WASHINGTON — When the nation's mayors gather in San Francisco this weekend for their annual conference, they'll line up for grip-and-grin photos with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
But behind the smiles lies a growing frustration with Washington, which has cut aid to cities dramatically over the past 20 years and has what mayors call a lack of coherent urban strategy.
The cities' leaders know why: Most voters live in the suburbs, and national and state politicians play to that constituency.
In addition, devolution of government has pushed more responsibility to the bottom of the governmental food chain - local rulers. Yet efforts to balance the federal budget have sliced deeply into discretionary spending, where aid to cities comes from.
Mayors have been forced to be creative, behaving more like Fortune 500 CEOs than urban bosses of old, who ruled political machines and handed out patronage.
"The cities are the real laboratories of reform today," says Steven Erie, a professor of urban policy at the University of California at San Diego.
So far, urban innovations, combined with a healthy national economy, have brought a spate of good-news stories. Homicide is way down in New York and some other big cities. In some cases, privatization of government services has saved money and enhanced efficiency. Mayors are taking over urban school systems and demanding results.
In a way, the good news has undermined the mayors' pleas for help. But no one disagrees that serious challenges lie ahead, not least of which is welfare reform.
"It's the big enchilada," says Tom Cochran, executive director of the United States Conference of Mayors, host of this weekend's meeting. "It could be the mother of all mandates."
Many welfare recipients live in urban areas, and many cities don't have the jobs necessary to hire people now required to move off welfare. Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, admired nationally for his bare-knuckled efforts to save his city, openly opposes welfare reform. Philadelphia has been losing jobs for the past 15 years - only turning that trend around this year - and he argues that he simply doesn't have enough jobs to go around.
Clinton administration officials reject the idea that the White House has no urban commitment, rattling off a list of programs: enterprise and empowerment zones to boost business development, adding more police to the streets, and support for improvements to urban ports and airports.
But many administration critics argue that Clinton has not made urban issues a centerpiece of his rhetoric.
"They've counted the votes, and to the extent that they can do pretty low-cost city-friendly moves, they're willing," says a former administration official. "But it's not an administration so far that is applying a set of city tests to any of its initiatives. If they cared about cities, he could never have signed welfare reform."
The cops-on-the-street program, he notes, is a "term-limited grant." In a few years, the salaries of new officers will have to be picked up by local governments.
To cope, the way mayors make their case to Washington is changing. "The day of mayors coming to Washington with a tin cup is over," says Mr. Cochran of the mayors' conference.
Rather, the mayors say the economic health of central cities is crucial to the health of suburban and national economies. In an increasingly global economy, the cities' roads, airports, ports, and railways are crucial to international trade. In Los Angeles, for example, it is 25 percent of the metropolitan-area economy.
The issue of policy toward cities transcends party lines. The Republican mayors of Los Angeles and New York, Richard Riordan and Rudolph Giuliani, are just as interested in help with welfare reform as are Democratic mayors. Both were in Washington last week to make their point.
"We've grown up thinking big business is part of the Republican stronghold," says Cochran. "Now we don't have that luxury."