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Home State Advantage? An Obama Presidency Could Send Clout Back to the Land of Lincoln

U.S. Sen. John McCain

Now that the Land of Lincoln — and Grant and Reagan — faces the possibility of another Illinois resident moving to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, D.C., many Illinoisans want to know what a Barack Obama presidency would mean for his home state.

There is, of course, the obvious: Fellow Illinoisans would follow Obama to the White House to serve as advisers and aides; the nation would take a closer look at Illinois politics; and a presidential library eventually would draw tourists and academics after Obama left office. 

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama

Civic pride is also on the line. Think of President George W. Bush telling the 2004 Republican National Convention: “Some folks look at me and see a certain swagger. In Texas, we call it walkin’.” Or Obama predicting the Chicago Bears would go “all the way, baby” on Monday Night Football in 2006. 

But for most people in a president’s home state, the effects of a native son in the White House are intangible. Virtually invisible, some say. 

But supporters of Obama’s Republican opponent from Arizona argue U.S. Sen. John McCain’s pro-business approach also could translate into gain for Illinois.

Still, others believe a homegrown president such as Obama promises a boon for Illinois. Jerry Roeper, head of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, compares an Obama presidency to the heyday of Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, when basketball fans around the globe chattered excitedly about the Windy City.

“It’s bigger than that,” Roeper says of a potential Obama presidency. “There would be a spotlight that would shine on Chicago and the region both nationally and internationally.”

Like the impact of Michael Jordan, the economic benefits to Illinois of having Obama in the White House would be tough, if not impossible, to measure, Roeper says. 

An Obama presidency could showcase Illinois, and not just Chicago. 

“Look at Springfield and the prominent role it has played in the campaign so far,” says Dan Shomon, a former Obama aide in the Illinois Senate, referring to Obama’s decision to announce his presidential candidacy and later introduce his running mate, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, at the Old State Capitol.

Obama also likely would return to Chicago often, especially to keep his daughters “close to their roots” and to visit their family, adds Shomon, who served as a top campaign operative during Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate bid.

Roeper hopes Obama would bring foreign dignitaries and other high-profile guests to Chicago, using the city’s hotels and convention centers as a secure setting for those summits. But others questioned whether it would make sense to go through all the logistical problems of arranging security and accommodations in a big city when the president can already use the White House and the more remote Camp David in Maryland with fewer hassles.

On many big issues uniquely important to Chicago, Obama agrees with McCain. They’re both likely to promote Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 summer Olympic Games; they both support efforts to protect Great Lakes water from being diverted to parched cities and states outside the region; and both told the Chicago Tribune they would keep corruption-fighting U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald in his current post as long as Fitzgerald wants to serve.

Beyond policy positions, though, Obama supporters argue the Chicagoan understands the region’s needs and would be more likely to address them than McCain.

In August, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley played up both Obama’s and Biden’s familiarity with big cities as an asset. Obama has lived in Chicago, New York and Cambridge, Mass.; Biden lives in Wilmington, Del., which is in the greater Philadelphia area.

“It could be the first time in a long time that we had the top two officials coming from an urban environment,” Daley said. “I’m not just saying coming just from a big city or an inner city. I’m talking about an urban environment, and that includes [places such as] Kane County, Lake County and Joliet. It’s urban; it’s not just a city. It’s a good perspective … for the federal government, which is much more rural in its history.”

That perspective could help Obama understand the urgency of improving the nation’s infrastructure — especially its rail, road and air transportation systems — and investing more heavily in education, says the Chicagoland Chamber’s Roeper.

State Rep. Jim Durkin, the head of McCain’s Illinois campaign, counters that the Republican’s stance on economic issues will actually help Illinois — and its financial markets, in particular — because it encourages growth. McCain wants to cut taxes on capital gains and dividends. Obama would raise capital gains taxes on families making more than $250,000 but would cut the rate to zero for startups and small businesses.

“John McCain is a strong supporter of our markets, and for an Illinois resident who lives in Cook County, John McCain is the last best hope against the tax machines out of Cook County and Springfield,” Durkin says. “We don’t want to force [businesses] out of the country.”

One of the big unknowns is what Obama could bring to Chicago’s Olympics bid.

In 2005, then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair flew halfway around the globe to Singapore right before a key G8 summit back at home to promote London’s bid to host the 2012 games. Blair was the only head of state to personally lobby the International Olympic Committee before its meeting to select one city among five finalists for the prize. 

London won the Olympics bid, besting Paris, which had been the front-runner. Observers credited Blair’s efforts for making the difference.

Obama’s supporters say his popularity abroad and his ties to Chicago could put the Windy City’s bid over the top. Indeed, Obama has already actively promoted Chicago’s candidacy.

This summer, he surprised people with an unscheduled stop at a downtown Chicago rally to support the Olympics effort.

“In 2016, I’ll be wrapping up my second term as president,” Obama said in June. “So I can’t think of a better way than to be marching into Washington Park ... as president of the United States and announcing to the world, ‘Let the games begin!’”

But Chicago is the only U.S. city still vying to host the 2016 Olympics, and McCain or Obama could just as easily make the case to the international community when it decides on a host city in September 2009, many Illinois supporters of McCain point out.

“[McCain] likes Chicago. He likes the ballparks. He likes the Museum Campus. Chicago is a place [where] he has a lot of friends. He thinks it’s a vibrant city. I know he would do everything within his powers to encourage the selection committee to choose Chicago,” Durkin says.

Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican deeply enmeshed in Chicago’s political, business and legal communities, predicts Obama would only have a “marginal impact” on the Olympics decision.

In fact, Thompson downplays much of the hype about the potential benefits to Illinois of an Obama presidency.

“When somebody is elected president of the United States, they have an obligation to the whole country. They are not going to favor one city or state,” Thompson says.

For example, Obama may well turn to Illinoisans to play key roles in his administration, especially within the White House, but Illinoisans frequently have been tapped for Cabinet posts under both Democratic and Republican administrations, he says.

Under President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld served as defense secretary, and Steve Preston is the current housing and urban development secretary. Bill Daley, the mayor’s brother, was commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton. Rockford native Lynn Martin worked as labor secretary under the first President Bush, and John Block of Galesburg was President Ronald Reagan’s agriculture secretary.

“I feel fairly confident in a McCain presidency, you will have Chicagoans and Illinois residents as part of his administration,” says Durkin.

Shomon, Obama’s former aide, predicts the Democrat would likely tap legislators he served with in the Illinois General Assembly for his administration. Obama already knows his former colleagues, and compared with lobbyists, they would more easily pass scrutiny directed at new appointees, Shomon says.

He’s so sure of it, in fact, that Shomon’s lobbying firm is already trying to drum up business in Washington, D.C., by touting Shomon’s long connections to Obama.

The federal budget process gives presidents far less power to direct government spending to their home states — or even to supporters’ home states — than Illinois’ budget process gives to governors. Instead, Congress, for the most part, controls the purse strings, and powerful lawmakers have used their clout to “earmark” spending on defense contracts, highway and bridge improvements and other lucrative projects to their home districts.

Illinois’ congressional delegation, which already holds considerable sway, could gain more if Obama is elected. On Capitol Hill, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is the second-most-powerful Democrat in the upper cham­­ber, and U.S. Rep. Rahm Emanuel has quickly vaulted to a leadership post in the House.

But both Obama and McCain have railed against earmarks. Recent controversies over specific pet projects, particularly Alaska’s $223 million “bridge to nowhere,” have also made Congress more queasy about supporting obviously provincial projects.

If the next president uses the bully pulpit to curtail those pet projects, the likelihood that Illinois would reap big-time projects on the president’s clout alone would be pretty slim.

“If we’re sitting around waiting for dollars to come in our direction, it isn’t going to happen,” says the chamber’s Roeper.

Instead, Illinois leaders need to develop new ideas, particularly when it comes to spurring economic innovation, that can be used as a model for the rest of the country. If they could do that, Obama would be more likely to help his home state, Roeper says.

That, however, requires cooperation among state leaders, something sorely lacking in recent years. For decades, Illinois’ school funding system has been criticized but never fixed, and state lawmakers can’t agree on a public works program, though billions of dollars of federal aid are on the line, Roeper notes.

If there’s a downside to having someone from your state in the White House, it’s the intense scrutiny of the folks back home.

The constant questions over Bill Clinton’s actions as Arkansas governor — especially dealing with the Whitewater real estate scandal and the suicide of aide Vince Foster — weighed heavily on Arkansans, who felt they were caricatured by the media and Clinton’s enemies, says University of Arkansas political science professor Janine Parry. The pressure was especially intense, she says, because Arkansas’ political circles are so small, which meant nearly everyone knew a friend or neighbor who was being investigated.

When President Bush campaigned in 2000, he talked often about how Democrats and Republicans worked together in the Texas Capitol, unlike in Washington, D.C. But during Bush’s first term as president, the Texas legislature drew the national spotlight when Republicans tried to redraw districts for state lawmakers and congressional representatives. House Democrats fled the state to try to foil the GOP plans. The showdown became fodder for late-night comics and an embarrassing episode for Texas politicians.

And if Georgians thought they’d get special treatment from President Jimmy Carter, they were quickly proven wrong, says Charles S. Bullock III, a political science professor at the University of Georgia.

Carter vaulted from the Georgia governor’s office to the White House with the help of a small circle of advisers. He took those confidantes to Washington, where they were derisively called the “Georgia Mafia.” Even though his top aides hailed from Georgia — and many from near Carter’s hometown of Plains —Georgians didn’t get any special treatment from Carter. In fact, one of his first acts in office was to kill off water projects popular in Georgia.

Daniel C. Vock is a reporter for Washington, D.C.-based Stateline.org.

Illinois Issues, October 2008

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