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

Mr. Glaeser cautions that the hope for urban change was too great in the first place, and he said as much in an article he wrote for The Times on the day the president was inaugurated. “America today is experiencing a crisis similar to that facing the cities in the 1970s,” he wrote. “Americans cannot afford to treat the president as their personal ideological champion, or to judge him on economic conditions that he cannot control.” In other words, lower your expectations.

“Federal urban policy’s legacy has been terrible whether they are investing in cities or not,” Mr. Glaeser told The Observer. There is only so much that can reasonably be done, and even then, it is not often done well.

The president and his policies are trying to change much of that. “This is about thinking about the way we want Americans to live, in this country and as a global player,” Mr. Carrion said. “This is about building a foundation for the future of the country and about rebuilding the economy.”

But what many Obama boosters seem to misunderstand is that the president is not built in the historical New Deal-Great Society mold of past Democratic presidents. He spent his formative years in Harlem and the South Side of Chicago, witnessing first hand the failures of many of these policies. He was shaped far more by the relatively conservative influence of Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago School of Economics. “He’s very pragmatic. He always wants the public and private to work together” said MarySue Barrett, president of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council and a former Daley aide who worked with the president when he was a state senator. “He is a big believer in getting everyone on the same page.”

Part of the reason the president’s urban programs do no receive  more recognition is because of their inherent subtlety. Something as simple as tweaking the way the Congressional Budget Office scores projects to account for the savings of sustainability and the cost of sprawl can have a major impact, thought it is not exactly something to go out and campaign on.

Competition has been a prominent feature of many of the programs, from stimulus to education to HUD grants. The administration has moved away from block grants and formulas, requiring states and municipalities to submit their plans, with only the best ones getting the money. The result is often that even the losers will embrace the policy changes the president prefers. “What the presidents wants is, if we are going to be competitive globally, we are going to have to be much more efficient and effective in how we manage our cities,” Mr. Carrion said.

Many urbanists credit this with being one of the administration’s greatest innovations, but it is also a repudiation of the old habit of showering money down on cities. “Your basic New York, political, Upper West Side and caring Democrat wants to go back to 1978,” said Julia Vitullo-Martin, director of the Regional Plan Association’s Center for Urban Innovation and an Upper West Sider. “They care about issues, but they’re stuck in the past, on programs that never worked. The president, he’s gone in a different direction.”


Yet even as the programs become more market-driven, more results-based, more, in a word, conservative, his political opponents have yet to come around. “Even the programs the other side should support, they reject,” said Eugenie Birch, a planning professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a former New York City planning commissioner. “Congress just refuses to work with this president on anything, and there’s not much he can do about that.”

This helps explain why so many projects have been handled at the agency levels, with dedicated funds and bureaucratic juggling. And why none of the marquee programs have yet been approved.

After three years of squabbling, Congress finally proposed a new five-year surface transportation bill on Jan. 31, 853 days overdue. Initially, the House bill looked like every other surface transportation bill that came before it, with the old 80-20 split between road and mass-transit spending. Obama boosters and transit advocates had hoped for a shift in priorities, maybe even a 75-25 split.

Instead, the bill got worse as the weeks went on. Safe streets programs were stripped, and the Ways and Means Committee even voted on removing mass-transit funding altogether. The Senate passed its version of the bill on Friday, which includes transit funding but strips out bike and pedestrian programs and only lasts two years. The White House supports this bill, but the president has yet to take a stand either against or for more in the way of sustainability or urban programs.

The favorable programs the administration has achieved are no longer safe, either. Among the budget lines excised from the 2012 budget was the hundreds of millions of dollars for Sustainable Communities. Clean energy and carbon taxes have also come up short in Congress.

And then there is, or is not, high-speed rail. The president’s pet project from the stimulus, $8 billion was set aside by the administration to lay the tracks for a network of lines knitting together the metropolitan areas now supposedly at the fore. A line from Madison to Milwaukee was due $810 million, a whopping $2 billion was headed to that important swing state Florida to connect Orlando and Tampa. Both of them were roundly, loudly rejected by their respective governors. Scott Walker even penned an open letter to the president after he won the election warning him not to waste his time or money.