Barack Obama is now set to become the first genuine urbanite to occupy the White House in more than 100 years.
It will be tempting for many politicians and activists to envision a new era for big cities, with federal money flowing freely toward plans for high-density housing, transit projects, and any number of other dreams and schemes held dear by urban folk.
And why not? The so-called “liberals” or “progressives” who dominate politics in many big cities form a key part of the base of the Democratic Party. They have long claimed Obama as one of them—and he has let them do so when politically convenient.
But here’s why not: The way that Obama managed his campaign offers indications that he’s smart enough to find that precious intersection where good politics and good policy become one. That will mean saying no more than yes, disappointing fervent supporters more often than not.
Obama is impressive, but he’s a politician and not a saint.
He plays tough, and knows how far his supporters will bend. He’s willing to push them right up to the breaking point in service of his larger goals. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the urban agenda will get less than it has in recent years. Just don’t expect a gusher for big cities.
The guess here is that Obama will zero in on some large national efforts such as healthcare, the ongoing stresses on our financial system, a winding down of the war in Iraq, and some new strategy in Afghanistan. Look for him to occasionally square off against the Democratic majority in the U.S. Congress, using the Republican minority for leverage when his own party gives him a hard time.
Such moves will amount to a high-stakes strategy to redefine the middle in U.S. politics. Success will likely pave Obama’s way to re-election in four years, while failure will tempt a stiff challenge on re-nomination.
Obama has shown that he’s willing to take his chances when he likes his cards, though. He’s now holding enough cards to pull off a big political feat. Watch him say no to big cities if that is what it takes to address national priorities and give him enough room to occasionally co-opt Republicans to tame Democrats who grow obstreperous in Congress.
Anyone who doubts this scenario should review the recent campaign, where Obama beat New York Senator Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination—and took her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, down a few pegs in the process. Obama didn’t seriously consider Hillary Clinton as a vice presidential pick…and Bill Clinton steamed. Obama heard the whispers about the Hillary factor costing him big chunks of votes. He toughed it out while Bill Clinton damned his candidacy with faint praise and spoke ever-so-kindly of John McCain.
Obama, meanwhile, focused on building his campaign into a model of efficiency that overwhelmed any bitterness about the battle with the Clintons. Both Clintons were eventually happy enough to jump aboard the winning campaign. Where else were they going to go?
Compare that to McCain, who won the Republican nomination over the heated objections of the so-called “conservative” movement and the big names in the vaunted world of talk radio—those yakkers who claim to represent their party’s base. These ideologues had no use for McCain, but he whipped them outright.
McCain failed to claim victory in his own party, however, moving instead to appease his critics with a dubious choice for vice president. The decision cost him any chance of getting the support he needed from other segments of the electorate—he vacated the middle ground of the political field, where presidential elections are always decided.
McCain should have taken the chance on disappointing a segment of his party’s base in hopes that they would bend but not break.
Obama did exactly that, and he has reaped the political benefit.
Big city politicians and activists should expect the same playbook from Obama in the White House.
The rest of us should hope that’s the plan, because it’s time for all of our politicians to make a virtue of saying no to their most fervent backers in the service of larger goals.
Jerry Sullivan is the Editor & Publisher of the Los Angeles Garment & Citizen, a weekly community newspaper that covers Downtown Los Angeles and surrounding districts (www.garmentandcitizen.com)