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Obama's Home-Grown GOP Problem

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Political fights in Chicago are for the most part intramural affairs. They are famously raucous, play out at high volume and are sometimes genuinely ugly. But it's Democrat on Democrat, and it always has been.

Perhaps that is part of the reason President Obama and his Chicago-based inner circle have had so much difficulty dealing with intractable Republican opposition and ideological warfare on the national stage.

Political battles in Chicago are about money, jobs, turf, access, contracts and bragging rights.

Ideological fights are left to the reform types - "goo-goos," in the local parlance. And what the Republicans are up to has never been of much interest to the Democratic power elite in Chicago.

That elite is the political world that shaped Barack Obama and his closest advisors, including White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Senior Advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett.

Axelrod and Emanuel have logged plenty of time in the national political arena, but, like Jarrett, their roots are in the last campaign of the late Mayor Harold Washington and in service to current Mayor Richard M. Daley, who has held that job since 1989.

Daley's Chicago is an insular world, a tribal network of loyalties, on- and off-the-book enterprises and mutual self-interests where Republicans are viewed as potential business partners.

Still, the "city of the big shoulders" bravado has its rhetorical uses.

In April 2008, Emanuel burnished the tough-guy legend, telling U.S. News & World Report, "Politics in Chicago is an all-season sport, and it's not for the faint-hearted."

"Ours is a blunt, brawling way," Axelrod said in the same story.

Coming to Washington, the Obama team made it known their approach would be an artful mix of the President's charm and intelligence and a healthy dose of the "blood sport" Chicago style.

Republicans and editorial writers voiced dismay at the tough-talking presence of Emanuel in the Oval Office, presumably playing the enforcer with Democrats and Republicans alike.

But one year later, after the misadventures of health care reform and the Massachusetts Senate debacle, it's clear that no one in Washington in either party is afraid of these people.

To many, the Obama team has seemed paralyzed by the braying chorus of GOP opposition. When, some have wondered, will Obama throw a political punch?

Obama supporters have lived with assurances of effective behind-the-scenes negotiations even as conservative "teabaggers" ruled the summer of '09, Republican senators openly discussed "breaking the presidency," and a GOP House member felt comfortable yelling "you lie" at Obama on national television.

GOP resistance to the Administration's economic stimulus plan and health care reform has been all but unanimous, in a tone bordering on mockery.

And from the Administration's side? Certainly nothing that could be described as blunt and brawling.

For generations Chicago has dined out on a hard-edged, partisan Democratic image. But all the fights were internecine.

When it comes to confronting the national GOP, the mythic nature of rough-and-tumble Chicago politics is just that - a myth.

The late Mayor Richard J. Daley was the embodiment the hard-nosed big-city mayor, taking care of his friends, brooking no back talk from Republicans nor, more importantly, from those in his own party.

But the "real" Mayor Daley's fights were with pesky reform Democrats - they'd be called "progressives" today - and with African-Americans Democrats, who correctly felt taken for granted by the Democratic establishment in every year that didn't have an election.

The other relevant narrative involves the remarkable election of an African-American mayor in Chicago in 1983.

Democrat Harold Washington served only four years before his death but all his epic political battles were with fellow Democrats, though a few did masquerade as Republicans when the spirit moved them.

Democrats on the City Council lined up against Washington and precipitated "Council Wars," an all-Democratic border war built along a racially charged split in the Council.

A Newsweek cover at the time branded Chicago "Beirut on the Lake." But, as ever, it was Democrat on Democrat. Alderman Edward Vrdolyak, then the Cook County Democratic Party chairman, led the "Council Wars" against Washington. No Republicans in sight.

Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett played important, career-building roles in that historic election, and in the ongoing electoral success of Richie Daley. Emanuel was chief fundraiser in the 1989 win, a three-way race in which Daley's GOP rival - Vrdolyak - got four percent of the vote.

Even in Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate victory, signaling his rise to national prominence, Republicans played a marginal role.

The GOP incumbent did not seek re-election. The winner of the Republican primary disappeared in a sex scandal and a candidate imported from Maryland collected just 27% of the vote.

In his State of the Union address and in a testy meeting with House Republicans, President Obama adopted a more combative attitude, now appearing prepared to slug out his agenda with GOP rivals.

History suggests that posture may not prove a comfortable fit. For all his talents, if the President can't throw a punch at the GOP, it's perhaps because he's never had to, and doesn't know how.

Steve Daley is a former reporter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune.