Obama's Slow Go on Cities

Valerie Jarrett, the big boss of Urban Affairs at the White House, explains what the president has in store for cities.

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Just before Barack Obama hit 100 days as president, I wrote a piece asking “What Happened to the Office of Urban Policy?” I had closely followed the formation of an Urban Affairs office —wondering if the office, intended to coordinate efforts at the departments of Energy, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Education and the like, would help America go green, or if the named director, Adolfo Carrión, was really the best choice for the job. As a city gal myself, I had thought this promised to be one of the most exciting parts of the Obama White House, and I was both encouraged and a little amazed that the first urban president was actually going to do something about the unique problems and potential in the city space.

But aside from the executive order establishing the office, the president has yet to publicly comment on it—unlike, say, the White House Council on Women and Girls or the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, both of which he has founded and then praised in his first 100 days. This has left some folks on the front lines in American cities feeling left out. “It’s not a very sexy subject, but it’s a necessary subject,” says Jamie Smith, a city councilmember from Beaumont, Texas.  "Our sewers and pipelines are 50 years old. We’ve put $120 million into rehab, but we still need a lot of help." Others are more direct in their criticisms. “Some of us who worked with [Obama] from the beginning of his career through the presidency are not satisfied,” Chicago activist Mark Allen told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Some of these streets are worse than they were when he walked down these streets.”

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, in a recent interview with The Root, sought to address some of the concerns. She gave the impression that Urban Affairs, which she administers, is still in its infancy and that it was as much her brainchild as it was the president’s.

“The approach of the urban affairs office is to look at the assets we have and figure out what it is that the federal government can do to leverage our dollars and really have them make an impact on these cities in the most positive way possible,” she said.

Jarrett acknowledged that cities are crucial to economic activity. “Maybe it’s because I’m from a city,” she said. “But you couldn’t possibly have the state of Illinois without the city of Chicago—in terms of culture, diversity, entertainment, research, the academic institutions that are located within our cities. They are all these amazing assets.”

What is unclear, however, is how these “assets” are being prioritized as funds from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act are being allocated. The White House, I reported, had not empowered Urban Affairs nearly as much as some urbanists had hoped. The two-person office seemed in danger of being bigfooted by the many other superstar urban activists on Team Obama.

The article provoked a response from a diverse set of urbanists—from architects to street culture vultures to good-governance watchdogs. Many were disappointed in the progress of the office to date, particularly the management abilities of Carrion. Others counseled patience; after all, it has only been four months since the Obama administration began—during which Vice President Joe Biden, unofficial “czar” of the Recovery Act, has addressed an urban forum in Chicago and hosted regular conference calls with mayors and county officials, and high-up administration officials like Michael Strautmanis, chief of staff to the President’s Assistant for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Engagement, have reassured groups of city officials that “you have a partner in the White House.”

But the strongest potential advocate for the office is Jarrett, who says Urban Affairs is still in “due diligence mode.” This means it is gathering best practices from local governments that could translate to reforms in cities around the country. She named initiatives on crime reduction in Newark, N.J., and strategies for mixed-income housing in Chicago as templates, without engaging the specifics of when or how these practices could be taken to scale. But as the Recovery Act appropriations—$88 billion as of May 12—are being snapped up by state governments, the lag in city-specific planning is troublesome.

Jarrett also added, rather ironically, that the problem on city issues has historically been the federal government she now finds herself helping to run. In Chicago, she said: “I spent a lot of time going from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Department of Transportation to the Department of Education to the Department of Environment….We had all these terrific ideas that were designed by the American people to improve and create mixed-income communities in Chicago. And we just needed the federal government to be my partner. And I was always frustrated…”

These are good reasons for Urban Affairs to succeed. And in a recession that is hitting cities and their tax revenues particularly hard, its policy priorities will directly impact hundreds of thousands of working families. But right now, it doesn't look good. Here's hoping Urban Affairs can find a way to connect their promises with progress.

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