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The Mechanics
« Day By Daley 19th Ward results, concession calls »

Election 2008 Fri Nov 07 2008

Cities Sitting Pretty With Urbane Obama

The media, understandably, were quick to seize on Barack Obama's race and relative youth as reasons for his historic victory. These salient, obvious characteristics correlate neatly to two demographics - black voters, and younger voters - among which he did handsomely. Less apparent and far less discussed, but manifest in national voting patterns that go deeper than the over-tired red-blue electoral map, and with equally significant portent for future national policies, is Obama's urbanity. Not only is Barack Obama the first Chicagoan (albeit non-native) to gain the Oval Office, he is the first president in a long time who hails, at least in adult life, from a city.

Bush-the-Lesser wrapped himself in the imagery of a ranch in Crawford, Texas. Clinton was famously from the backwater of Hope, Arkansas, by way of non-metropolis Little Rock. Bush-the-Earlier, originally a product of semi-rural New England, to which he eventually returned, also claimed rural Texas during his political ascent, though with a brief tenure as a congressman from Houston.

Reagan was in fact a small-town Illinois boy at heart and spent an enormous amount of his presidency at his California ranch, allegedly "clearing brush." I never quite believed that of either Reagan or W. Why a grown man clears brush or thinks that's something real ranch-owners do is beyond me.

Jimmy Carter, of course, the Man from Plains, both exploited and was castigated for the "peanut farmer" image. No city mouse he. Gerald Ford's Grand Rapids at almost 200,000 is large for Michigan, but owes that status more to sprawling land area (over 45 sq. mi.) than to typical city density; Ford's neighborhoods more resembled typical Midwestern suburbs than any urban borough.

Nixon, true, claimed New York City as home for a few years after his famous California "you won't have Nixon to kick around any more" speech, but he is still mainly associated with Whittier, CA, where he grew up and attended college, and who elected him to Congress. Nixon also seemed to spend as much time yachting or golfing with Bebe Rebozo in Key Biscayne haunts as anywhere else. Not thought of as an urbanite, Nixon might never have been president except so much of America's cities were in turmoil in 1968.

Preceding Nixon was LBJ, yet another Texas rancher. Is there something about living on a Texas ranch that makes a president more warlike? Is brush that aggravating?

That takes us all the way from Obama back to the oft-compared John F. Kennedy, a grandson of two Boston politicians, back when Boston was still surrounded by mill towns and manufacturing. JFK was born in Boston, mainly grew up in next-door Brookline, then moved back to the city as an adult and was first elected to Congress from the 11th District of Massachusetts, where he maintained an address on Bowdoin St. while representing one of the densest urban districts in the country.

Although years in exotic locales are an important part of the Obama narrative, Obama is the first president since JFK largely identified as a candidate from a major U.S. city. Having also lived in New York and the Boston area as a student, he will be one of the most urban presidents in the last century.

During that century, a majority of America moved to urban areas. That change has not been welcomed by all. The oft-expressed hostility of self-described "outsiders" to "Washington" is not entirely antipathy toward federal government - after all, these outsiders all love a bigger military, snoopier intelligence service, and expanded powers for the executive. It also inherently disses all cities, of which Washington is just one. What outsiders are "outside" of, in spirit as well as origin, is any metropolitan area.

The implications for domestic policy of an urban president are profound. It's easy to chalk up the devastating effect of federal industrial, trade, transit and education policy on cities to simple racism, but a lot of white and brown people live in cities too. Since cities, to non-urban presidents, are more abstract than vividly familiar concept, the neglect of cities, and their businesses, jobs, and inhabitants, may partly result from this disconnect.

Barack Obama knows at least one city. Obama has ridden the CTA, something I suspect neither Bush ever did. Obama has probably spent more time in traffic jams than any recent White House occupant. More than any other president in half a century he likely had to look over his shoulder from time to time, while community organizing or even commuting from Judd Miner's northside law firm to the south side, knowing that around the next corner there might be a mugger. He's more likely than any other president to know what sirens or gunshots do to disturb an evening's calm.

Urbanites sensed this. The map shows that cities voted overwhelmingly for Obama; rural areas, generally not. For that half of America that lives in cities, Obama should prove an advocate, or at least more of an empath than we've seen in some time. For those who do not, and who pigeonhole and resent cities as powerful, threatening cores of minorities, crime, and corruption, here's hoping that President Obama will build bridges of understanding.

 
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Kenzo Shibata / November 8, 2008 2:12 PM

Jeff, great point. The true test of President-elect Barack Obama is how he will use these experiences to inform the executive agenda to push for policies that will actually benefit urban areas. It's our job to keep him honest and not be swayed by short-sited big city policy models.

It may not be popular for him to support labor, or make government more effective (and not just smaller), but we've all experienced the nasty effects of triangulation schemes of the past. Just because he knows the plight of cities, doesn't mean that every choice he makes will be in our best interests. He received astronomical support from the middle (and lower) class of our cities and suburbs, and now it's our duty to keep him honest.

The rally on Tuesday night turned out a pretty diverse lot, and with that diversity comes a multitude of interests. This brings an opportunity to these people to become full-time citizens (and potential citizens)actively engaged in government. What we need now is open access to decision-making, something we've absolutely not had in the past eight years and have only had in a limited capacity in the past. Even in the event of another disaster, we must never forget this and take our new government to the task of public and not private servitude.

Anon / November 9, 2008 8:01 PM

Obama "gets" cities--that has to help in a way that we won't really know until we're into his presidency.

Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, Nixon--cities weren't "in their bones" like they are with Obama.

Kenzo ShibataAuthor Profile Page / November 10, 2008 11:05 PM

White House to Establish Office of Urban Policy-Washington Post

According to Obama transition co-chair Valerie Jarret:

"Because he began as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, he understands at the local level is really where you can impact change and that local government can play a vital role as we try to jump start our economy,"

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/the-trail/2008/11/10/white_house_to_establish_offic.html

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