Former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley implored those who came to hear him speak to get involved in politics and government.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s at the local, state and national level, he said. Just get involved.
“And consider getting onto a school board, a village council. Something,” he said. “You’re going to own this country pretty soon.”
Daley made his comments Oct. 30 before a packed conference room of students, staff,
faculty, administrators and more at DePaul University’s School of Public Service. He did so as the guest speaker at the school’s 23rd H. Woods Bowman Annual Lecture.
School of Public Service Director Robert Stokes said Daley — a giant of sorts in
Washington, D.C., politics and government for about 20 years beginning in the early 1990s — embodies the DePaul ethos of service, just as the late Woods Bowman did. Bowman, the annual event’s namesake, taught at the School of Public Service from 1995 through his 2012 retirement. He served as professor emeritus until his death from a car crash in 2015.
In comments before Daley spoke, Stokes emphasized “our hopeful ethos as a school” as “being a technically competent problem solver with a deep commitment to public service and social justice.”
The former Commerce Secretary largely echoed that sentiment — emphasizing, for
example, the government’s role in helping the poor. He also bemoaned businesses’ too-often-failed responsibility in standing by their workers through retirement.
Daley, son of legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and younger brother of
former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, pointed out that he has been around politics
and government his entire life. He also has a long background in banking and finance,
previously as an executive at J.P. Morgan Chase and now as a managing partner at hedge fund Argentiere Capital.
In 1993, Daley made it to the White House, serving President Bill Clinton as chair of a
task force on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Clinton later appointed Daley as Commerce Secretary, a position he held for three years until 2000. He then took on the chairmanship of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, which culminated in a historic recount and Supreme Court decision and George W. Bush’s victory.
He became President Barack Obama’s chief of staff in 2011 and served one year. In 2014, he briefly ran for governor of Illinois before deciding, he said, that the job wouldn’t be right for him.
“It really wasn’t me,” Daley told the School of Public Service gathering during a question- and- answer session. “Deep down, I knew that wasn’t me, but I wanted it to be.”
With that, he told students that when they’re embarking on life-changing decisions,
“Know yourself. When you make that big decision, have a sense that’s really you.”
Daley kept the crowd attentive and often in laughter as he shared anecdotes about his
days in the Clinton and Obama administrations— and as he tried to toe a tactful and not too- partisan line about the national political climate. He generally avoided direct
references to President Donald Trump, for example. He instead emphasized the mood
of the masses and the policy and approach of U.S. leadership.
“This is kind of a bad time right now in our politics and people’s respect for people in
government,” he said.
“That will change. There’s an election going on seemingly every hour in this country.
Whatever side of the political isle you may be on, I encourage you to look for the
opportunities ... to get them out.”
SPS students enthusiastically peppered Daley with smart questions, including about Clinton, Obama, net neutrality, a possible U.S. shift back to the political center, the concept of power, Chicago’s challenges, the nonprofit industry, the governor’s race and future of Illinois, the best advice he’d ever received, and why he got involved in politics. In his address and in his responses to those questions, Daley addressed a range of topics, including (edited for space):
The U.S. and globalization: “We’re in a very different period, I think, economically and militarily. So I think the next number of years is going to be extremely challenging for those who are in government and for those who are in politics. We’ve got a long way to go to try to right the ship. But I believe that long-term, the United States will continue to be the preeminent power in many ways. It may not always be the most important economic engine of the world as it has been, for (doing) good.
“So many people around the world have been taken out of poverty by globalization. Yes, people have been negatively impacted. But when you look at parts of the world that 25 years ago were basically shut out and extremely poor with very little opportunity, that’s changing. So that’s a good thing.”
NAFTA: “Should it be updated? Yes. Is it perfect? No. But, remember, Mexico was basically a third-world country 25 years ago. We were the most developed country in the world. Bill Clinton really did believe that this was part of opening our
economy, growing the economy, sending a message to the rest of the world that the United States would deal with its neighbor who was basically a third-world country and bring them up in many ways.
The art of negotiation: “One’s got to win, one’s got to lose.... Well, that’s really not the way you can go about negotiating with countries. This perception that the United States has got to win, that might work in the real estate world, but it doesn’t work in the political world. It’s too simplistic. If it’s going to be ‘I win, you lose,’ then there are going to have other countries that start that attitude, and it’s going to be a race to the
The political climate and society: “Politics has become a really tough game. I’ve been
around it my whole life, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Oftentimes, you can say, ‘Why is politics so dirty and so tough. Why is so nasty?’ “And I’ve felt for a long time
that it may be more reflective of who we are as a society. We’re pretty crass much of the time. Television, the way they talk to each other, they way they treat each other. It’s sort of this crassness of society. Maybe they’re more reflective of who we’re
becoming as a society.”
President Bill Clinton: “He was very charismatic. He was one of the most curious people I’ve ever met. He could talk about basketball, football, college football. He could tell you stats. He was unbelievably smart. He was always carrying a book. He was always reading books, and he was unbelievably curious. To me, that’s the most important trait in a world leader. When he spoke, he brought people into the discussion. He could just connect.”
President Barack Obama: “He pulled off, next to Donald Trump, probably the most
unbelievable political thing in American history. For an African-American man to pull this off, not having been in the system for long, was truly remarkable. (He had) a very good sense of the sort of change going on. This was this fresh, young, no-baggage … and incredibly charismatic (presidential candidate). He was more of an introvert than Clinton. Clinton liked the sort of game. Obama didn’t. Obama didn’t have the craving for acceptance that most politicians have.”
The non-profit industry: Daley urged consolidation. He serves on the executive committee of the Chicago Community Trust, a foundation that says it aims to improve the quality of life and prosperity for residents throughout the region. Daley said the
foundation has noticed that “people now, people with money, they can pick and go give (for example) to the ‘Save the Coral Reefs in Fiji.’
“So this direct ability to invest and spend money on things that are very important to you personally has in many ways changed the not-for-profit space. I think the not-for-profits should be much be much more impressive on the politicians and the government on (helping) those who have the most need. It’s outrageous to expect foundations to pick up the slack. People are really suffering.
“Trying to find a streamline, to consolidate, so that you have some power by size is really important. The ease of people giving on their own, not through an organization,
has created a problem because there’s so much out there to distract people.”
State finances, pensions and retirement: “It’s this massive pension obligation that goes back many years that is an anchor around the neck of government, state and city. I get both sides. There’s a certain fairness: ‘You made this promise. We work. When we retire, we get the money.’”
“I think one of the biggest negatives of the last 40 years in our country has been the quiet shift of responsibility of retirement form the employer to the employee, with basically no obligation on the employer other than to pay you when you work for me. When you leave here, you’ve been here 35 years, you’re gone. The same people who wanted that system changed (say), ‘We can’t raise Social Security. It’s costing us too
“Who’s supposed to help people in retirement? We say that health care is a right. Well, shouldn’t you have some right in retirement, later in life, to get some help?”
On taking the advice to become Al Gore’s campaign chairman: “I really thought it
was going to be a consequential election. It was. I was part of something.”
A closing comment to the School of Public Service: “Congratulations on all that you’ve done to this point, and please don’t lose the energy and the drive and the interest to try to make this a better city and state and country, because it’s yours.”