Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Localizing President Obama's State of the Union

I listened to Barack Obama's latest SOTU speech last night and thought it was an effectively safe, garden-variety election year SOTU, promising many things to various interests across the spectrum. There are things I wanted to hear but never expected to, which I won't go into here. But given the focus of this blog I was particularly interested in the responses of those audiences focused on urban issues.

The President touched on infrastructure:

In the next few weeks, I will sign an Executive Order clearing away the red tape that slows down too many construction projects. But you need to fund these projects. Take the money we’re no longer spending at war, use half of it to pay down our debt, and use the rest to do some nation-building right here at home.

One of the first reactions I saw after the speech was done was a statement from the President of the National League of Cities (via their Twitter stream):

In an election year, there is a tendency to put off hard decisions until the politcial climate is settled. But the American people and American cities cannot wait until next year for action. The economy has yet to recover, the middle class continues to shrink and Washington continues to play political gamesmanship.

"Congress and the Administration need to take a page from the nation's local leaders who are making very difficult economic choices everyday. We are glad the President agrees with us that it is time for Washington to work towards finding solutions and making the strategic investments in the infrastructure and human capital the nationneeds to remain competitive for decades to come.

“To everyone in Washington we say: Campaign on your record and not with people’s lives. It’s time to get to work.”

While NLC spread the responsibility for realizing high-minded talk about infrastructure around, the interest group representing the nation's Mayors laid most of the blame on Congress and gave the White House a pass.
Here is most of last night's statement by the U.S. Conference of Mayors President, who is also the Mayor of Los Angeles:

"Last week, nearly 250 mayors gathered in Washington, D.C. We conferred with President Obama at the White House and released a detailed report on the state of the cities.

"The report was clear. Nearly a fourth of the nation’s metropolitan areas – including my home of Los Angeles – will struggle for five more years to regain the jobs lost in the Great Recession.

"In his address tonight, President Obama showed the country that he will keep fighting for the investments we need to turn our economy around. At its heart, the speech was about renewing the basic bargain with the American middle class, especially those looking for work or struggling to pay their mortgage.

"Now it’s Congress’ turn. Congress needs to do its job.

"To put America back to work, Congress should start by passing the Boxer-Inhofe surface ransportation bill, a bill that includes the innovative America Fast Forward initiative.

"America Fast Forward is simple. It would accelerate the construction of locally-funded road and rail projects by providing flexible, low-interest loans from the federal government....

"Our cities cannot afford another season of congressional inaction."

The USCM response looked like it was written to compliment the President's speech, which also chided congressional inaction. It did not indicate that Obama could have addressed urban infrastructure more than he did. The Mayors may not have wanted to alienate the White House, while the League of Cities feels freer to stand for infrastructure on principal. Targeting Congress, which is less popular than communism, is safe right now primarily because they are so ineffectual.

But at least one commentator senses that Obama is not prepared to be bold on infrastructure either. The thoughts of a blogging urbanist came across my news reader early this morning:

The contributions of the Obama Administration to the investment in improved transportation alternatives have been significant, but it was clear from the President’s State of the Union address last night that 2012 will be a year of diminished expectations in the face of a general election and a tough Congressional opposition.

Mr. Obama’s address, whatever its merits from a populist perspective, nonetheless failed to propose dramatic reforms to encourage new spending on transportation projects, in contrast to previous years. While the Administration has in some ways radically reformed the way Washington goes about selecting capital improvements, bringing a new emphasis on livability and underdeveloped modes like high-speed rail, there was little indication in the speech of an effort to expand such policy choices. All that we heard was a rather meek suggestion to transform a part of the money made available from the pullout from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts — a sort of war dividend whose size is undefined ....

In the context of the presidential race, Mr. Obama’s decision not to continue his previously strong advocacy of more and more transportation funding suggests that the campaign sees the issue as politically irrelevant.

So, we are back to my first point that the speech was effectively safe, garden-variety SOTU focused less on what Obama will do for urban community and more on how he will navigate his re-election year. Those of us who live in cities will have to wager on the long odds that Congress will actually do something before November without the help of the White House.

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