Obama's Urban Policy: Slow Start. Sustainable Finish?

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President Obama's Office of Urban Policy has registered a low profile. But regional planning efforts underway at federal agencies could have a big impact.

Photo by: White House

President Obama's Office of Urban Policy has registered a low profile. But regional planning efforts underway at federal agencies could have a big impact.

In the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama said great things about cities. And cities did great things for him.

More than a year before Election Day the then-senator pledged to appoint "a new director of Urban Policy who will cut through the disorganized bureaucracy that currently exists and report directly to me." A year later and a few weeks before he accepted the Democratic nomination, Obama told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami that "the truth is, what our cities need isn’t just a partner. What you need is a partner who knows that the old ways of looking at our cities just won’t do; who knows that our nation and our cities are undergoing a historic transformation."

When the balloting was over, Obama had won 63 percent of urban voters to John McCain's 35 percent, a solid gain over John Kerry's 54-45 urban advantage versus President Bush. Indeed, the nation's 50 largest cities comprise 16 percent of the U.S. population, but 86 percent of Obama's popular vote margin came from the counties containing those cities.

With his political roots in Chicago's South Side, Obama had the most urban pedigree of any president since one-time New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. And unlike earlier discussions of cities on the national stage, Obama's focus was as much on planning as on programs. "We need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth," Obama said on the campaign trail. "And yet, Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated 'urban' agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a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. "

He added: "Now is not the time for small plans. Now is the time for bold action to rebuild and renew America."