A rarity: an urban President

Obama is a Chicago guy. And cities have figured out how to make a much better case to Congress. Mayor Greg Nickels is in the thick of this new action.
Obama is a Chicago guy. And cities have figured out how to make a much better case to Congress. Mayor Greg Nickels is in the thick of this new action.

One of the "changes" I particularly welcome about President Obama is that he comes from a big city, Chicago. (He also gets points for growing up in Jakarta and Honolulu.) That's rare, since Americans seem to prefer their presidents with a Jeffersonian mind-set, hailing from Plains, Georgia, or Hope, Arkansas. We haven't had a real city President since John Kennedy, Boston man, and before that I can only think of that brassy New Yorker, Teddy Roosevelt.

If Obama gets the city agenda, so are cities getting their act together in a more effective way. One particularly encouraging formula comes from the Brookings Institution and its Metro Nation program. Seattle, incidentally, is fully on board with this agenda, and Mayor Greg Nickels has hosted Brookings' chief spokesman for the initiative, Bruce Katz, in town. Further, Nickels is the incoming president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which gives him a big seat at the White House urban table. (It probably doesn't hurt that Nickels was born in Chicago and still has relatives there.)

What is a Metro Nation? (Besides being an awkward neologism?) It reformulates the nation as a series of metropolitan regions, including suburbs; and it talks about cities as economic generators (as they surely are), not as down-on-the-heels places that can't pay their whopping welfare bills. Here's how Brookings puts it:

Metropolitan areas drive our nation'ꀙs long-term prosperity. To propel the U.S. economy into the 21st century, the nation should reform the way we invest in human capital, infrastructure, innovation, and quality of place'ꀔthe fundamental assets that concentrate in our metropolitan areas. The president-elect has a chance to rethink the way we build roads and rails. Rather than wastefully dividing up the spoils, the benefits would reverberate nationwide.

Obama has said he will form a new Office of Urban Policy to coordinate this kind of re-investment. Seattle Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis says that Nickels' office is deeply engaged in pushing for this new approach. Ceis says that the infrastructure spending that is sure to come as part of economic recovery should not spread dollars all over the states, as is usually done (to gladden each and every Congressperson), but instead should be invested strategically in leading metropolitan regions, according to their job-building strengths. Seattle, for instance, might be a place to invest in global health and green technology. The point is to think of cities as dynamos powering the nation into a new prosperity, not just big pits to soak up social service funds.

This is pretty thrilling stuff. The cities position themselves as more than center cities, thus assembling a potent political coalition. They talk economic revival, the order of the day. And they're dealing with a President who gets what's exciting about cities. In this light, there's something highly encouraging that Obama so loves Chicago that he's busy lobbying for Chicago to get the 2016 games, and loves hanging out in his Hyde Park neighborhood, eating at diners, and wearing his Cubs baseball cap. He can't be all bad.


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