The Monitor's View

Obama as metro man

His pick for an 'urban czar' to revive cities will need to avoid problems in past programs.

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One highly anticipated appointment by the next president is that of "urban czar," a job that doesn't yet exist. That person will be tasked to fulfill a little-noticed but ambitious campaign promise to "unlock the potential" of cities. Barack Obama should know – he's lived in big cities most of his life, from New York to Jakarta.

No president in decades has had such an intense urban life as the former community organizer from Chicago. That explains why his "metropolitan strategy" is as bold and perhaps as costly as his plans on energy and healthcare.

It may also be equally endangered by recession restraints and potential policy conflicts. The person appointed to be the first "White House director of urban policy" could end up being either a thumb-twiddler or a thumbs-up success.

The potential conflicts are many and they will need to be resolved soon if, as Obama says, stronger US cities are to become "the backbone" for regional growth.

For one, it's not clear if the plan is merely a cover to boost social spending on poor urban minorities. During the campaign, Obama talked up his plan mainly in cities. To win over the suburbs, he couched the idea as metropolitan, citing regional dynamics that have helped many urban areas to be incubators of ideas and jobs. He ended up winning urban votes by 28 percent while taking the suburbs by only 2 percent and losing in rural areas.

Chunks of the plan would merely revive programs aimed at reducing urban poverty. These include using money to pay for more police and handing over "grants" to city mayors. He would also replicate Harlem's "children's zone," in which whole neighborhoods are given intensive applications of services.

"If we can rebuild Baghdad, we can certainly rebuild Philadelphia," Obama said in one stump speech.

But he would also offer $200 million in incentives for local governments in metro areas to work together. And he would try to bind city and burb more closely by spending $60 billion on mass transit and other infrastructure, including bullet trains between cities.

Getting city and suburbs to cooperate won't be easy. Competition for new money only speaks to a contradiction in Obama's idea: Will such federal largess kill off local initiative, including efforts to raise local taxes?

As a candidate, he said change comes "not from the top down, but from the bottom up" and that "the government that people count on most is the one that's closest to the people." Yet city mayors often go to Washington with tin cups in hand and then deliver votes for politicians who deliver the money. It's a dynamic Obama will need to end if he truly sees both cities and their surrounding areas as "clusters of growth and innovation."

His record in Chicago was mainly as an activist who helped public-housing residents make demands on City Hall. Still, he also sees a need to change urban behavior by such programs as Chicago's CeaseFire, which uses local intervention and education projects to curb youth violence. He also backs a bill on "responsible fatherhood," aimed at reducing domestic violence and ensuring child-support payments.

An urban resurgence in many US cities definitely needs to spread. But Obama's metro plan may need work before launching.

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