Chill On The Obama Countdown, Tribune!

Here in Chicago, the countdown is on, ticking down the days before Barack Obama is inaugurated as President of the United States. While I understand and appreciate the excitement, it strikes me as a tad overblown to have the countdown be by the second, as it is on the Trib’s website.

Tempering the Tribune’s online breathlessness is columnist John Kass, whose wry assessment of potential Obama assistants, like Oprah Winfrey, Jesse Jackson, Tony Rezko and Todd “Urkel” Stroger, is on Page 2 of the newspaper.

My favorite part of the column, rightfully slamming Obama’s cynical endorsement of the incompetent Stroger two years ago:

“Send Stroger to Washington,” Susan E. wrote. “Don’t really care in what capacity, as long as we get rid of him. Let him work his magic for the nation. We really shouldn’t be hiding this talent in one place. Send all 500 of his closest relatives, too.”

Obama’s PR Problem: Endorsing A Hack

Here in Cook County, the second-largest county in the nation, there is a population of more than 5 million, which exceeds that of 30 states.

It’s a hugely significant place, with Chicago at its epicenter and a County Board President by the name of Todd Stroger. In case you’re not familiar with him, Stroger isn’t equipped to lead a county of five people, let alone 5-plus million. To put it as clearly as I can, Stroger is a political hack.

Yet two years ago, Barack Obama, along with fellow Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, endorsed Stroger in his race against Republican Tony Peraica. Of course, it would be naive to suggest they should have endorsed Peraica. But they had the option of simply steering clear of making any endorsement.

Instead, they must have had to hold their noses as they read the glowing letter that some staffer undoubtedly penned. You can see the letter right here, as part of Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn’s archives.

The endorsement letter, which may well have been instrumental in tipping the narrow race in Stroger’s favor, concluded:

“On Tuesday Todd Stroger is the only choice. You can make the difference. You can raise your voice. You can choose Todd Stroger, and let him lead us into a new era of Cook County government.”

It’s a new era, all right. A new, increasingly tax-happy, incompetent era that has made the county–and Stroger, in particular–a laughingstock. Except, in my household, nobody’s laughing at being squeezed out of even more of our hard-earned money. And that’s just the tip of a bumbling, unprofessional iceberg.

Type “Todd Stroger patronage” into Google and feast your eyes on the ways in which he’s confirmed our worst fears–and raised new ones.

In the person of Todd Stroger, Barack Obama has one serious PR problem on his hands.

I covered local government in Illinois for some 15 years, about half of that time for the Chicago Tribune. One 2 1/2-year beat was the town of Cicero, shortly after its president, Betty Loren-Maltese, and six others went to prison for stealing millions in taxpayer money. So I have seen plenty of good, bad and ugly elected officials.

Time will tell how much the Stroger debacle will cost Obama. He’s part of the Chicago Democratic Machine that Tribune columnist John Kass writes about so persistently.

I have followed Obama’s career closely the past five years, ever since I first encountered an uncommon zeal in the voices of those who supported his burgeoning U.S. Senate campaign in my town of Oak Park, Illinois.

I am reading his first book, Dreams From My Father, and last year I read an excellent, and balanced, book (Obama: From Promise to Power) that Chicago Tribune reporter David Mendell wrote–a book that moved me to write a feature story about Mendell’s journey.

And lately, even with the Stroger support nagging at me, I have wanted to believe that Obama is sincere when he lays claim to the mantle of reformer and bringing “change” to the political process. He’s bright, he’s charming, he talks a very, very good game.

But in this one crucial moment two years ago–when he held significant sway over an election of such import–Obama’s actions sharply contradicted his lofty words.

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