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Putting Carter to Rest

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In a speech to a group of urban thinkers and city leaders on Monday, President Obama emphasized the need to reinvent federal urban policy. But in calling for this reinvention, the president, perhaps inadvertently, conjured up images of times past when policymakers considered cities to be decaying and urban policy merely a means of preventing riots.

The president told a brief story about the Great Chicago Fire and the subsequent resurgence of the city and suggested that American cities will reemerge from the tough times many are currently experiencing in "newer, greener, more livable ways."

This metaphor would be useful if images of burning cities wracked by rioters had not been the primary impetus for urban policymaking at the federal level for the last fifty years. While some presidents simply ignored cities (after all, they're not in the Constitution, a Reagan adviser once quipped...), Presidents Johnson, Carter, and Bush I all crafted urban policies that were more stopgap measures to prevent urban "conflagration" than appropriate investments in the nation's future. Even former HUD Secretary and urban champion Henry Cisneros urged President Clinton to develop an urban policy because of the "anger of the cities."

President Obama does, however, seem committed to shifting federal urban policymaking from a reactive, "Marshall Plan"-type strategy to a proactive, cooperative approach. His speech did mention the need for cities to "weather the current economic storm" and "rebuild" -- a favorite word for peddlers of urban decline rhetoric -- but then shifted to an emphasis on coordinating urban and suburban policies into a metro strategy, on eliminating policies that hinder urban areas, and on partnerships between federal agencies that too often consider, for example, housing and transportation policy to be unrelated.

Yet, Obama faces a significant challenge in making this shift. President Carter, who conservatives would love to begin comparing to Obama -- some rabblerousing media outlets have already begun drawing parallels -- called for a review of urban policy quite similar to Obama's in March of his first year in office. In a memo to his cabinet, Carter wrote:

I would like you to form a working policy group on urban and regional development. The purpose of the group will be to conduct a comprehensive review of all federal programs which impact on urban and regional areas; to seek perspectives of state and local officials concerning the role of the federal government in urban and regional development; and to submit appropriate administrative and legislative recommendations.

Carter's memo sounds much like Obama's call for "the first interagency review in 30 years of how the federal government approaches and funds urban and metropolitan areas..." But Carter's urban policy devolved from an originally ambitious project to "compensatory intervention" in areas particularly afflicted by postindustrial transformation, the effects of which were, according to one prominent member of the team charged with drafting the urban agenda, "fleeting and ephemeral."

But President Obama's approach to cities has at least two advantages over President Carter's. First, Obama has created a new White House Office of Urban Affairs that is situated above normal administration bureaucracy where it can facilitate synergies between agencies likely to butt heads and recommend -- along with the input of the influential Office of Management and Budget -- programs for improvement and programs for elimination. The very mission of the cities office -- to develop a strategy for urban and metro areas -- is at odds with the type of ad hoc approach to cities that Carter developed.

Second, President Obama's speech emphasized his belief that "cities have already gone ahead and become their own laboratories for change and innovation..." He then highlighted the achievements of Denver in linking public transit and development, of Philadelphia in urban agriculture, and of Kansas City in sustainable, affordable housing. This confidence in the innovation of urban areas explicitly recognizes that cities are places to support and undermines the notion that urban policy is a policy of handouts or, as Fred Siegel of the conservative Manhattan Institute will surely put it when Obama's urban agenda is formalized, a means of "providing goods and services to [big-city African-American] communities..."

This week's Economist gushed that "it is America's genius to have 50 public-policy laboratories competing to find out what works best..." This sentiment is equally, if not more, applicable to the nation's cities. What, as my colleague John Petro asks in a new report, can New York learn from Austin, Berkeley, Minneapolis, and San Francisco?

Federal urban policy is not only about ensuring that we invest proportionately in the places that generate the most jobs and GDP, but about ensuring that federal policy does not hinder, and in fact facilitates and learns from, the innovative policymaking occurring in cities across the country. Emphasizing this latter point will help President Obama and his urban agenda avoid the dismal fate of President Carter.