The Perfect Metaphor For Obama's Ascent

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JULY 13, 2008

The Perfect Metaphor For Obama's Ascent

Ryan Lizza's phenomenal profile of Obama in the upcoming New Yorker is so full of highly illuminating, previously unreported details that it seems arbitrary to seize on any one or two in particular. Still, the section on redistricting, from which Isaac culled two paragraphs, is so revealing of both Obama and Chicago politics that it's worth re-printing a bigger chunk:

One day in the spring of 2001, about a year after the loss to Rush, Obama walked into the Stratton Office Building, in Springfield, a shabby nineteen-fifties government workspace for state officials next to the regal state capitol. He went upstairs to a room that Democrats in Springfield called “the inner sanctum.” Only about ten Democratic staffers had access; entry required an elaborate ritual—fingerprint scanners and codes punched into a keypad. The room was large, and unremarkable except for an enormous printer and an array of computers with big double monitors. On the screens that spring day were detailed maps of Chicago, and Obama and a Democratic consultant named John Corrigan sat in front of a terminal to draw Obama a new district. Corrigan was the Democrat in charge of drawing all Chicago districts, and he also happened to have volunteered for Obama in the campaign against Rush.

Obama’s former district had been drawn by Republicans after the 1990 census. But, after 2000, Illinois Democrats won the right to redistrict the state. Partisan redistricting remains common in American politics, and, while it outrages a losing party, it has so far survived every legal challenge. In the new century, mapping technology has become so precise and the available demographic data so rich that politicians are able to choose the kinds of voter they want to represent, right down to individual homes. A close look at the post-2000 congressional map of Bobby Rush’s district [Rush beat back a challenge from Obama in 2000] reveals that it tears through Hyde Park in a curious series of irregular turns. One of those lines bypasses Obama’s address by two blocks. Rush, or someone looking out for his interests, had carved the upstart Obama out of Rush’s congressional district.

In truth, Rush had little to worry about; Obama was already on a different political path. Like every other Democratic legislator who entered the inner sanctum, 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.

“It was a radical change,” Corrigan said. The new district was a natural fit for the candidate that Obama was in the process of becoming. “He saw that when we were doing fund-raisers in the Rush campaign his appeal to, quite frankly, young white professionals was dramatic.” ...

[H]is new district offered promising, untapped constituencies for him as he considered his next political move. “The exposure he would get to some of the folks that were on boards of the museums and C.E.O.s of some of the companies that he would represent would certainly help him in the long run,” Corrigan said.

A major theme of Ryan's piece is the self-conciousness with which Obama went about charting his own rise. The redistricting passage is telling in itself, but it's also a nice metaphor for the meticulous, near-mathematical precision of that years-long exercise.

Update: One of the questions that's inevitably come up in the handful of discussions I've had about Ryan's piece is whether we should feel much differently about this demystified Obama than we did about the previous version. I can understand why some people would--it's comforting to think that a politician could emerge on the national scene largely untainted by the grubbiness of politics. To the extent people felt that way about Obama, the increasingly filled-out picture of him could be tough to accept.

But, as someone says in Ryan's piece, it's hardly a shock that the guy who upended one of the most successful political franchises of all time is well-acquainted with the dark art of politics. The news in Ryan's piece isn't that Obama's a politician--or that shouldn't be the news, in any case. Ryan's achievement is to lay out the particular form of politics Obama has practiced--which was to master the game "as it's played" at every level he played it, and to use the rules of the game to advance his own goals.

It's not exactly a flattering or ennobling account, but I didn't find anything in there especially stomach-churning and certainly nothing disqualifying. If anything, it made me think Obama will actually be pretty effective at enacting his agenda should he end up in the White House.

Update II: These people, on the other hand, might not take Ryan's piece in stride.

--Noam Scheiber

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posted in: business, entertainment, environment, health, politics, technology, obama, person career, john corrigan, ryan lizza

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