No president in more than 40 years has been better positioned to reshape American urban policy than Barack Obama. But the new president faces three challenges in dealing with urban policy.
First, Obama must focus most of his domestic policy attention on reviving the economy, so he'll have to wrap urban policy inside his approach to the economy.
Second, in order to succeed, Obama must tackle a broad range of policy issues that deal with human settlements, not only central cities. He will have to find a way to incorporate transportation, economic development, housing, environmental protection, and a whole host of other things into an "urban" policy that is really about suburbs as well as cities.
And third, he's going to have to reshape urban policy without any money – or, at least, by using the money already in the budget in different and more creative ways.
Not since Lyndon Johnson has a president appeared so focused on urban America. Johnson was forced into action by the urban riots of the 1960s. Not only did he create the "Great Society" federal programs, he also consolidated federal housing and urban programs into the Department of Housing and Urban Development – then an agency central to the federal government but now considered an underfunded backwater.
Obama comes from a more urban setting – the South Side of Chicago – than any president in American history. On its face, his resume is that of not of a president-elect but that of the HUD secretary. Given his background as a community organizer, traditional HUD issues, such as urban poverty and local economic development in poor neighborhoods, clearly have great meaning to Obama. Indeed, one of Obama's first announcements after the election was the creation of an Office of Urban Policy in the White House.
But even this move – intended to show quickly and decisively that urban policy is important to Obama – underscores the challenges the new president faces, especially in integrating different federal programs and using urban policy to reach metropolitan-wide issues, not simply HUD-style issues of central cities.
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. The HUD programs are very important to central cities, but other programs have broader significance to how human settlements are organized across the landscape.
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 has $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, whether or not he appoints Californians such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Air Resources Board Chair Mary Nichols to his cabinet.
A greenhouse gas emissions 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 address the question of driving head-on – as the California greenhouse gas debate has suggested is necessary – or will he focus instead on technological fixes? A frontal assault on driving would be politically unpopular, but Obama could instead use the federal levers at the Department of Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency 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 weakening the Endangered Species Act administratively, especially through last-minute "midnight rules."
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. Obama has made it clear that the economy is his highest priority, and "economic development" will clearly mean a wide range of policies. These could extend from a new approach to financial markets at the Treasury Department to additional encouragement for alternative and clean energy at the Department of Energy (which Obama, like all Democrats, touts as a major economic opportunity) to a revised strategy at the Commerce Department.
Obama's early actions also suggest that he is trying to grapple with the age-old federal question of how to get the executive branch all moving in the same direction. It's not clear yet whether the Office of Urban Policy will focus only on cities or, instead, on broader metropolitan issues, which is the Obama policy position. The latter approach would make the Office of Urban Policy an interagency clearinghouse. His decision to appoint Tom Daschle as both the Health and Human Services secretary and a White House advisor on health care suggests the new president is grasping for new ways to deal with this age-old problem.
There is little doubt that Obama, by nature and temperament, is America's first urban president. The question is whether he will be an effective urban president who can move the entire federal government in one direction.