Is Obama's Urban Focus Bad News for the Rest of the Countryside?


To much of the media, Barack Obama is the ultimate dream president, a sophisticated urbanite whose roots lie in top-tier academia and big-city politics. This asset could also become a glaring weakness, blinding him to the fundamental aspirations for smaller places and self-government that have long animated the American experience.

It has been a half-century since have we seen a presidential inner circle so identified with our densest urban centers. The three most recent Democratic presidents — Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — all had substantial roots in small-town America that also helped them understand the aspirations of middle-class suburban and exurban voters.

In contrast, this is an administration steeped in the mystique of big cities. Chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is a tough-guy player from the variously effective and consistently corrupt Chicago city machine. The members of the Cabinet and top-tier apparatus are longtime residents of such large cities as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston and, of course, Chicago.

As the continuing Roland Burris saga reveals, the Chicago connection, in particular, seems likely to wreak continued damage. Chicago’s corruption could run like a sore through this administration, much like Arkansas with the Clintons. But rather than deal with almost laughable hillbillies, we may witness the exposure of some of the toughest, and brazen, baddies in American politics.

Yet for the most part, the big media have been too captivated by the president’s urbane mystique to delve too deeply into the Chicago morass. Largely denizens of big cities, the top media generally embrace the notion that dense urban places are inherently better, more efficient, culturally and environmentally sound than less glamorous, more spread-out places.

You can see this worldview almost daily in The New York Times or, more substantially, in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic, where writers often like to envision an American future bright for top-tier cities and pretty bleak for everyone else.

Given the composition of the president’s inner circle, one can imagine such views are widely accepted at the highest levels. Over the coming years, this could precipitate a policy agenda that, though perhaps well intentioned, could work to the disadvantage in the suburbs, exurbs and small towns where most Americans live. Their policies — particularly the new taxes on the so-called $250K-a-year rich — may not even work so much to the advantage of middle-class urbanites; but this may take time to unfold.

More important, Obama’s urban policy also marks a critical shift from the traditional American preference for decentralization of power — including at the city level — to one that embraces ever greater concentration. It could also mark a public embrace of hierarchy every bit as serious — and perhaps less reversible — than has occurred in the relatively unregulated marketplace environment of the past quarter century.

The most recent Pew study confirms that some 77 percent of Americans prefer to live in suburbs, small towns or the countryside. But this prevailing preference for deconcentration disturbs many urban planners and policymakers, including some close to the Obama team. A key transition adviser of urban policy, the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, has been pushing the notion of “regionalism” under which there would be a major shift of power away from individual towns, counties and even urban neighborhoods to mega-regional agencies.

Katz, like many regionalists, seeks to diminish such local interests — which they fear as too parochial and insufficiently enlightened. His views about small-town politics are scathing as evidenced in an anti-Sarah Palin screed, published in The New Republic last October, revealingly titled “Village Idiocy.”

To be sure, regional agencies sometimes are useful, for example, in the management of air and water basins. But almost automatically regionalism favors more powerful entrenched interests over smaller communities and businesses. For example, in Southern California, the vast majority of the population lives in suburban cities, but power at the mega-regional agencies — such as the Southern California Association of Governments — usually reliably reflects the interests of large developers, public employee unions, big architects and planners.

Speaking in Florida recently, the president denounced “sprawl,” saying its days were now “over.” Although hardly a declaration of war on suburbia per se, his comments thrilled those offended by low-density suburbs and who want government to promote ever denser urban development — even if often opposed by grass-roots urbanites.

The emerging centralizing impulse can be seen in the stimulus, with unprecedented funds for light-rail projects and high-speed rail. Although such projects may seem logical in a few concentrated cities like Washington or New York, they seem poorly suited for most American cities and the vast majority of suburbs. In such places, a more practical, market-friendly way to curb greenhouse gases would be to promote decentralization of work, the creation of flexible low-cost transit and providing incentives for home-based business.

Over time, such tendencies could present potential dangers for the president. Despite the preferences of most people around the president, and perhaps he himself, nearly 80 percent of Americans consistently report they favor living in less dense places and overwhelmingly prefer single-family homes. They may also be reluctant to surrender ever more control over their daily lives to either distant regional authorities or the federal apparatus. Ultimately, the administration may be forced to choose between acting on its urban mystique and maintaining its political majority.

This article originally appeared at Politico.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History and is finishing a book on the American future.

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Thank you once again for an excellent piece of writing and a balanced view.

Though shared by some on the right, your insights were nowhere to be found in mainstream publications leading up to the election. Surely they weren't that difficult to predict.

One need look no further than the national election results map to see why Immanuel, Axelrod and Obama are pouring money into cities.
The highest crime rates, weakest education, most prolific welfare distribution and democratic voting blocs reside where they are spending a great deal of the stimulus. The case could be made that this technique of propping up the disadvantaged has been an abject failure going back to LBJ.

Race enters into the equation. African Americans are victims of prejudice who have gravitated to cities. We need a new model of empowerment for their culture based on achievement and not on handouts. Let's support any community program that encourages mentoring, initiative and skill development for disadvantaged populations. (I have a dream).

Look for pro amnesty legislation soon to pacify the already pro-Obama undocumented aliens (new voters) possibly injurious to the African American population. USA Today (3/9) suggests that 15% of the new construction jobs created by the stimulus will go to the undocumented.

Perhaps the biggest loser from these emerging policies will be the independent suburban businessperson who will see less of a tax break and more regulations inhibit the ability to grow a business.

Thank you.

401(k) plans, "decentralization of power"

401 (k) plans

Many poor people and middle class people have 401(k) plans. Many companies match employee contributions to 401(k) plans some.

People should be allowed to remove their contributions from 401(k) plans whenever they want tax free and penalty free. Capital gains and dividends should not be taxed. People should be allowed to remove capital gains and dividends tax free and penalty free whenever they want. People should be allowed to remove interest whenever they want tax free and penalty free. Many people might decide to just have money in accounts that earn interest. Many people would be better able to make mortgage payments, reduce their debts, and buy things. Many poor people might be better able to become middle class over time. Many middle class people might have an easier time staying middle class. Many middle class people might have an easier time becoming wealthy over time. Consumer confidence might increase. If consumer confidence increases, fewer businesses might fire people and many businesses might be more likely to hire people.


The less that the federal government taxes individuals and businesses the more that state governments may be able to tax individuals and businesses. If state governments are able to tax individuals and businesses more, state governments may be able to spend a lot more money on education, infrastructure, public transportation, energy transmission, energy development, and other things. Many state governments might spend money a lot more wisely than the federal government.


Before Amendment Seventeen of the United States Constitution was passed, State Legislatures chose United States Senators which gave State Legislatures a say on taxes, War, national debt, trade agreements, Treaties, and many other things. State Legislatures were able to reduce the amount of harm the federal government caused to state governments.

I would like an Amendment to the United States Constitution passed that allows each State to have at least 3 United States Senators and allows each State Legislature to choose at least 1 United States Senator. I would like an Amendment to the United States Constitution passed that allows State Legislatures to repeal federal laws, federal regulations, trade agreements, and Treaties. I would like an Amendment to the United States Constitution adopted that allows State Legislatures to recall (fire) their Representatives to the United States House of Representatives, their United States Senators, the President of the United States of America, and the Vice President of the United States of America.

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Ken Stremsky