Virtually There: Urban Policy, Candidate Websites, and a Silent McCain
“We need to imagine just what a clean, safe, efficient, dynamic, stimulating, just city would look like concretely – we need those images to confront critically our masters with what they should be doing – and just this critical imagination of the city is weak.”
– Richard Sennett, “The Open City”
Campaign websites – like town hall speeches, candidate adverts, and whisky drinking – are fair game when analyzing the presidential candidates. Indeed, when a few big picture issues like health care or the Iraq War dominate campaign conversation, these websites can be the curious voter’s only entrée into a candidate’s views on niche issues. Likewise, when the ravenous punditocracy belabors the collective consciousness with stories of vitriolic pastors and gas tax holidays, the campaign websites can be the honest voter’s only escape to meaningful policy, disassociated from reality as it may be.
That is why I feel so comfortable applauding Senator Obama’s recent addition of an “Urban Policy” tab to the dropdown menu in the upper-left-hand section of the horizontal toolbar labeled “Issues” on his campaign website. In fact, Obama had several months ago released an initial urban plan that called for a White House Office of Urban Policy, “promise neighborhoods” to combat concentrated poverty, increased money for reverse commuters, and an affordable housing trust fund. Senator Clinton, too, had released a plan for “revitalizing our cities” that called for increased funding for early education, green buildings and green jobs, and infrastructure. Both candidates’ plans would revive helpful programs that have been left, as Mayor Shirley Franklin of Atlanta might put it, to shrivel up and die. Fair enough.
Yet, the most striking characteristic of the candidates’ plans – at least before Senator Obama’s cybernautic policy adjustment – was a question each plan begged simultaneously: If cities are so decrepit, such bastions of poverty and social decline, why seek urban renewal at all? Why shouldn’t we just lace up our hiking boots, ditch our metro cards, and head for Appalachia (not that Senator Obama is likely to join us there)?
Senator Obama’s initial plan was characterized by a conflation of “urban America” with “urban poverty” that was so overt as to seem almost an oversight. After a somewhat encouraging title – “Changing the Odds for Urban America” – the plan’s first sentence ditches America and heads straight for poverty: we are informed that Senator Obama knows “urban poverty” from firsthand experience and will lead “a new federal approach to America’s high-poverty areas…” Like Senator Obama, Senator Clinton proposes positive policies for urban areas. But her plan then frames the policies by saying, “many of our cities are struggling, with lagging education systems, crumbling infrastructure, unemployment and crime.” When we read her calls for early childhood programs, investment in green cities, and increased CDBG funding, we can’t help but have crumbling schools, crumbling bridges, and crumbling housing projects in mind.
But in the last week – after lamentations from Politico, the Mayors of Philadelphia and Scranton and Cleveland, NPR, the Brookings Institution, and the New York Times – Senator Obama seems to have gotten the message. He released, on that tab in the dropdown menu in the upper-left-hand section of the horizontal toolbar labeled “Issues” on his campaign website, a new urban agenda: “Barack Obama: Supporting Urban Prosperity”. The plan lays out many of the same policies as his previous urban agenda, fronting a White House Office on Urban Policy to coordinate efforts to strengthen metropolitan areas. This time, though, Senator Obama takes a page from the enlightening research of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program to emphasize that:
cities and metropolitan regions are key drivers of prosperity in the global economy and…opportunities for and contributions from all people and communities are critical to America’s long-term success. Cities house over 80 percent of the people, businesses, universities, and cultural institutions in America, and produce well over 85 percent of the nation’s wealth…Investing in America’s cities is really first and foremost about strengthening the economy because the people, assets and businesses that drive prosperity are overwhelmingly housed in cities.
Though programs to alleviate urban poverty remain in Senator’s Obama’s plan, gone is the portrait of cities as magnets of the decrepit, poor, and distressed. Instead, the Obama plan informs us that cities are worth investing in because they are already centers of economic activity and social prosperity. Poverty and bad schools and low wages and crumbling infrastructure and expensive housing all trouble urban environments. But metro areas deserve attention because behind the stereotypes of crumbling urban centers lie environments thriving with economic activity, intellectual invention, and cultural production. These environments contain within them the people and the ideas that are the keys to the recovery and success of the American economy.
Whether the presidential candidates or the media, or both, are to blame for the lackluster, though perhaps improving, discussion of urban issues so far in the campaign is difficult to determine. At the very least the Democratic candidates have responded to the few media and policy voices speaking out about urban issues.
The presumptive Republican nominee, on the other hand, is oblivious. Though one imagines that his non-existent urban agenda would make housing affordable for millions of Americans by eliminating pork barrel spending and would pay for mass transit infrastructure projects by making the Bush tax cuts permanent, Senator McCain has been silent on urban issues.
Unfortunately, his silence not only demonstrates a lack of knowledge of socioeconomic conditions in the United States today – and, indeed, has not only forced me to critique Senators Obama and Clinton simply because they have urban plans – but puts cities in danger of being completely ignored during the general election. Senator McCain’s ignorance of urban issues leaves no policies for he and the Democratic nominee to dispute and, thus, little political incentive to discuss cities at all during the general election. But perhaps this is to be expected from a Senator who has missed 60% of votes in the Senate since 2007. What could there be to talk about, anyway, besides tax cuts and pork?