The Case of the Vanishing White House Office

The media starts to notice the deafening silence from the White House Office of Urban Affairs.

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When President Barack Obama announced that there would be an “urban policy czar” in his White House, urbanists’ hearts were set aflutter and their imaginations ran wild. Would Obama appoint an accomplished big-city mayor like New York’s Mike Bloomberg? An influential policy wonk like Brookings’ Bruce Katz? What would this office do with regard to poverty, education, sprawl and transportation? When Obama picked Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, Jr., there was general puzzlement at the seemingly random choice. Carrion had an appropriate background — he had been a city school teacher and urban planner before going into city politics — but no known profile on major urban issues. To make matters worse, Carrion came into office surrounded by speculation over his relationship with an architect who worked on his home and received city contracts.

Carrion has weathered that storm, but he has been fairly reclusive. He has not made any major announcements, promulgated any big plans, or held notable press conferences. His office is part of the Office of Public Liaison, which is responsible for mollifying liberal interest groups, not making policy. A crucial name change — from Office of Urban Policy to Office of Urban Affairs — indicates the reduced role. Currently, it only has five staffers.

The media has started to notice. First my friend Dayo Olopade asked in The Root what happened to the office, and why was it not playing a role in Recovery Act implementation. Then, last Friday, The Washington Post snagged an interview with Carrion. The reporters’ main take-away? That the office will redefine its role as “metropolitan” rather than just “inner-city.” Stop the presses! On Monday, Politico wrote about the Office’s slow start as well.

I personally have avoided this story up to this point. The office is small — it’s hardly wasting a lot of money if it doesn’t do anything — and the Obama administration is focused, correctly in my view, on passing climate change initiatives and health care reform. Surface Transit Reauthorization has unfortunately been delayed by the same forces. But, since everyone in the political media is beginning to take notice, I will add my two cents: It’s too soon to declare the Obama administration’s urban agenda non-existent or a failure. Here’s why: Carrion came in under a bit of a cloud, so it makes sense that he would keep a low profile for a while. The administration says that he is going to different agencies — remember that urban issues necessarily involve the EPA, Transportation, Education, HUD and Labor and Commerce — and figuring out who works on urban issues in each so that he can coordinate. Next Carrion is going to embark on a listening tour. I will admit, this seems a bit odd. Normally you do that at the beginning of a campaign to formulate a policy platform. I suppose you could do the same once in office, but usually the administration proposes a platform and goes on tour to promote it. Even so, we’re only five months into Carrion’s tenure. Most importantly, urban policy can be coordinated by the administration from other sources. To some extent I think the White House is creating urban policy already — and Carrion may (or may not) ultimately serve as the public face to promote it. The Sustainable Communities initiative, for instance, seeks to link housing to transit, and is a joint venture of HUD, DOT and the EPA. It will be years before we know what kind of Transportation bill the administration gets, what its record on reducing child poverty and education inequality will be. The Office of Urban Affairs probably won’t live up to urbanists’ expectations, but the Administration still may.

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Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.

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Tags: washington dcgovernancesustainable citieshudbruce katz

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