Obama's Other Breakthrough: A Big-City President

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Emmanuel Dunand / AFP / Getty

Barack Obama, arriving at a restaurant in Chicago in August 2008

As President-elect Barack Obama and his family settle into Washington ahead of his Inauguration, they will undoubtedly go through a period of adjustment. The girls will need to get used to a new school, the whole family will learn soon enough about the city's muggy summers, and Obama may need to become a hockey fan, because the other local sports teams currently range from mediocre to stupendously bad.

The one thing that will be very familiar to the new First Family is city life. Unlike every other President stretching all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt, Obama has spent his entire life living in urban areas. Some of his supporters believe this background makes him more culturally sophisticated than many of his predecessors (they're relieved he won't call the city "Warshington"), while others say it allows him to better understand multicultural, 21st century America. But the fact that Obama has spent weekends walking down the street to the barbershop instead of riding a 4x4 across a ranch to clear some brush is more significant than any particular kind of cultural or sociological orientation. It means he thinks about policy problems and solutions in a way that differs from most Republican and Democratic politicians, a fact that could dramatically shape this urban President's domestic agenda. (See pictures of Obama's college years.)

Urban is often employed as a euphemism for "African American," but in Obama's case it's simply the most accurate way to locate him. The roster of his past addresses includes some of the world's largest cities: Jakarta, Indonesia (9 million), Los Angeles (3.8 million), New York City (8 million), Chicago (3 million). Obama's hometown of Honolulu, with a population of 300,000, is the smallest place he has ever lived. Compare that with Hope, Ark. (pop. 10,000), or Crawford, Texas (pop. 789). "The last President who was grounded in a city the same way was Theodore Roosevelt," says Ed Glaeser, director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard University. (In Roosevelt's case, the city was New York.)

There is little doubt that Obama's city background has shaped his policy priorities. Of all the candidates in the 2008 primaries, says Glaeser, "Obama was clearly focused on issues of the city, like the Harlem Children's Zone," a nonprofit antipoverty effort that Obama hopes to replicate in 20 cities across the country. When Obama got involved with civil liberties issues as a state legislator, it was to spearhead a law requiring the videotaping of all confessions and interrogations in capital cases, which disproportionately involve urban defendants in Illinois.

Of course, it's not exactly unusual for Democratic politicians to focus on civil liberties issues or urban poverty. But Obama's intimacy with urban settings has made him open to heterodox approaches to certain problems. On education, the Chicago Tribune has described him as a "leading advocate in Illinois of charter schools," which many of his Democratic colleagues are still reluctant to champion. Obama has embraced the role of faith-based organizations in delivering social services and made clear his intention to expand George W. Bush's federal faith-based initiative. In discussing teen pregnancy, he says there are steps government can take to reduce the rates of unintended pregnancies, but he adds that children need to be taught that "sexuality is sacred." In the face of concentrated economic and social breakdowns, Obama argues, there is no reason policymakers should be limited to ideological solutions.

What really sets Obama apart, however, is that despite his sensitivity to the problems that plague some urban neighborhoods, he does not view cities primarily as problems to be solved. "Federal policy has traditionally treated cities as victims," says Greg Nichols, mayor of Seattle. Ever since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, he explains, government has set up perverse incentives for cities by isolating funds in programs set aside for the neediest, most desperate localities. It's the urban policy equivalent of treating someone in the emergency room when they get seriously ill instead of investing in ongoing primary care and encouraging healthy behavior. (See pictures of Obama on Flickr.)

"If you don't live in a city, you look at them like they're basket cases," says Amy Liu, deputy director of the Brooking Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. "But Obama doesn't talk about urban policy in the traditional sense of distressed neighborhoods and crime. He talks about the assets he sees and about leveraging those assets." When Obama spoke to the U.S. Conference of Mayors last June, he argued that there was a "new metropolitan reality" in which "strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions." Leaving cities to muddle through on their own while focusing on suburbs and exurbs wasn't enough, he said, railing against politicians who remain "wedded to an outdated 'urban' agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities and ... confuses antipoverty policy with a metropolitan strategy."

The "Plan to Stimulate Urban Prosperity," developed by Obama's campaign, does address crime and poverty. But the majority of its points are focused on building sustainable communities, encouraging green urban policies and supporting "innovation clusters" like North Carolina's Research Triangle. Some of the proposals may be difficult or impossible to translate into federal policy. "They're trying to reproduce what are essentially private initiatives on a national scale," says Glaeser. "Doing that from the top down is very problematic."

There's no question, however, that Obama is serious about becoming the first President to pursue an affirmative urban policy. He has announced plans to establish a White House Office of Urban Policy that will both oversee ambitious new initiatives and coordinate existing urban programs across agencies to limit inefficiencies. And he has reportedly tapped New York's Bronx Borough President, Adolfo Carrión Jr., to lead this new Cabinet-level office.

After two years on the campaign trail, during which he tried to relate to the concerns of small-town life, Obama may find it a relief to return to his city roots. He did a decent job of fitting in at local diners and Tastee Freezes. But every so often, the city boy would break loose. One November evening in 2007, Obama stood in a school gym in Grundy Center, Iowa (pop. 2,596), while a woman explained that she didn't think he could protect the country as well as a Republican. "Don't think that I care any less than Rudy Giuliani or Mitt Romney about making sure that my daughters don't get blown up," Obama told her. He paused for a moment and then laughed, knowing he should probably stop there. "I live in Chicago," he continued. "It's a much more likely target than Grundy County."

See the members of Obama's White House.

See pictures of Obama's family tree.