For Release Sunday, September 21, 2008
© 2008 Washington Post Writers Group
CHICAGO– Obama versus McCain, and the places we live — what difference will this election make? After the speeches, ads, debates, saturation media, are over and the voters have spoken, how will the new president work with the cities and metropolitan areas that a vast majority of us call home?
My short analysis: With Obama, we’re likely to get an activist federal government in areas from transit and infrastructure to housing. But it won’t be the Democrats’ historic center-city “urban policy.” Instead, Obama’s looking for ways to shift and coordinate federal programs to help boost the fortunes of entire metro regions.
McCain? One has to be a super-detective to discern any city-metro policy at all. We know what he’s against, starting with pork-barrel spending, particularly earmarks for politicians’ pet local projects. We know he’s for less government regulation and lower taxes for individuals, small businesses, corporations.
But do we have even a hint of a federal partnership with urban/metro America under a McCain administration? So far no. The silence could be intentional. The Sarah Palin vice presidential selection, the Republican National Convention’s celebration of small towns and invective against “cosmopolitanism” and community organizing, smacks of a calculated anti-urban message.
Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, in an effort to smoke out the candidates’ positions on metro-area issues, held a public forum Sept. 8 with surrogates for the presidential contenders. State Rep. James Durkin, Illinois co-chair for John McCain, faced off against former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, representing Obama.
Durkin underscored McCain’s anti-tax, anti-regulatory positions. But when the moderator asked — “How would a McCain administration prioritize and fund transit, road and freight investments to not only help communities, but help commerce and keep our economic strong locally and internationally?” — Durkin was at a loss for answer.
Cisneros, by contrast, could cite and praise Obama’s pledge to create the first-ever White House Office on Urban Policy. With a director reporting to the president, its role would be to get the federal government’s historically “siloed” cabinet departments and agencies to work collaboratively with cities and metro regions.
For over 50 years, at least since President Harry Truman, said Cisneros, “We haven’t had a president who would be as grounded, as versed in urban and metropolitan matters” as Obama.
It’s true, Obama doesn’t campaign much on his city-metro agenda. But he committed himself clearly in June before the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Noting “crumbling roads and bridges, aging water and sewer pipes, faltering electrical grids,” Obama endorsed a new national infrastructure bank, seeded with $60 billion in federal funds over 10 years, to move road, bridge, airport, rail and other metro area projects forward.
Obama is also calling for $200 million in annual grants to spark “regional clusters” in advanced sciences or cutting edge technologies — one of several ideas germinated by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Underscoring the forward-looking investment theme, Obama told the mayors:
“Yes, we need to fight poverty,… fight crime… But we also need to stop seeing our cities as the problem and start seeing them as the solution. Because strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.”
There’s a touch of historic Democratic generosity toward cities in Obama’s promises. His list is long — for example restoring federal funds for community-oriented policing programs, full funding of Sec. 8 housing vouchers, full funding of community development block grants, increasing the minimum wage, broadband in all schools and more.
The promises do make one wonder: in times of record deficits, where will the money come from? Yet the billions to arm for the foreign policy aggressiveness McCain is espousing — especially with simultaneous tax cuts — are arguably far more worrisome.
A big McCain question is whether, if elected, he’d govern with serious domestic purpose, pleasantly surprising us as President George H.W. Bush did by picking such able Cabinet secretaries as Jack Kemp at for HUD. (A parallel current-day pick might be ex-Indianapolis Mayor Steven Goldsmith, a top urban expert).
Or would McCain be more like George W. Bush, filling his administration (especially urban policy posts) with ideologues and mediocrities?
The answer’s unknowable — a big crap shoot.
By contrast, an Obama presidency would at least aspire to deliver 21st century intellectual power, strong personal commitment to our cities and regions, and intent to appoint the most skilled administrators the country has to offer.
That alone wouldn’t clean away the detritus of the last years — the housing foreclosure mess, an ominously rising federal deficit, ending the Iraq war, catchup on global climate issues. They’ll still pose a daunting challenge. But with a youthful administration, and a Congress and president of the same party, metro America’s chances would surely be brighter.
Neal Peirce’s e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org
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