Carol Felsenthal
On politics

If Obama Loses, Does Chicago Lose, Too?

What difference would it make to the city of Chicago if Obama is not in the White House come January 2013? Two experts weigh in.

If I had a ranch, I’d certainly bet it on President Obama winning on November 6, but watching his odd performance (and I use the word “perform” advisedly), I started to think, what if?

I called William Howell, 41, the Sydney Stein Professor of American Politics at the University of Chicago, to ask, “What difference would it make to the city of Chicago if Obama is not in the White House come January 2013?” He gave the following insights:

+ An Obama loss would “speed up the timeline of the University of Chicago and interested organizations in getting the Obama library.” (Unlike his poli-sci colleague Charles Lipson, Howell supports bringing the Obama library to Chicago, mentioning that it will “increase the profile of the university and add to the quality of students’ lives.” In answer to the objection of the library not being “sufficiently academic,” Howell argues, “There are lots of things about universities that aren’t purely academic”—and he mentions everything from sport teams to David Axelrod’s newly created Institute of Politics.)

+ President Obama “and a good portion of his advisers are from Chicago, and they would return home,” presumably to pursue other campaigns and projects. Howell imagines big changes for the “daily lives of Hyde Park residents, having a former president live here, not just show up on occasion.” (When I expressed doubt that the Obamas would return to their Kenwood home to live, he disagreed: “My best guess is he does…. He’ll be here a lot less than before [he became president] because he’ll be in a lot of demand.”)

+ As to whether Chicago would lose federal money for programs, “it’s difficult to draw a straight line from the individual who is president and support for programs,” Howell explains. While he notes that “the president and the vice president are the only elected officials to represent the entire country,” a study of the distribution of federal funds, which he and a colleague from the University’s Harris School of Public Policy conducted, shows, over a 25 year period, a six percent average increase in federal outlays if members of the House of Representatives come from the same party as the president. “Since Chicago is an overwhelmingly Democratic town, most of the members of Congress coming out of here are Democrats. And the only way their party will match the president’s [and those extra funds will be forthcoming] is if Obama wins.”

+ Were Romney to win and plan, as presidents always do, to run for re-election in 2016, “It’s hard to imagine him paying much attention to Chicago or Illinois.” If he wants to woo a city and/or a state, and spend political capital in doing so, “He will be more likely to [spend it] in swing states, and we are not one of them.”

I couldn’t let Howell go without asking him what he makes of Republican attacks on the pre-debate polls showing Obama surging and on last Friday’s relatively steep drop in the unemployment rate (from 8.1 to 7.8 percent).

“I haven’t seen any credible evidence in favor of the… pollsters being in cahoots and jerry-rigging an Obama victory. There are lots of reasons why polls get it wrong,” he said, citing, for example, the difficulty of figuring out “a national sample.” He also argues that it’s counterintuitive to claim that pollsters, who operate in an “intensely competitive environment,” would pick a favorite and manipulate their results to boost him. “These pollsters’ bread and butter is accuracy. There are professional costs to getting it wrong.”

As to the surprising drop in the unemployment rate—no economist I saw predicted it; most guessed the rate would remain at 8.1 or notch up to 8.2—“it is puzzling.  With the addition of 115,000 jobs, we haven’t seen that kid of drop.” But he mentions other variables, such as “the number people in the work force, seasonal components,” that could account for the drop. “The people [in the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics] who produce these official statistics, administration after administration, are taken seriously because they have developed reputations for being objective and getting it right.” These accusations, such as the one by former GE chief Jack Welch, are, Howell says, “standard electioneering nonsense.”

I asked Howell whether he plans to vote for Obama or Romney—his colleague Lipson had told me that he would vote for Romney when I interviewed him shortly before the first presidential debate. Howell would not say. “I teach the presidency. I work hard to ensure no relation between [my teaching] and my personal politics.” But he did say, “I would bet on Obama. I think that he is playing from a position of strength. The most recent debate was the worst moment in the last three months in Obama’s campaign, but it was just a moment.”

I put the opening question “What difference would it make to the city of Chicago if Obama is not in the White House come January 2013?” to the 64-year-old Lipson, who was more specific than his younger colleague. He saw some lean times ahead for Chicago’s coffers. According to Lipson, who answered via email, a Romney victory would mean:

+ “A closed door to any bailouts for overextended state and local governments, not just in Illinois but across the country. That mainly affects ‘blue’ states such as Illinois because they have refused to confront their underfunded pensions and expensive union contracts. Just look at the differences between Illinois and Indiana or Wisconsin.”

+ “An impact on schools, since the Romney administration will surely back efforts, like those in Chicago, to increase charter schools.”

+ Also, says Lipson, “Chicago will be affected by any cutbacks in food stamps since we have a large population dependent on them. Romney’s goal, of course, is to stimulate economic growth and jobs so these assistance programs will be less necessary.  Whether he succeeds is another matter.”

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