I know it's not as interesting to the wire services as another substance- and context-free exchange of political accusations, but Barack Obama addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami this weekend. There was nothing earthshattering in the speech, but it did again show that Obama is the presidential candidate most deeply engaged with city issues since maybe Al Smith eighty years ago.
He starts by making an effective and concise connection between Bush-era policy failures at the federal level and added strain on local budgets and services:
You know what happens when Washington makes promises it doesn’t keep and fails to fully fund No Child Left Behind – because it’s your teachers who are overburdened, your teachers who aren’t getting the support they need, and your teachers who are forced to teach to the test, instead of giving students the skills to compete in our global economy. That’s why you need a partner in the White House.
You know what happens when Washington succumbs to petty partisanship and fails to pass comprehensive immigration reform – because it’s your communities that are forced to take immigration enforcement into their own hands, your cities’ services that are stretched, and your neighborhoods that are seeing rising cultural and economic tensions. That’s why you need a partner in the White House.
You know what happens when Washington listens to big oil and gas companies and blocks real energy reform – because it’s your budgets that are being pinched by high energy costs, and your schools that are cutting back on textbooks to keep their buses running; it’s the lots in your towns and cities that are brownfields. That’s why you need a partner in the White House.
This is smart and certainly accurate, but probably pretty close to boilerplate that one would expect from any Democratic presidential nominee. Perhaps more interesting is the new frame Obama deploys to discuss city issues--one that could yield political benefits in the suburbs as well as within city limits, and one that comports nicely with the vision of how local economies work that I've come to believe in after eight years of engagement with many of these questions.
...[T]he 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. The change that’s taking place today is as great as any we’ve seen in more than a century, since the time when cities grew upward and outward with immigrants escaping poverty, and tyranny, and misery abroad. Our population has grown by tens of millions in the past few decades, and it’s projected to grow nearly 50% more in the decades to come. And this growth isn’t just confined to our cities, it’s happening in our suburbs, exurbs, and throughout our metropolitan areas.
This is creating new pressures, but it’s also opening up new opportunities – because it’s not just our cities that are hotbeds of innovation anymore, it’s those growing metro areas. It’s not just Durham or Raleigh – it’s the entire Research Triangle. It’s not just Palo Alto, it’s cities up and down Silicon Valley. The top 100 metro areas generate two-thirds of our jobs, nearly 80% of patents, and handle 75% of all seaport tonnage through ports like the one here in Miami. In fact, 42 of our metro areas now rank among the world’s 100 largest economies.
To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth. 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.
[W]hat we’ve found time and time again is that when we take the different assets that are scattered throughout our communities – whether it’s a skilled workforce or leading firms or institutions of higher education – and bring them all together so they can learn from one another and share ideas, you get the kind of creative thinking that doesn’t come in isolation.
And that can lead to more innovation, and entrepreneurship, and real economic benefits like new jobs and higher wages. That’s what happened Pennsylvania, where something called Keystone Innovation Zones have led to the formation of nearly 200 new companies. And that’s why, in my administration, we’ll offer $200 million a year in competitive matching grants for state and local governments to plan and grow regional economies – because when it’s working together, the sum of a metro area can be greater than its parts.
This isn't to suggest that Obama has no anti-poverty plan; he does (John Edwards' endorsement should be enough assurance on that point), and the speech then goes on to detail some of its particulars--full funding of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the Community Development Block Grant, stepped-up recruitment for teachers in city schools, and so on. But with that out of the way, he focuses on the new frame: "a strategy that’s about South Florida as much as Miami; that’s about Mesa and Scottsdale as much as Phoenix; that’s about Stamford and Northern New Jersey as much as New York City. As President, I’ll work with you to develop this kind of strategy and I’ll appoint the first White House Director of Urban Policy to help make it a reality."
Given the many strands of "metropolitan policy"--schools, housing, crime, transportation, services, and so on--it makes sense to have someone in a coordinating role. Maybe better, though, would be some kind of Metropolitan Advisory Council, perhaps on the model of the Defense Policy Board: there are a lot of ex-mayors and subsidiary officials out there with considerable expertise and a decent chunk of time on their hands. While groups like the USCM itself potentially fulfill this advisory role, current officeholders--many (most?) of whom inevitably harbor ongoing political ambitions--can't truly serve in the (gender-nonspecific) "wise men" role I'm thinking of here.
Speeches such as this one aren't likely to do much in helping Obama win the election. Most of the biggest population centers are in states he's going to carry anyway; a few of the larger second-tier cities (Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, etc) are situated in battleground states, but the trick there isn't persuasion, it's turnout. At most, a rhetorical shift from "urban" to "metropolitan" might placate a very small number of suburban fence-sitters. But what this speech did for me, and perhaps others, was to provide a reminder that Obama potentially offers something far beyond the satisfaction of putting someone with a (D) after his name in the White House and conclusively ending the tragic Bush era with the candidate farthest from the incumbent. (It's a reminder I particularly appreciate after the deep disappointment of his announcement on Friday that he supported the shameful Democratic surrender on electronic surveillance and retroactive immunity for the telecom companies.) By nature of his background in public life and his own policy interests, Obama could be the best president for cities since Roosevelt. That's potentially pretty exciting.