Want A Successful Stimulus? Reactivate Obama's Grassroots Operation in Cities

In his executive order establishing the new White House Office of Urban Affairs, President Obama tied the success of cities to the success of the country:

The economic health and social vitality of our urban communities are critically important to the prosperity and quality of life for Americans." The White House Office of Urban Affairs is "to develop a strategy for metropolitan America and to ensure that all federal dollars targeted to urban areas are effectively spent on the highest-impact programs.

But where are Obama's urban gurus? To ensure a successful stimulus in all the metro areas where federal dollars are flowing, they need to get out of Washington and work more closely with mayors and local officials on the ground to ensure that all this money is spent wisely. New investments in public transit, high-speed rail, infrastructure, and other crucial areas are all direct investments in cities, so the Obama administration has to create real partnerships with urban leaders to make these investments work. That can't happen from behind a White House desk.

Metro decision-makers are desperate for access and face time. Indeed, before a union dispute scuttled its plans, the Conference of Mayors was preparing to use its annual meeting in Providence last week to connect mayors from far-flung parts of the country with federal officials who could educate them about the ins and outs of the stimulus package.

This type of interaction may seem antiquated in the Internet age, but for most mayors the Conference's annual meeting would have been the only opportunity to meet directly with federal officials. Many mayors who attend are from smaller cities -- people like Virginia Dupuy, the mayor of Waco, Texas, who was thrilled about her opportunity to go to Providence for the first time.

The White House can change this by playing a more active and visible role in cities. Why not reactivate Obama's grassroots operation so that federal officials and urban stakeholders collaborate in real time and share responsibility for the stimulus? Why not set up stimulus accountability outposts of the White House in cities? Obama came into office with a metro mandate and now is the time to claim it.

All the doubts about the stimulus -- from foes like Senator Coburn and friends like the Conference of Mayors -- will only increase until President Obama empowers his White House Office of Urban Affairs to refocus the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on bolstering the urban areas that will drive economic recovery.