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 NewGeography.com 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.