Quiet naming of the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway

The Chicago area now has the Kennedy Expressway, the Ronald Reagan Memorial Tollway and the Barack Obama Presidential Expressway:

With little fanfare from officials, signs went up in recent months marking the newly named Barack Obama Presidential Expressway, a stretch of about 80 miles of Interstate 55 from the southwest suburbs to Pontiac.

While the March unveiling lacked the usual pomp and circumstance, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, said politics — the Illinois Department of Transportation is overseen by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner — didn’t play a role. Ford said they didn’t want to have a ceremony without the former president and couldn’t coordinate with his busy schedule…

“It’s part of the making of President Obama,” Ford said. “He traveled that road for many, many years. One day he’s going to be happy to travel that road (again) and have some reflections on all those times that he traveled down it.”…

The expressway’s renaming isn’t just to invoke nostalgia. Ford wants the expressway’s markers to one day spark a conversation about the former president among young people who weren’t around for Obama’s presidential days.

Chicago and the surrounding region like to honor people with roads and highways. Numerous other public facilities could be renamed for politicians and other leaders; think airports, major government buildings, parks and protected land, libraries, and schools. At the least, plenty of travelers use these three highways named after presidents and will be reminded of the figures after seeing numerous signs.

About the choice of road: the argument that this was a route Obama regularly traveled between Chicago and Springfield makes sense. At the same time, the route covers largely suburban and rural areas. Obama seems to identify more with the city of Chicago. Is the name the Dan Ryan Expressway so sacrosanct that the Obama Expressway could not connect with the Kennedy Expressway? Or, they couldn’t have renamed the Stevenson which reminds people of a candidate who failed in running for president multiple times?

Honor a president…with a highway named after them

Chicago likes to honor famous people and politicians by affixing their names to roads so what would be a fitting honor for former president Barack Obama?

A few weeks ago, state Rep. Robert Martwick, D-Chicago, submitted a resolution to have the entirety of Interstate 294 named after President Obama. However, in the same week, state Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, indicated that he was moving to submit legislation that would rename much of Interstate 55 that passes through Illinois as the “Barack Obama Expressway.” The moves in Springfield led to chatter in the press and elsewhere about how to honor President Obama and his legacy.

Perhaps because driving is so ingrained in American culture officials like to rename roads and highways. A highway seems so dull here: it will be a staple of morning traffic reports (“The Obama is clogged from 159th to Cicero”) and make it into countless digital and print atlases. I imagine it takes time for a name change to switch over into normal use: is I-55 the Southwest Highway, the original name, or I-55 (when it was adopted into the Federal Interstate System), or the Stevenson (to honor an Illinois governor and twice-failed presidential candidate. How many people who live in the area say they drive the Reagan?

But, there are plenty of other infrastructure options: how about O’Hare Airport (named after a World War II aviator), one of the most important airports in the American system? How about a branch of the L? Think how many people travel on and would see the Obama Line and perhaps some politicians would rather be known for promoting mass transit. Of course, if you didn’t like a politician (not the case here), you could attach their name to something less worthy like a sewage treatment plant or a viaduct.

 

When the candidate with the big data advantage didn’t win the presidency

Much was made of the effective use of big data by Barack Obama’s campaigns. That analytic advantage didn’t help the Clinton campaign:

Clinton can be paranoid and self-destructively self-protective, but she’s also capable of assessing her own deficiencies as a politician in a bracingly clear-eyed way. And the conclusion that she drew from her 2008 defeat was essentially an indictment of her own management style: Eight years earlier, she had personally presided over a talented, sloppy, squabbling, sprawling menagerie of pals, longtime advisers and hangers-on who somehow managed to bungle the building of a basic political infrastructure to oppose Obama’s efficient, data-driven operation.

To do so, Mook hired a buddy who had helped Terry McAuliffe squeak out a win in the 2014 Virginia governor’s race: Elan Kriegel, a little-known data specialist who would, in many ways, exert more influence over the candidate than any of all-star team of veteran consultants. Kriegel’s campaign-within-a-campaign conducted dozens of targeted surveys—to test messaging and track voter sentiment day-by-day, especially in battleground states—and fed them into a computer algorithm, which ran hundreds of thousands of simulations that were used to steer ad spending, the candidate’s travel schedule, even the celebrities Clinton would invite to rallies.

The data operation, five staffers told me, was the source of Mook’s power within the campaign, and a source of perpetual tension: Many of Clinton’s top consultants groused that Mook and Kriegel withheld data from them, balking at the long lead time—a three-day delay—between tracking reports. A few of them even thought Mook was cherry-picking rosy polling to make the infamously edgy Clinton feel more confident…

In numerous interviews conducted throughout the campaign, Clinton staffers attested to Mook’s upbeat attitude and mastery of detail. But, in the end, Brooklyn simply failed to predict the tidal wave that swamped Clinton—a pro-Trump uprising in rural and exurban white America that wasn’t reflected in the polls—and his candidate failed to generate enough enthusiasm to compensate with big turnouts in Detroit, Milwaukee and the Philadelphia suburbs.

It would be fascinating to hear more. The pollsters didn’t get it right – but neither did the Clinton campaign internally?

The real question is what this will do to future campaigns. Was Donald Trump’s lack of campaign infrastructure and reliance on celebrity and media coverage (also highlighted nicely in the article above) something that others can or will replicate? Or, would the close margins in this recent presidential election highlight even more the need for finely-tuned data and microtargeting? I’m guessing the influence of big data in campaigns will only continue but data will only get you so far if it (1) isn’t great data in the first place and (2) people know how to use it well.

President Obama and McMansions on Martha’s Vineyard

The president is vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard and this has become part of a local controversy over McMansions:

But film-maker Thomas Bena says the house the Obamas are renting this year is a prime example of the kind of mega-construction that is threatening to destroy the character of the island.

Bena has spent 12 years making a film called One Big Home, which is being shown to islanders this weekend. It documents an issue that is as tricky for residents of the Vineyard as it is for beach destinations everywhere: how to protect small communities from the distortions created by an influx of wealthy visitors who come for just eight weeks of the year. The film chronicles Bena’s crusade against the proliferation of outsize homes in the town of Chilmark, where he lives with his wife, Mollie, and daughter, Emma.

Bena argues that the giant homes – often referred to as McMansions – are not only out of proportion with their environment but are wasteful symbols of the over-reaching vanity of their absentee owners. Over the past 20 years, what started as an aberration is now a trend – Mansionisation, or the practice of building the largest possible house on a plot of land…

A backlash has started, with people in Martha’s Vineyard – and in the Hamptons on Long Island – questioning the wisdom of land being turned over to mansions that sit empty – but heated – for 10 months of the year. In Los Angeles, the city planning commission recently voted to eliminate various loopholes, including one that grants a 20% square footage bonus for building “green,” that has been contributing to bigger-is-better mansionisation…

Bena believes McMansions have contributed to a new sense of “us and them”, local people and summer visitors. “In the summer you feel that tension wherever you go,” he says. “People put a smile on their face because they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them, but it’s there.”

It seems that there are three issues at hand:

  1. The construction of large houses – McMansions – within long-standing communities leads to tensions in many communities, not just prime vacation spots. The situation is exacerbated here because the large house owners aren’t in the community all year long and so there is likely less interaction between them and the long-time residents. Of course, having neighbors that know each other doesn’t necessarily limit the anger regarding McMansions.
  2. The limits of tourism to transform existing communities. On one hand, tourism is often viewed by places as an excellent opportunity: other people come in, spend money (and can be taxed at higher rates – see the hotel taxes in many major cities), and then go home (the community doesn’t have to provide long-term local services like schools for the tourists). This may be preferable to polluting factories or evil corporations. On the other hand, tourism can bring in an influx of people who have their own ideas of what they want and can swamp the smaller local population.
  3. Having the President visit provides an opportunity for locals to draw attention to their particular concerns. Should they be proud the President is visiting or unhappy that such visits can be disruptive? This may just depend on one’s political leanings and which party is in office.

In this case, if outsiders want to spend big money on large homes (providing some local construction money and increased tax money) plus spend some time there during the year (spending more money), what limits should a vacation spot put on them?

Using behavioral science to improve interaction with government

President Obama signed an executive order yesterday that promotes using behavioral science to make the government more user-friendly and efficient:

The report features the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team’s first year of projects, which have made government programs easier to access and more user-friendly, and have boosted program efficiency and integrity. As a result of these projects, more Servicemembers are saving for retirement, more students are going to college, more Veterans are accessing their benefits, more farmers are obtaining credit, and more families are gaining healthcare coverage.

The Federal Government administers a wide array of programs on behalf of the American people, such as financial aid to assist with college access and workplace savings plans to promote retirement security. Americans are best served when these programs are easy to access and when program choices and information are presented clearly. When programs are designed without these considerations in mind, Americans can incur real consequences. One behavioral science study found, for example, that a complex application process for college financial aid not only decreased applications for aid, but also led some students to delay or forgo going to college altogether.

Behavioral science insights—research insights about how people make decisions—not only identify aspects of programs that can act as barriers to engagement, but also provide policymakers with insight into how those barriers can be removed through commonsense steps, such as simplifying communications and making choices more clear. That same study on financial aid found that streamlining the process of applying—by providing families with assistance and enabling families to automatically fill parts of the application using information from their tax return—increased the rates of both aid applications and college enrollment.

On one hand, the administration suggests this improves efficiency and helps people make use of the help available to them. On the other hand, there are predictable responses from the other side: “Obama issues Orwellian executive order.”

These are not new ideas. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (who tweeted the news of the executive order) wrote the 2008 book titled Nudge that makes policy recommendations based on such science. For example, instead of having people opt-in to programs like setting aside matched retirement savings or organ donor programs, change the default to opting out rather than opting in and see participation rates rise.

I imagine both parties might want to use this to their advantage (though it might might rile up the conservative base a bit more if it was made public) when promoting their own policies.

Obama bypasses Congress and talks to mayors about economic policies

President Obama talked to big city mayors yesterday in efforts to work outside of Congress:

White House aides say the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting was an ideal opportunity to press the president’s agenda with a more sympathetic audience. White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters before the speech that it was a chance to move “forward on priorities helping the middle class despite inaction in Congress.”

The president urged mayors to raise the minimum wage, guarantee paid sick leave, and expand childcare and pre-kindergarten education — all issues with little traction among congressional Republicans…

Since Obama called for an increase to the minimum wage in 2013, 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed raises. Large retailers, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, IKEA, and Gap Inc. have also pledged to increase the lowest hourly wage for their employees.

This could be viewed as a political ploy to shame Congress or subvert the typical process by which Washington works. In contrast, Obama’s strategy works with one of the standard lines about big-city mayors: they can’t be as partisan as legislators or those in the executive branch because they have to attend to more practical details on a regular basis. In other words, they have to make sure their cities work and can’t afford to get bogged down in ideological standoffs. (Interestingly, I heard this again recently at a conference in Chicago and there was some open laughter.)

That said, economic issues would certainly matter to many mayors as they need jobs for citizens as well as the economic benefits that come with jobs and economic growth (increased population, more tax revenues, increased prestige, etc.). Of course, there is disagreement about how to best do this. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel presents some of these contrasts. Is he pro-Walmart? He certainly seems to like attracting big corporations and tech start-ups. Is he truly interested in economic development in poorer neighborhoods? How much influence do wealthy businesspeople have in Chicago? He was behind raising the minimum wage in Chicago. Can he be considered non-partisan?

Whether Congress acts or not, cities and metropolitan regions are large economic engines and their leaders do have some latitude in policies that could encourage or discourage economic growth.

Chicago’s race and class differences on display in fight over Obama Library

Six groups are vying for the Barack Obama Presidential Library in Chicago:

The library is “such a prize that nobody is going to yield power to anybody else,” veteran Chicago political analyst Don Rose said.The squabble also puts Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, in the difficult position of trying to present a single, unified bid, lest the feuding weaken the city’s odds against rival campaigns to put the library in New York or Hawaii…

The main point of tension is between the University of Chicago, where Obama spent 12 years as a constitutional law professor until his 2004 election to the U.S. Senate, and a group advocating for Bronzeville, the city’s historic center of black culture, business and politics.

“They think that they can get whatever they want,” Bronzeville organizer Harold Lucas said of the university. “If you compare the cranes in the sky and that opulent growth of this university to the surrounding, predominantly African-American community, it’s a travesty. It’s a clear tale of two cities.”…

There are also two potential bids on the Far South Side, one led by Chicago State University and the other by a group promoting the historic Pullman neighborhood. It was in those areas that Obama established his earliest roots in the city as a community organizer in the mid-1980s, setting up job training programs and defending the rights of public housing tenants.

The University of Illinois at Chicago, on the Near West Side, is also taking a shot, as is a real estate developer pushing the former U.S. Steel Corp. site on the southeast lakefront.

Lots of interested actors and a number of them could make a good case that the library would help economic development – even the University of Chicago says their plan would be to build the library off-campus so it would help a neighborhood. This seems like a classic situation for some backroom deals and a growth machine perspective where those with more political and business power will end up calling the shots.

Is this a true test of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s abilities as a mayor? It will be interesting to see how he moves among all of these options.