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Equal time for the C-word

Why Obama downplayed urban issues

Skin color aside, Barack Obama is notably exotic simply because he will be one of the rare presidents with a big-city pedigree. Whereas so many of his predecessors hailed from suburbia or small towns - the Bushes lived in swanky suburbs of Houston and Dallas; Bill Clinton lived in various Arkansas hamlets; Jimmy Carter became synonymous with Plains, Georgia; LBJ had his ranch in a Texas river valley - Obama as a young adult planted his roots in the racially-diverse Hyde Park section of Chicago. Some historians are saying that the Democrats haven't fielded a president this citified since the early 1890s, when Grover Cleveland, a former mayor of Buffalo, served his second term. Indeed, pollster Peter Brown contended this week in the Wall Street Journal that Obama, a "city guy" by choice, "will be America's first urban president."

The irony, of course, is that Obama the candidate barely mentioned the C-word. I'm referring, of course, to cities. Listening to him, particularly during the early primary season, you'd have thought that the vast majority of  Americans lived in a Norman Rockwell tableau, that they awoke before sunrise, hitched up their overalls, and headed off to the fields with their pitchforks. Back when Obama was vying for Democratic votes, his website listed rural issues under a separate heading; there was no such special category for urban issues.

During the Democratic convention in Denver, the Obama video biography spent more time talking about his childhood roots in Kansas and Hawaii than about his adulthood in Chicago. Then came the acceptance speech. Check it out for yourself. Obama never once said the word urban. And he uttered the word cities exactly once, right down at the bottom, when he declared that there is so much to be done in America, including "cities to rebuild and farms to save." How about that for equivalence? The cities couldn't even get their own sentence.

Granted, Obama held some big urban rallies very late in the campaign - there were several on a single day in Philadelphia - but those were newsworthy simply because they were such rarities. The decision to speak in inner-city neighborhoods was purely tactical; stoking a huge Philadelphia turnout had become vital to his objective of winning Pennsylvania and thus snuffing John McCain's last hope of snatching a big blue state.

But I don't blame Obama for his refusal to overtly champion the big cities. There was no way that a Democratic candidate - especially a black candidate - could win a presidential election if he or she was too closely identified with an urban agenda. For whatever reason, Americans are still enthralled by their small-town heritage, even though the small towns have long been losing population, and even though (as the Brookings Institution has reported) roughly two-thirds of Americans now live within the 100 largest metropolitan areas that also happen to generate three-fourths of the nation's economic output. Which is another way of saying that a landslide majority of people today - directly or indirectly - are economically dependent on the health of America's cities.

But Obama couldn't go around stressing cities, because a lot of voters, in suburbia and small towns, equate that word with black, and one of the lingering racial issues, which kept surfacing in the polls, was that a sizeable share of the electorate feared that Obama might prioritize the needs of black people at the expense of everyone else.

That kind of anti-urban bias - which took root in the postwar flight to the suburbs - has actually become somewhat archaic, particularly because the cities have become cool again (at least for younger people, in the wake of Friends and Seinfeld), and because the cities no longer have a monopoly on social ills anyway (because inner suburbs and small towns have their own problems with drugs, crime, and poverty). Nevertheless, the old prejudice persists, not least because the Republicans have been so adept at exploiting it over the years, by suggesting that urban life is somehow unAmerican or suspiciously "cosmopolitan" (the word that Rudy Giuliani used at the '08 convention to describe Obama...a particularly hilarious bit of hypocrisy, given Rudy's stint as mayor of the largest city, where he jokingly cross-dressed as a drag queen).

This year, however, the GOP got no traction from its attempts to link Obama to the "Chicago political machine," so perhaps there is a dawning consciousness among non-city dwellers that the welfare of cities is inextricably linked to their own, even if they choose not to visit them. Obama has pledged to establish an Office of Urban Policy, and to stress the importance of "metropolitan" growth, a word that speaks to those linkages. Perhaps, with some policy successes, particularly on mass transit and infrastructure, it will be cool again to mention cities during the 2012 campaign. That alone would be progress.


Yesterday, I mentioned that Obama's potential Internet communication prowess would probably be countered, over time, by Republicans playing catchup on the web. And, sure enough, here's what I meant. This could be the beginning.