner sanctum” one year after his loss to Rush and one year after Democrats took control of the state. Illinois Democrats were in the process of redrawing the political map to their own liking — much like Tom Delay in did in Texas . The author writes:

Obama began working on his “ideal map.” Corrigan remembers two things about the district that he and Obama drew. First, it retained Obama’s Hyde Park base — he had managed to beat Rush in Hyde Park — then swooped upward along the lakefront and toward downtown. By the end of the final redistricting process, his new district bore little resemblance to his old one. Rather than jutting far to the west, like a long thin dagger, into a swath of poor black neighborhoods of bungalow homes, Obama’s map now shot north, encompassing about half of the Loop, whose southern portion was beginning to be transformed by developers like Tony Rezko, and stretched far up Michigan Avenue and into the Gold Coast, covering much of the city’s economic heart, its main retail thoroughfares, and its finest museums, parks, skyscrapers, and lakefront apartment buildings. African-Americans still were a majority, and the map contained some of the poorest sections of Chicago, but Obama’s new district was wealthier, whiter, more Jewish, less blue-collar, and better educated. It also included one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in Chicago.

Obama picked his voters. They were the wealthy, lawyers, philanthropists, developers, upwardly mobile white professionals and business interests. Recent comments by Rev. Jesse Jackson that Obama talks down to blacks and Ralph Nader that Obama is “talking white” and not challenging the “white power structure” are consistent with the voters Obama decided he wanted to represent.

Lizza points out that Obama’s new district contained the seeds of his future political success: “In the end, Obama’s North Side fundraising base and his South Side political base were united in one district. He now represented Hyde Park operators like Lois Friedberg-Dobry as well as Gold Coast doyennes like Bettylu Saltzman, and his old South Side street operative Al Kindle as well as his future consultant David Axelrod.

Obama knew that redistricting was a manipulation of democracy. In an article in the Hyde Park Herald he described how ‘partisan’ and ‘undemocratic’ Illinois redistricting had become. When Obama was asked for his views he was candid, Lizza reports. Obama said, “There is a conflict of interest built into the process, incumbents drawing their own maps will inevitably try to advantage themselves.”

It is disappointing that someone who started with registering voters seemingly to strengthen democracy became a pol, selecting his voters rather than having the voters select him. Redistricting is one of the sins of US democracy. Redistricting abuse is one of the many manipulations of democracy that puts the lie to the claim that the US is the greatest democracy on Earth. Obama is part of that system — indeed his political career was born out of that system.

The second point to highlight from the article is what kind of politician Obama is. Lizza
gives a quick summary of Obama’s politics. A description that summarizes what we probably can expect when he is elected president:

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 channeled 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.

The Obama campaign is built on rhetoric of change. The author writes, Obama runs “on reforming a broken political process, yet he has always played politics by the rules as they exist, not as he would like them to exist. He runs as an outsider, but he has succeeded by mastering the inside game.” This analysis is consistent with a candidate who promised to run within the public funding system but then decided not to when he saw advantages to doing so.

What can we expect when Obama becomes president?

Probably many of his supporters who want paradigm shifting change — consistent with his campaign rhetoric — away from the corrupt politics of big money and corporate control of government and see it in Obama will be disappointed. As the article points out Obama demonstrates to his supporters — when he disappoints them — that “superheroes don’t become President; politicians do.”

Kevin Zeese co-directs Popular Resistance and is on the coordinating council for the Maryland Green Party. Read other articles by Kevin, or visit Kevin's website.

10 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Deadbeat said on July 15th, 2008 at 10:10am #

    The cover probably would have been less controversial has they used Al Capone. However by using the anti-Muslim and anti-Black motif caused the controversy and distraction from an informative article.

  2. hp said on July 15th, 2008 at 1:39pm #

    Yea, but did you look at the back page?–l3DT8rS3w/s400/ziodrek+6.jpg

  3. HR said on July 15th, 2008 at 2:05pm #

    Ho hum. Is this old stuff supposed to be informative. The guy has been an opportunistic phony. His carefully worded speech at the 2004 convention was just one example.

  4. rosemarie jackowski said on July 15th, 2008 at 2:53pm #

    The average USAsian is not intelligent enought to understand satire BUT the publisher of The New Yorker understands capitalism. I, personally did not like the cover because it feeds into the lies about Obama and does not deal with real issues. How about a national discussion on the historical facts that Rev. Wright brought up. I challenge The New Yorker and all others who control the presses and the mikes.

  5. Keesha said on July 15th, 2008 at 8:06pm #

    The cover was not anti-Black. You might be able to say the spoof was anti-Black Liberation (Michelle as some Angela Davis clone) but that’s about it.
    As an African-American I am amazed that Barack continue to run on ‘history’ but the ‘historic’ nature an only be noted by him. I saw worse during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Anyone else remember the TV show Carter Country or all the Billy Carter jokes?
    Noting that Barack Obama is Black isn’t racism. It is incorrect because he’s biracial. But regardless, this screaming racism everytime his skin color is noted is getting real damn old.
    If The New Yorker weren’t so White would it be an issue? When Chris Rock joked that the White House would have to be called the Black House, I don’t remember an uproar.
    I also disagree with Zeese, I don’t think Barack will win in November. The GOP machine will gear up in August. Barack’s already struggling without it. With everything that’s happened in the last 8 years, a Democrat should be polling 20 to 25% ahead of the Republican nominee. It’s not happening and it’s because a lot of people don’t trust Barack. That’s not about his race. It’s about his empty rhetoric.
    Yeah, I know, his campaign has painted any state he lost as “racist.” I’m getting real tired of that trick too.
    Vote Cynthia or Ralph. They are the only hope.

  6. Martha said on July 16th, 2008 at 8:36am #

    Agree with Keesha. The cover’s supposed to be funny. It is or isn’t by your own tastes. But this “It’s racist!” nonsense is just more race card playing from Whitey. We heard it on KPFA this morning as an entire segment was wasted on that nonsense.
    It’s distraction. That’s all BO offers.

  7. D Peezy said on July 16th, 2008 at 10:29am #

    However dull and ignorant the American public’s and American media’s sense of humor may be, the fact remains that there is an abundance of hypersensitivity around racial issues and political correctness right now. It may have a lot to do with the Left wing and Obama supporter’s fear of anything that might impede what should be a cake walk into the White House. The daunting thought of another 4 or (God forbid) 8 years under Republican rule is too much for some folks to bear. The last 8 years of political, financial, and moral disaster in the US is enough to suck the sense of humor out of just about any American citizen.

    However, the thing that I dislike about Zeese’s discussion is that there’s plenty of allusions to Obama’s flaws, but no reference is made to what the alternative will bring to the table. McCain is a verbally abusive, old school military conservative. Allowing his agenda to be indoctrinated into the White House has got 8 more years of disaster written all over it. And please folks, let’s be realistic. Those of you who are talking about voting for Nader are just being selfish and ignorant. He hasn’t got a chance in hell of winning. The only thing you do by voting for him is make it that much easier for McCain to win. If it makes you feel heady and intellectually superior and self-righteous to cast your vote for Nader. Knock yourself out. But guess what, no one will know, and no one will care.
    I’m just sayin’….

  8. Max Shields said on July 16th, 2008 at 2:51pm #

    D Peezy
    If it makes you feel heady and intellectually superior and self-righteous to cast your vote for Obama. Knock yourself out. But guess what, no one will know, and no one will care.
    I’m just sayin’….

  9. Erroll said on July 16th, 2008 at 5:24pm #

    Max at 2:51 pm

    Nicely stated. As Nader has observed, if Obama and the Democrats cannot defeat McCain this November, then they need to pick up their marbles, go home, and start all over again [as well as hang their heads in disgrace]. But as Obama seems to be doing his best to appear to be to the right of McCain, then that makes it more difficult for Americans to determine which of the two is the more militaristic as well as imperialistic.

  10. Isosceles said on July 28th, 2008 at 8:21am #

    Lizza’s article makes clear that Obama’s “ideal map” was not anything like the actual map that he ended up with that included the Gold Coast, Loop and South Loop neighborhoods in the City of Chicago. In addition, the input Obama gave on the map occurred 1 year BEFORE the Democrats took control in Illinois rather than AFTER they took over the majority in the legislature. Lizza states:

    “During the previous round of remapping, in 1991, Republicans had created Chicago districts where African-Americans were the overwhelming majority, packing the greatest number of loyal Democrats into the fewest districts. A decade later, Democrats tried to spread the African-American vote among more districts. The idea was to create enough Democratic-leaning districts so that the Party could take control of the state legislature. That goal was fine with Obama; his new district offered promising, untapped constituencies for him as he considered his next political move.”

    The Illinois redistricting process increased minority representation in Springfield. It seems to me that Obama was simply a team player in helping his Caucus achieve this laudable goal and, at the same time, a fair map where Democrats might have a chance at having a majority in the Illinois legislature.