Not since Lyndon Johnson more than 40 years ago has any president come into office with anything like the sky-high expectations about reforming urban policy that Barack Obama brings. But the various federal policies related to growth and development have many constituencies – urban, suburban, and rural – and it is not yet clear that Obama can meld them in a meaningful way.

Whether and how he does meld all these policies is of the utmost importance to California. Unlike the Northeastern and Midwestern states – such as Illinois, where the new president is from – California is not generally a state dominated by urban constituencies. Yes, there are some poor urban areas. But overall California is a state filled with overgrown suburban development that is struggling with how to become more urban in a good way without falling into the trap of urban decay that befell so many other states.

The Obama approach to transportation is especially important to California because of the state's own fiscal crisis. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has halted virtually all capital projects, including transportation projects (though he is simultaneously seeking to streamline environmental review on several big projects).

In the short term, the state's politicians are lobbying hard for some of Obama's federal stimulus money to pay for these transportation projects. But in the long run, Obama will have to decide how he wants to reshape federal transportation policy, especially in light of the climate change issue. And California will have to decide whether to simply go for the pork or try to use the transportation money to leverage a lot of change in the state's growth patterns. Congress will be reauthorizing the transportation bill this year, and Obama will face tough decisions about where future funding will come from and whether to cave in to the pavement crowd.

Obama is a deft big-tent politician who knows how to appeal to vastly different constituencies. He's from the South Side of Chicago, but he's vastly popular in California among environmentalists, social liberals, and other typical Blue State types. His ambition appears to be to bridge traditional divides among housing and urban policy, transportation, and environmental protection – all of which play an important role in shaping California's growth patterns.

Urban policy, focused around the Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD), has traditionally had a largely African-American constituency. Indeed, up until the 1990s, HUD was usually the Cabinet slot occupied by an African-American. Obama is clearly comfortable in this world. Both affordable housing and market-rate development – whether created by nonprofits or for-profit developers – has been a stable of political power on the South Side for decades.

 By contrast, the Department of Transportation has traditionally served a largely suburban and rural constituency, driven by pork-barrel politics and the need to spread around vast transportation dollars. And environmental protection – split between the Environmental Protection Agency, the Interior Department, and a few other agencies – catered to a largely suburban, white, middle-class constituency interested in clean air, clean water, and open spaces. Obama does not connect as easily to such constituencies, but his appeal among liberal suburbanites is very strong. In the election, he polled surprisingly well among moderate Democratic voters in Western states such as Montana.

Obama has made several moves that would suggest he is serious about integrating all these areas of policy – but it's not clear whether he can really do it. Perhaps the most significant move was creating a White House Office of Urban Policy, designed to coordinate all federal policy associated with cities. The question is whether the White House will view urban policy only in terms of central cities – the traditional "HUD cities model" so deeply embedded on the South Side – or whether Obama's administration will take a more expansive view and include cities, suburbs, and large-scale metropolitan issues in this mix.

At HUD, Obama – who has a unique luxury in this regard – has followed recent practice and appointed somebody who is not African-American, Shaun Donovan, as secretary. Donovan has an impressive pedigree (he completed the Kennedy School/Graduate School of Design master's combo at Harvard) as well as a stellar record as housing director in New York City. He's also eloquent and even moving on big-picture urban issues, such as equal opportunity for all segments of society. The question is whether Donovan can marry HUD's traditional agenda – housing for the poor and some aspects of housing finance – with larger issues associated with growth and development.

On many garden-variety environmental issues, such as air, water, and open space, Obama can probably be relied upon to follow a traditional Democratic line. It is not clear whether his interior secretary, Ken Salazar of Colorado, or his agriculture secretary, Tom Vlasick of Iowa, grasp the significance of federal landholdings in shaping metropolitan growth, especially in the West.

But the Department of Transportation likely holds the key to the Obama metropolitan growth strategy. Nothing the federal government does affects overall growth patterns more than how and where transportation money is spent. Highway funds can be used for greenfield projects or vital urban connectors; overall, money can be spent on highways or transit or other things.

Obama surprised everybody by appointing Ray LaHood, a Republican congressman from downstate Illinois, as Transportation Secretary. The conventional wisdom is that LaHood is not good news for smart growth, especially when compared with candidates such as U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland and Steve Heminger, head of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in the Bay Area, whose names were being bandied about until the last minute.

On the stimulus package, smart growth advocates are arguing that the money will generate more prosperity if it is targeted to support compact urban development patterns (see Smart Growth America's "Transportation for America" campaign.) They're likely to lose that battle, because Obama has already promised money for "shovel-ready" projects – and any attempt to deny or slow down those funds based on smart growth criteria is likely to be met with a lot of opposition, given the state of the economy.

In the long run, however, Obama's probably going to have to come up with federal transportation formulas that jibe more than ever with environmental, as well as economic, policy. Current policies requiring conformity with the Clean Air Act have not been of great significance – but if Obama pushes for a climate change bill that restricts greenhouse gas emissions, then he'll have to move past pork and use at least some smart growth criteria to dole out federal funds.

That is, of course, if any federal funds are available. The Highway Trust Fund is virtually broke, and one of the tasks of the new administration is to figure out a way to fund it in the future – an increased gas tax, a vehicle miles traveled tax, a tax related to carbon emissions, or something. The betting here is that Obama will be bold: He'll go for a whole new kind of tax that will drive more transportation dollars into smart growth and infill projects. At that point, California will have a choice: keep pushing for pork, or lead the way on growth in the same way that the state is leading the way on climate change.