THE BLOG

The City in the White House

07/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The departure of Adolfo Carrion as President Obama's Director of Urban Affairs should have been big news. The reaction was mostly muted, however, with a smattering of press reports that pondered Carrion's political future and mused about whether his transition to HUD was a promotion or a demotion.

This is largely the result of the low-profile White House Office of Urban Affairs, which Carrion headed, took during the first year of the administration. In a year filled with challenges, the White House's priorities lay elsewhere: with economic recovery, health care, financial reform, and a few acts of nature helped along by human error and a lack of regulation.

Some curmudgeonly observers (for example, me) have taken a rather dim view of the Office thus far, arguing that its initial promise - to be the face of cities at the federal level - has not yet been fulfilled.

At the same time, however, the Office has been doing some interesting, and challenging, work under the radar. A national tour of cities highlighted innovative local policies and drew attention to partnerships between the federal government and local governments. Its Interagency Working Group has brokered dialogue between 17 or so different agencies, notorious for their ossified ways of doing business. Though the Office's exact role in facilitating interagency relationships is unclear, such "coordination" - boring sounding, perhaps, but important stuff - has yielded results: for example, the Sustainable Communities initiative will link housing, employment, and transportation options and Promise Neighborhoods will provide "holistic" service delivery in disadvantaged communities.

Carrion's departure leaves the Office of Urban Affairs at a crossroads. Without a formal leader, the Office is at risk of being lost in a White House filled with powerful figures and, as will always be the case, competing priorities. But for President Obama to fulfill his pledge to reorient the federal government to support cities and metropolitan economies, the Office must be preserved and strengthened.

A revivified Office of Urban Affairs would build on the assessments of "place-based" policies that the White House Office of Management and Budget required each agency to make in this year's budget. It would expand these assessments to evaluate how each agency's budget impacts cities. Indeed, we (yes, the public) should know how every budget and how every congressional bill will impact cities.

The Office should also assume responsibility for congressional outreach. One of the biggest impediments to reorienting the federal government to cities is Congress, which in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons prejudices cities. It is quite clear that the Obama administration understands the importance of urban areas. Making the case to suburban members of Congress that strengthening cities is in the interests of their districts, as well, will be indispensable if the White House wants to move on more ambitious legislative projects, from changing the funding formula for public transit to launching a national infrastructure bank.

The Office should build on its work highlighting local-level policies. Certainly, budgetary and political constraints will prevent the administration from launching many programs that would benefit cities. But connecting city leaders throughout the country with good progressive policies that work (as is happening with the Philadelphia Fresh Food Financing Initiative) would not only benefit local populations, but lay the groundwork for broader progressive change by achieving policy victories at no expense to the administration. There are myriad opportunities for minimal amounts of federal funds to help such policies get off the ground, but in other cases a bit of expertise and federal support are sufficient. The administration can champion its broader policy goals without having to expend the political capital necessary for victory on Capitol Hill.

Finally, the Office should take on a greater role in explaining the successes of the stimulus package which, while disadvantaging urban areas, still had an important impact on cities and prevented many from cutting jobs and services. Vice President Biden is the administration's point man on the stimulus, holding almost weekly meetings with mayors and governors about stimulus implementation, mediating disputes and troubleshooting when problems emerge. This role has been vastly underreported and underappreciated.

Yet, the Office of Urban Affairs should be charged with making clear that the economic recovery of the country is linked to that of its cities. In fact, right now the critical government services - from libraries to public transit to public safety - that city residents rely on are being cut, undermining people's trust that government can provide for those who are struggling, not to mention make affordable health insurance available to tens of millions of people. To the extent that the stimulus prevented such cuts and provided for disadvantaged populations, the Office should publicize these impacts. To the extent the stimulus failed to do this, the Office must become an advocate for additional assistance.

It is, in fact, in an era of limits both fiscal and political that the Office of Urban Affairs can shine. The Office must be the face of cities at the federal level.