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Obama and the Cities: Wither the States?

Samuel Staley
January 22, 2010, 9:16am

One of the consequences of an "urban" president is the likely inevitable marginalization of states and state power (some would say sovereignty). This appears to be playing out under the Obama Administration.

While not technically challenging the authority of the states, the Obama Adminsitration has significantly ramped up direct-aid programs to cities and regional authorities. For example, this is how President Obama described the emerging relationship between the Executive Branch and the cities when he addressed a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors on Thursday, January 21st:

"Two years ago, I addressed your gathering and I outlined a new strategy for urban America that changed the way Washington does business with our cities and our metropolitan areas.  And since taking office, my administration has taken a hard look at that relationship -- from matters of infrastructure to transportation, education to energy, housing to sustainable development.  My staff has traveled around the country to see the fresh ideas and successful solutions that you've devised.  And we've learned a great deal about what we can do -- and shouldn't do -- to help rebuild and revitalize our cities and metropolitan areas for the future.

"So the budget that I'll present next month will begin to back up this urban vision by putting an end to throwing money after what doesn't work -- and by investing responsibly in what does. 

"Our strategy to build economically competitive, environmentally sustainable, opportunity-rich communities that serve as the backbone for our long-term growth and prosperity -- three items:  First, we'll build strong regional backbones for our economy by coordinating federal investments in economic and workforce development -- because today's metropolitan areas don't stop at downtown.  What's good for Denver, for example, is usually good for places like Aurora and Boulder, too.  Strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.

"Second, we'll focus on creating more livable and environmentally sustainable communities.  Because when it comes to development, it's time to throw out old policies that encouraged sprawl and congestion, pollution, and ended up isolating our communities in the process.  We need strategies that encourage smart development linked to quality public transportation, that bring our communities together.  (Applause.) 

"That's why we'll improve our Partnership for Sustainable Communities by working with HUD, EPA, and the Department of Transportation in making sure that when it comes to development, housing, energy, and transportation policy go hand in hand.  And we will build on the successful TIGER discretionary grants program to put people to work and help our cities rebuild their roads and their bridges, train stations and water systems.  (Applause.)

"Third, we'll focus on creating neighborhoods of opportunity.  Many of our neighborhoods have been economically distressed long before this crisis hit -- for as long as many of us can remember.  And while the underlying causes may be deeply-rooted and complicated, there are some needs that are simple:  access to good jobs; affordable housing; convenient transportation that connects both; quality schools and health services; safe streets and parks and access to a fresh, healthy food supply. 

"So we'll invest in innovative and proven strategies that change the odds for our communities -- strategies like Promise Neighborhoods, neighborhood-level interventions that saturate our kids with the services that offer them a better start in life.  Strategies like Choice Neighborhoods, which focuses on new ideas for housing by recognizing that different communities need different solutions.  And, by the way, we're also expanding the successful Race to the Top competition to improve our schools and raise the bar for all our students to local school districts that are committed to change.  (Applause.)"

No where is the role of states discussed. Perhaps the President needs a refresher course on the U.S. Constitution. Cities are legal creatures of state governments, not the federal government. Or perhaps, it doesn't really matter because he knows his real political base (and constituency) is in the big cities that will eagerly grasp at whatever revenue bone he'll throw.

Also, the allusion to investing in "innovative and proven strategies" is really just more "evidence-based pretense," an issue I discussed in a recent artilece (December 31, 2009) in National Review.


Samuel Staley is Research Fellow


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