Assesing Obama's Urban Policy: A Lot of Words, Little Action


In a 2009 speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, President Barack Obama outlined his view of and for American cities, stating, “We need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth.” 

Obama has attached great importance to the revitalization and growth of U.S. cities as economic engines of national prosperity. In fact, he even campaigned on a platform of urban policy reform, stating that, “Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated 'urban' agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both." 

Now, three years into his presidency, has Obama's urban strategy succeeded? In some ways, his policies have been laudable, but unfortunately, have also come across as ambivalent and aspirational.

After campaigning in Chicago and Philadelphia, Obama, a former community organizer, ignited hope across America’s regional clusters with a robust vision for bringing resource parity and economic prosperity to cities. He tapped Former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr. to lead a promising new initiative — the creation of a White House Office of Urban Policy — and ordered a place-based review of federal agencies to examine where work could be conducted cheaper and better. The review proved fruitful, fostering interagency collaboration in areas like grant disbursal.

But, while the administration initially invested in cities, it also displayed a level of ambivalence and appeared unwilling to tie the president too closely to an urban agenda. This ambivalence is perhaps best displayed by the personnel changes which have derailed the reform agenda. Shortly after taking the position as head of the Office of Urban Policy, Carrion abruptly transitioned to a northeast regional director position within HUD. The reasons for his departure were unclear, but the transition was an unambiguous decrease in responsibility for Carrion. Green jobs czar Van Jones, moreover, resigned from his post in the wake of a Fox News interrogation of his connection to a fringe 9/11 campaign. While neither personnel change was an outright dismissal, both of them represent a retreat from the president’s campaign promise to prioritize cities in his administration.

Electorally, Obama defeated Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) 65%-35% in urban areas, suggesting that metropolitan voters share his aspirations for cities to transition from the benign neglect of the Nixon era to a brighter future. The president often speaks of an aspirational plan to invest in high-speed rail as a regional development strategy, increase manufacturing output, and stimulate consumer demand on Main Street. But he rarely puts the full weight of a primetime speech, the White House press office, or even a top-tier surrogate behind urban issues as national issues of economic growth and equity. Given the imminence of 2012 for Democratic lawmakers and the president, a full-blown policy strategy for cities is unlikely to develop in Obama’s first term. More specifically, Obama’s aspirational vision for cities will be constrained by fundraising, mobilizing, and speechmaking for the 2012 election. If, however, Obama follows his party’s tradition on stump speeches in difficult economic times, then the irony is that he will probably redeploy his campaign-ready motifs of aspiration, promising a New, Fair, or Square deal to American cities. 

Some aspects of Obama’s urban policy deserve praise. Washington should be commended for implementing a regional and collaborative approach to public administration. I’m thinking of a few things: the Neighborhood Stabilization Plan and TIGER grants within the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, as well as the Sustainable Communities partnership between the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency that has championed an interagency disbursal of funds. 

In addition, one might also speak of the 20 communities targeted by the Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods, an effort to scale up the conveyor belt model of education associated with Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. Each program, for both overlapping and distinct reasons, has faced an uphill battle in terms of funding; each also represents a substantive attempt to creatively invest in making cities vibrant hubs of America’s regions.

If Obama continues on the current course, he will have made subtle — and yet substantive — changes to implementing policy on America’s cities. Less probable, but not impossible under a two-term scenario: Obama convinces the voting public that investing in cities makes not only preventative and principled sense, but prudential sense for securing America’s long-term competitiveness and national prosperity.

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