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A Sense of Place

1:50 PM, May 7, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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It seems the Obama re-election effort, which is now officially underway, will not be run out of Washington. The big decisions will, of course, be made in the White House where, Mark Halperin writes: 

Presidential senior adviser David Plouffe, the 2008 campaign manager [is] now overseeing the enterprise from his perch steps away from the Oval Office ...

But the grunt work has been outsourced to Chicago and a 

massive, high-rise headquarters in Chicago’s Loop [that] achieves a fine balance between 2008’s hip-casual dorm room (there’s a ping pong table and cheeky homemade signage) and 2012’s systematized Death Star (more employees than I have ever seen in a political campaign, with work stations sub-divided as ever more employees are added).  The place hums from early morning until late at night, designed for maximum efficiency and manifest focus.

For the twenty- and thirty-somethings who make up the bulk of the Obama-Biden workforce, the vibrant, stylish Chicago is, by design, removed from the distracting and distorting aspects of the Beltway.  At the same time, for those who voluntarily uprooted themselves from the nation’s capital, some surrendering big-time administration jobs, it was a de facto litmus test: just how badly do they want to help the President get four more years?

The decision to get out of Washington is easy enough to deconstruct. Americans are not especially enthusiastic about the town and its works. The campaign will, no doubt, work hard to make its case that the problems with Washington are the fault of George W. Bush, the Republicans in Congress, the very wealthy who do not pay their fair share, and so forth. But the president does have an office in Washington and spends time there when he is not traveling. This is, no doubt, one of those "distracting and distorting aspects of the beltway," the campaign wished to avoid when it moved its headquarters out of town …  to Chicago.

Chicago is the hometown of both the president and his senior campaign adviser, David Axelrod, and that counts for something. It is a place where the enterprise feels comfortable and at home and with which it shares a certain sensibility—and where, of course, a former high ranking member of the Obama administration is now the mayor.

Chicago was once famously known as the "City that Works." That was when the original Mayor Daley had his meaty hands on everything and played the game of urban politics like a Stradivarius, rewarding this ethnic constituency and that, cutting corners for favored business enterprises, keeping the streets clean and plowed, and indulging to just the right degree in "honest graft."  

These days, the city is more famous as a place where, on the average weekend, more people are injured or killed by gunfire than in Afghanistan. And which

A former Chicago alderman turned political science professor/corruption fighter has found ... is the most corrupt city in the country.  

It probably goes a little too far and gives the Windy City too much credit to rank it ahead of Detroit in this regard. But Chicago's record is undeniable and, in an almost charming way, defiantly so. In Chicago, when a state representative was recently indicted for taking a bribe, his constituents voted to reelect him one week later. The man was, after all, just doing his job. This is a city where the phrase "crony capitalism," is considered redundant. And, of course, Chicago exists as part of a larger jurisdiction – the state of Illinois – which is distinguished by the fact that two of its former governors are now doing time.

Chicago is failing but surviving. Getting along by clinging to the old model of urban governance by spoils, patronage, and payoffs. But what once worked in Chicago no longer does. One wonders if the reelect Obama enterprise, now established there and staffed by people willing to surrender their "big-time administration jobs," can convince enough voters that it is working in Washington and for the country. 

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