The Chicago Tribune wants assurances that Barack Obama will keep at least one of his campaign promises.  Patrick Fitzgerald, as a political appointee, serves as US Attorney only as long as it pleases the President.  Will Obama replace Fitzgerald just as his investigation into the Chicago Machine begins to put some of the President-elect’s political allies in his crosshairs?

Today one unstoppable force of nature threatens the culture of sleaze and its insider financial deals, its illegal patronage hiring, and its pay-to-play contracts for cronies: Since his arrival from New York in 2001, U.S. Atty. Patrick Fitzgerald has demonstrated the energy and integrity that, in time, could liberate Illinoisans from indentured servitude to criminals in government.

President-elect Barack Obama has said he’ll keep Fitzgerald in the job, and we trust he’ll keep his word. But Fitzgerald, who serves at the president’s pleasure, has powerful enemies. They know that as his list of cooperating witnesses lengthens—convicted fundraiser Antoin “Tony” Rezko may be joining that club—so does his list of potential targets. Those with reason to fear Fitzgerald’s breath on their necks would love to see him dumped—or promoted high into Justice Department oblivion—when Obama takes office. …

Mr. President-elect, please tell Patrick Fitzgerald that his job future is as secure as yours. And invite Illinois officials to keep this independent and skilled prosecutor at bay not by angling to remove him, but by following the law.

This could act as a canary-in-the-coal mine bellwether for the incoming Obama administration.  If Obama replaces Fitzgerald, either by demanding his resignation or kicking him upstairs to a powerless post, he will signal that he intends to protect his political base in Chicago above all else.  If he keeps Fitzgerald on the job and supports him with a pro-reform AG at Justice, it will send a powerful message to the Daleys and Strogers that business as usual may come to an end.

Actually, I would be surprised to see him replace Fitzgerald, for two reasons.  First, Fitzgerald earned a great deal of respect on the Left for his pursuit of the ridiculous investigation into the Wilson/Plame leak and his subsequent prosecution of Scooter Libby.  Fitzgerald is not seen as a partisan, and in fact exemplifies the non-partisan ideal of the DoJ.

Second, and more importantly, Obama no longer needs the Chicago Machine.  Getting elected to the Presidency freed him from his need to maintain connections to the Daleys and the Strogers.  It would be almost impossible for Obama to lose Illinois in 2012 even if Daley campaigned against him.  Freed from the need to stroking Daley to win elections, he can build a reputation for refom by actually taking action for the first time in his career to reform anything.

If Obama cleans up Chicago — and I mean really cleans up Chicago — by keeping Fitzgerald on the job, he will have accomplished something truly significant.  There are no downsides for him in doing so, and tremendous upsides for both himself and the Democratic Party outside of Illinois.  Either way, how Obama handles Fitzgerald will be an early indicator as to whether Obama really intends to pursue reform.