Urban Agenda, Take Three
As the Democratic National Convention kicks off in Denver, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Senator Obama will re-launch his urban agenda today. The revamped agenda is in fact the third iteration of Obama’s plan for cities. The first (to its discredit) primarily addressed urban poverty, while the second – a much more robust document – drew on research of the Brookings Institution, which emphasizes that cities are the nation’s “economic engines” and advocates a regional, metropolitan area approach to economic development. The approach identifies failures of federal urban policy and proposes that cities – with their enormous economic output, their higher population density, and their cultural and intellectual production – ultimately offer answers to the nation’s economic woes and environmental concerns. Obama articulated this approach in speeches to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and to the National Urban League earlier this summer.
According to the WSJ, the repackaged plan will largely resemble its previous incarnation, calling for, among other proposals, an infrastructure bank to fund and prioritize large-scale road, bridge, and airport projects; $6.7 billion in antipoverty programs; restored funding for the Community Development Block Grant program; and support for “regional innovation clusters”. The Illinois Senator would also create a White House Office on Urban Policy, a favorite proposal of the nation’s mayors who often express frustration at the difficulty of communicating with federal officials.
However, the Journal article also suggests that Obama will allow surrogates to tackle advocacy of the nation’s cities:
People familiar with the strategy discussions inside the Obama camp say Sen. Obama won't be the main spokesman for the urban agenda, in an effort to insulate him from potential backlash.
The political reasoning behind Obama’s presumed decision to shy away from urban issues seems obvious: on one hand he must work hard to demonstrate that he can identify with Americans outside of urban areas and, on the other hand, he is expected to pick up the urban vote regardless of whether or not he himself addresses head on the concerns of the nation’s cities.
Yet, the challenges facing urban areas in fact represent the challenges facing the nation at large. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper emphasized to MayorTV late last year that public safety, poverty, underperforming schools, and even homelessness are no longer concentrated to urban centers but have spread to the nation’s suburbs. Tackling these issues involves acknowledging, as Obama did to the Conference of Mayors in June, a “new metropolitan reality” based on the regional interplay of cities and suburbs. Brookings has even coined a new term for the metro areas in Hickenlooper’s West: Mountain Megas.
Obama’s revision and re-articulation of a detailed urban agenda suggests that an Obama administration would take seriously the concerns of urban America. Indeed, Senator McCain has yet to speak meaningfully about the nation’s cities, using his address to the Urban League to campaign for school vouchers and to propose a “surge-type” strategy for crime fighting. (As the Arizona Senator put it, urban crime fighting should use techniques “somewhat like we use in the military.”)
But an urban agenda on paper, though better than none at all, is still insufficient. Mayor Doherty of Scranton suggests:
We know what the problems are in this country. People know that you have to invest in cities. We’re waiting for somebody to actually say it. We’re waiting for somebody to actually have the guts to come out and do it.
Being a spokesperson for the nation’s cities does not mean speaking only on behalf of urban elites, nor does it mean speaking only about poverty and homelessness. Rather, this spokesperson would present cities as typical in the economic, social, and cultural challenges they face, but unique in their capacity to confront and overcome them.
Indeed, we should not forget that only cities – with their transportation, hotels, restaurants, and media – could host such significant events as the national party conventions.