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Chicago Mayor Talks Politics at Northwestern

Emanuel says ideas matter and everything in America soon to be transformed

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November 29, 2012 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
Rahm Emanuel
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks with professor Dan Lewis, director of Northwestern's Center for Civic Engagement during a Q&A session after his talk.

Evanston, Ill. --- Ideas matter the most in politics, stressed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel during his One Book One Northwestern talk, titled “Chicago Politics and the 2012 Election.”

In the most surprising and optimistic part of the discussion following the talk, the mayor emphatically stated that the nation will be transformed in unimaginable ways in the next five to six years because of its energy policies.

Watch video of the Mayor's complete remarks along with a Q and A with Dan Lewis of the Center for Civic Engagement.

“In the next five years, America is going to be energy independent,” he said. “When America has the cheapest natural gas in the world, manufacturing is actually going to come back to the United States.

“And communities in our state and throughout the Midwest that have lost an industrial base will be able to recruit manufacturing jobs back in communities and neighborhoods that were lost in this economic transformation of the last 30 to 40 years.

“It will be the most significant thing to happen in American politics in the next 30 years. It will transform everything.”

The Chicago mayor also emphasized that ideas –- rather than mechanics and demographics -– determined the outcome of the recent presidential election.

"Politics is my favorite subject,” he said to a packed Ryan Family Auditorium and an audience that spilled over to two other remote locations. “I actually do believe politics and policy matter. These are the tools to make people's lives better.”

He reflected on his storied experience in Democratic politics, working as White House Chief of Staff in President Barack Obama’s administration and before that as a key member of the Clinton White House, rising to serve as Senior Advisor to the President for Policy and Strategy. 

President Obama’s win in this year’s election, now being analyzed every which way by the pundits, had to do mainly with the president’s ideas, Emanuel said. "You will win election day if you are winning on the ideas that will make the economy grow and give the middle class a future."

In the recent election analysis, many have suggested that President Obama’s win was based mainly on the mechanics of the campaign, such as the clever use and analysis of data to turn out the vote, rather than on the president’s ideas. 

“Let me ask you a question,” Emanuel said. “If Mitt Romney had the better mechanics in the campaign, would he have gotten 71 percent of the Hispanic vote? If Mitt Romney had the best mechanics, would he have gotten 98 percent of the African-American vote? Would he have gotten women votes, the student votes?”

The campaign mechanics, he stressed, didn’t deliver those constituencies.

“The president's decision on immigration and Mitt Romney's decision on immigration in the primary are what decided how Hispanics were going to vote,” Emanuel said. “They weren't just bamboozled because of campaign mechanics.”

Ideas really count, though they often are viewed cynically by those who cover politics, he repeated. “Good policies make good politics.”

As a primary example, Emanuel cited President Obama’s leadership and courage in saving the auto industry, contrasting the risks the president took with the bailout to the strategy that Romney espoused in a 2008 op-ed in The New York Times titled “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”

About a month after the president was sworn into office the entire auto industry would have gone under if nothing was done, he said. The president had to deal not only with the historic breakdown of the financial industry and a deep recession threatening to get much worse but also with the collapse of America’s industrial base.

“The president made a decision that four years ago, around this time, looked like the dumbest bet you could ever make,” Emanuel said. “Policy-wise, you were going to spend $50 billion, and also politically, it was not popular then. And if you lose all of the money, it would not be popular. But it turned out the president was right.”

The decision saved 1.2 million manufacturing jobs, and the auto industry is now adding jobs, Emanuel said.

President Obama’s ideas and values are greatly informed by his work as a community organizer in Chicago, though opponents have belittled that experience, the mayor said.

“The president’s experience as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago dealing with the steel workers who had lost their jobs and their way of life, with how they were going to retrain and value themselves, was a guiding principle for him,” he said.

The values behind ideas are especially important in the messy business of governance and politics, within the context of so many conflicting voices, the mayor said in reference to President Obama's decisions.

"In the Oval Office at the end of the day, all you have are your values, your judgment and your ability to see a clear road."

In that vein, the mayor urged audience members to see the recently released movie about the other president from Illinois that he greatly admires, Steven Spielberg's critically acclaimed "Lincoln." 

Topics: University