The Chicago Roots of President Obama's Leadership Style

Speaker Boehner and the Republican House are frustrated that they can't get President Obama or Senate leader Reid to compromise with them.

The regular rules of order in Congress are that the committees hold hearings, both parties have input into the writing of legislation, and eventually the Senate and House leaders have a conference to come to mutually agreeable terms.  This conference report results in a bill that is submitted to the president for signing.

But the president doesn't seem to follow the old established rules.  He wants the speaker to visit the White House, meet with him and his inner circle, and, particularly with regard to issues of spending, sign an unconditional surrender.

Analysts have seen this as proof of Obama's totalitarian ambitions or an inflated political ego.  Others characterize it as a sure sign that he is pursuing socialism.

While the president's behavior can be used to support all of these descriptions, the real answer may be none of these.  Those who seek to understand President Obama may benefit from studying the governing tactics of Chicago's Mayor Daley I.  These have been thoroughly described in biographies of Daley.i

Chicago's Mayor Daley I gained absolute power by gaining absolute control over the budget.  The way he did this was that he "arranged for the Chicago Home Rule Commission to recommend shifting responsibility for preparing the city budget from the City Council to the Mayor."ii  The Commission also "called for ending the long-standing requirement that the City Council approve all city contracts over $2,500."iii  Once these recommendations "arranged" by Mayor Daley became law, the City Council then became "little more than an advisory body.iv  No one in the City Council complained, since all the members owed their jobs to Daley I.  This astounding coup was accomplished without a shot being fired, lawsuits filed, or media outrage.

Congress's authority to write a budget is determined not by a Home Rule Commission, but by the Constitution.  But President Obama was able to cleverly subvert Congress's power of the purse this way: the Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate has not passed a budget in four years.  One can reasonably ask if President Obama enlisted, in the early months of his first term, the cooperation of Senate Leader Reid in suspending the constitutionally mandated responsibility of the Senate to pass a budget.  Since Harry Senate Majority Leader Reid has the power to refuse to consider a budget bill, this is not a far-fetched idea.

Once the Senate refused to pass a budget, the House then had no input into budget decisions and, as a consequence, policy-making.  A policy that is not funded may as well not exist.  The GOP-controlled House is reduced to going along with continuing resolutions.

In effect, Obama cleverly usurped congressional budget authority, with the added benefit of eliminating a budgetary paper trail.  The real reason for this strategy is to weaken the legislative power of Congress, just as Mayor Daley I weakened the power of Chicago's City Council.v  The fawning news media have not discussed this power-grab.  Budgets reveal "who gets what,"vi and Obama doesn't want the public to know the details.

The Chicago mayoral paradigm of governing President Obama is accustomed to is very simple: in his view, the Republicans in the House have no "clout,"vii  to use an old Chicago term.  Clout refers to the influence necessary to get things done -- the ability to influence spending.

President Obama has a small group of insiders, mainly from Chicago, who decide what the policy shall be and the language of bills.  The president was most content during his first two years, when he had the power to send money to all the units of government throughout the U.S. run by Democrats.  The government website shows where the tens of thousands of grants and loans went throughout the U.S.

This spending is not blind; it has gone toward public-sector unions and units of government largely controlled by Democrats.  Like Daley I, Obama is using federal dollars to assure the long-term electoral security of his party.  Consequently, he does not want Republicans to have any input; it would only interfere.  The only constraint  President Obama faces is that he desperately wants to raise the debt limit, but for that, he needs House cooperation.

Since the House refuses to raise the debt limit, Obama seeks to turn the voters against the Republicans and win the House back.  Here lies his weakness: Chicago is so small by comparison that once the mayor gets elected, he need not worry about losing power.  He always controls everything.  Obama has to compromise with the House, but he has no experience doing so.  The only strategy he can use now is rhetorical: he makes outrageous policy statements, such as extreme statements on gun control or doomsday predictions regarding the effects of sequestration.

President Obama is confined by this paradigm, because he has no understanding of, or inclination to engage in, the legislative process.  He made a mistake when he assumed that the Republicans would panic at the sequestration of Defense Dept. spending.  He assumed they would give in and not allow any of their defense lobbyists' programs to be cut.  This is primarily because he assumes that the GOP thinks the same way he does: that rewarding campaign contributors takes the highest priority. 

President Clinton worked with Speaker Newt Gingrich and was able to accomplish many notable legislative milestones; Obama has no interest in doing so.

President Obama's weakness, then, derives from what he thinks is his strength.  Because he does not have to deal with the legislature, he does not understand  politicking.  In his view of governing, his only hope is to raise the debt limit and once again achieve majority control of the House.  This may be unlikely, but his governing paradigm won't allow any other option.

President Obama did not become president with the intention of ruling as an autocrat.  It is more accurate to say that autocracy is the only style of political leadership he knows.  The frustration he feels toward Speaker Boehner

has two causes: he sees Boehner as refusing to acknowledge his role as the ruler of government, and secondly, he sees Boehner as interfering with his primary goal of achieving electoral security through spending.  Their standoff is that Obama feels that Boehner has no clout, while Boehner feels that Obama is not playing by the rules of order -- that Obama is not allowing Republicans and their constituents to have any input into federal government.


i. See Clout, Boss, and American Pharaoh.


ii. Pharaoh, p. 144

iii. Id.

iv. Id.

v. Clout, p. 13

vi. Lasswell, p. 3.

vii. Clout.


Cohen, Adam, and Elizabeth Taylor, 2000.  American Pharoah: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation. New York: Little Brown, and Co.

Lasswell, Harold D. 1950. Politics: Who gets what, when, how. New York: Peter Smith.

O'Connor, Len. 1975. Clout: Mayor Daley and his city. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co.

Royko, Mike. 1971. Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago. New York: New American Library.