Obama to Cities: Drop Dead—the Life and Death of a Great American Urban Policy

Despite the apparent sputtering of the office, Mr. Carrion holds up programs like Sustainable Communities, which brings together HUD, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department to Transportation to promote regional planning by “breaking down silos” between the agencies and offering millions of dollars in grants. “It’s hard to put your hand on it, because obviously, I would love to say, ‘That’s the bridge that I like that we built,’ but there will be lots of them, as there will be houses, transportation nodes, schools near the housing, mixed-use developments and open space,” Mr. Carrion said. “So I think the proudest, as a policy geek, the proudest thing I can point to is sort of pouring the foundation for the future.”

Mr. Carrion points to a project in Harlem, to build a new school through the PROMISE Communities program, as one of these silo-busting, foundation-building initiatives. The U.S. Department of Education provided $60 million through a charter matching program for a new school, with Goldman Sachs pitching in $20 million, Google $6 million and $5 million in construction costs donated by the general contractor. HUD’s big role was remapping West 129th Street, which was removed when the housing complex the school is in was built in the middle of the last decade. “The approach now is, how do we partner with you to leverage your investments in that city to integrate the public housing into the fabric of the neighborhood?” Mr. Carrion said. “It’s a complete different partnership than before.”

Even the administration’s staunchest supporters struggle to find much to brag about. “He started a new political conversation on the importance of American cities,” Ester Fuchs, a Columbia public policy professor and former aide to Mayor Bloomberg, said. “We’re on the map again, but our territory is still very small.”

The president’s critics are even less charitable.

“There’s nothing there,” Manhattan Institute scholar and Giuliani biographer Fred Siegal said. “This is just more of the same do-nothing identity politics that has been killing cities forever.”


Much of the plight of urban policy started with Ronald Reagan. He was the first Republican president to take the White House without winning a single urban area during his 1980 run, and thus the GOP realized it no longer needed to cater to urban voters. In successive elections, the Democrats came to the similar conclusion that they could take cities for granted. “As a result, politics has largely driven the policy,” Ms. Fuchs said. Republicans could undermine, even attack cities (see: Welfare Queens, Food Stamp President) while Democrats largely ignored them.

President Obama was supposed to change all that. “To seize the possibility of this moment, we need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth,” he told the U.S. Conference of Mayors on the campaign trail of June 2008. This is the first urban president in at least two generations, since JFK or even FDR.

President Obama’s cabinet has been stocked with some of the top talent from Chicago, New York and Boston, among them Valerie Jarrett, Larry Summers and EPA chief Lisa Jackson. HUD secretary Shaun Donovan came of age at the agency before Mayor Bloomberg tapped him in 2004 to champion one of his strongest accomplishments, the New Housing Marketplace plan, a $7.5 billion program aimed at the creation 165,000 affordable housing units. Now Mr. Donovan, with the help of Mr. Carrion and many of his fellow secretaries, is leading an equally ambitious program to remake the way the nation builds not only housing but entire cities.

This creates the potential problem for great expectations, though. Edward Glaeser, the Harvard economist well-known for his studies of cities—his last book was called Triumph of the City—said the president may be urban America’s greatest hope in almost a century, but that does not mean he will be able to transform it.

“He is perhaps the most urban president we’ve had since Teddy Roosevelt,” Mr. Glaeser said. “I think we’d just like more of a recognition that cities are America’s economic heartland, that they’re great things. The problem is, that is politically unwise, as disheartening as that is. So we should get over the fact that it’s not gonna happen.” If the president goes out and stumps for cities, he may wind up as fodder for Newt Gingrich in the next Republican debate.