Barack Obama's background would suggest that he'll be a "HUD President" – but the president-elect also has a chance to weave together federal planning and development policies in a much broader way if he is not stymied by a staggering deficit.

Obama is an African-American politician from the South Side of Chicago who began his career working as a community organizer in public housing projects. Traditionally, that would be the resume not of the president-elect, but of the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. And traditional HUD issues, such as urban poverty and local economic development in poor neighborhoods, clearly have great meaning to Obama.

But the pervasive federal role in planning and development derives from a vast number of federal activities in many different agencies. By linking all these activities together, a president such as Obama could have enormous influence over growth patterns in communities all over the nation and everyday activities that result from those growth patterns.

Ultimately, Obama's record will probably be shaped not by HUD-type programs – which amount to a tiny amount of money in the federal context – but by how he wields the federal government's Big Carrot and Big Stick.


--------- UPDATE ----------

Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett revealed on Tuesday that Obama will create an Office of Urban Policy that will focus on cities and urban development, according to NPR. Jarrett offered few details, though.   


The Big Carrot is the federal transportation program – a carrot that, frankly, has not been so big lately. Funded by federal gas tax revenues, transportation spending is probably the biggest-ticket item available to Obama in shaping communities. In the campaign, Obama picked up on the agenda long pushed by the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, which calls for coordinated federal spending on transportation infrastructure projects to reinforce metropolitan economies (see CP&DR Insight, October 2008).

However, the current federal program is overbooked – largely because gas tax revenues have been flat. So Obama's biggest opportunity here would be the big "public works" program currently being pushed by congressional Democrats – about $60 billion to $100 billion. This money could set the tone for growth patterns nationwide, but there will be tremendous pressure to spend it immediately for projects that states and regions already have in the hopper. Caltrans director Will Kempton said the other day he's got $1 billion in projects ready to go. Such a rush would seem to increase, rather than decrease, the likelihood of pork-barrel spending.

How Obama will use the Big Stick – federal environmental policy – is a little harder to discern. Most of the policy work done by his campaign focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and on energy policy. It's clear that these will be his highest environmental priorities – and he is likely to be deeply influenced by recent California experience on both. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's name has been floated as a possible Energy Secretary, and Schwarzenegger's air-quality chief, Mary Nichols, has been discussed as a possible Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Even if Schwarzenegger and Nichols don't join the Administration, California is far out front on the climate change issue.

A cap-and-trade program seems inevitable with Obama as president. But many questions remain unanswered. Such a program could provide the largest new revenue source for the federal government in a long time. Will Obama follow conventional thinking and push that money back into "clean coal" and alternative fuels? Or will he follow the smart growth party line and put more of the money into public transit and other actions that could alter growth patterns and reduce overall driving? Indeed, will Obama attempt to take on the question of driving head-on – as the California greenhouse-gas debate has suggested is necessary – or will he focus instead of technological fixes? A frontal assault on driving would be politically unpopular, but Obama could instead use the federal levers – at the Department of Transportation, EPA, and even the Interior Department – to create powerful federal incentives for compact development patterns.

The rest of Obama's campaign environmental positions – on wetlands, land and water conservation, and the like – were little more than conventional Democratic boilerplate. But Obama will face significant challenges on these fronts once in office, thanks in large part to the legacy of President Bush. The Bush Administration has devoted a lot of effort, for example, to administratively weakening the Endangered Species Act, and judicial weakening would seem easier with the John Roberts Supreme Court. Undoing the Bush efforts will require a lot of effort, but Obama  has given little indication as to how he will tackle the issue. His selection for Interior Secretary will certainly go a long way toward suggesting how he will handle this issue.

And finally, there's economic development. In more ordinary times, this would mean a discussion of how Obama would approach the Commerce Department and, especially, the Economic Development Administration. But these are not ordinary times for economic development. Obama has made it clear that the economy is his highest priority, and "economic development" will clearly mean a wide range of policies – ranging from the approach to financial markets at the Treasury Department to the approach to alternative and clean energy at the Department of Energy (which all Obama, like all Democrats, touts as a major economic opportunity), as well as the strategy at the Commerce Department.

Perhaps the most basic question in economic development is whether Obama will be a new economy guy or an old economy guy. Pundit Joel Kotkin pointed out the other day that Obama has strong ties to the new economy, and, therefore, Richard Florida's "Creative Class" argument has won the day. But Obama is from the Rust Belt, and he has clearly listened a lot to policy wonks who argue in favor of major investment in things like freight movement.

So maybe the biggest question is not which side of the creative class argument he'll come down on, but whether he can find a way to blast past the Kotkin-Florida divide altogether and show how green technology, the creative class, and Rust Belt infrastructure all fit together as a formula for prosperity. Now that would be transformative.

– Bill Fulton