Obama, Ethanol, and the “New Metropolitan Reality”

In a weekend speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Senator Barack Obama continued to distinguish himself on urban policy, talking up cities as vital economic centers worthy of investment. Harry Moroz of DMI Blog has the story.

Obama opened with a reference to his time as a community developer in Chicago and he joked (I paraphrase):

“You know if I’m president I’m going to talk about cities. If I don’t,
you know you can just talk to [Chicago] Mayor Daley who will make sure
that the pot holes in front of my house don’t get filled.”

Obama called for a new vision of cities, one that recognizes the growth
of both cities and metro areas… Strong cities, Senator Obama
suggested, are the backbone of regional growth and regional growth the
source of national prosperity.

Finally, the Illinois Senator returned to the vision of cities he set
out at the beginning of the speech: “we must stop seeing cities as
problems and start seeing them as the solution.” Indeed, Obama called
this the “new metropolitan reality”.

In highlighting the differences between himself and his presumptive opponent in November, Senator John McCain, Moroz writes that Obama "attacked Senator McCain’s criticism of the COPS program and
Community Development Block Grant funding, both of which are major
priorities for mayors." Meanwhile, a "Talk of the Town" item from this week’s New Yorker posits that Obama is the real straight-talker of the two candidates for president, and suggests that staying the course on issues like energy policy will help him with voters.

Obama promises to tell voters what they need to know and not what they
want to know. It’s a risky strategy, and one he doesn’t always follow,
but when he put it into effect in April, by attacking McCain’s proposed
summer gasoline-tax holiday, he helped his campaign more than he hurt
it. Last week, he denounced McCain’s latest reversal, on offshore
drilling. But he needs to go further. A year ago, he likened “the
tyranny of oil” to that of Fascism and Communism, saying, “The very
resource that has fueled our way of life over the last hundred years
now threatens to destroy it if our generation does not act now and act
boldly.” This is the kind of unequivocal message that Obama needs to

Though his overtures regarding passenger rail and cycling are impressive, Obama’s credibility on energy issues is far from iron-clad. His ties to the ethanol industry, in particular, have led some to question whether his policies might be swayed by the parochial interests of the corn belt. (McCain, for his part, wants to end federal ethanol subsidies.) If Obama is to reconcile his support of cities with biofuel boosterism, it’s going to be a heavy rhetorical lift.

Photo: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press via the New York Times

  • Obama is leaning in the right direction but he could be a lot more specific. OK, he wants help cities. Where does he stand on transit funding? OK, he’s saying we’ve got an energy problem. What are his solutions — walkable communities? Bike lanes? Street redesign? Bus rapid transit? Light rail? Heavy rail to get us between cities when the airline industry is dying before our eyes? What, if anything, is he going to do about places being rendered obsolete and dysfunctional by peak oil? He needs to start putting his cards on the table.

  • JK

    The full text of Obama’s speech on cities is here:

    It’s a classic presidential candidacy speech with something for just about everyone to laud or applaud except John McCain and oil companies. The closest to a livable streets applause line is:

    “Let’s re-commit federal dollars to strengthen mass transit and reform our tax code to give folks a reason to take the bus instead of driving to work.”

  • “United States Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama, a senator from Illinois, met with leaders from the US bicycle industry to discuss two-wheeled initiatives at the home of FK Day, one of SRAM’s founders June 12.”


    Nothing specific was mentioned in the article, but a Presidential candidate meeting with bicycle industry leaders has got to be a first.

  • I’ve amended the text to include relevant links to previous Obama posts, including one on the bike industry meeting.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I suggest that we should give Mr. Obama as much slack as he needs to run this race and win. Kerry won most cites including cities in Red(neck) states. The constitution the slaveholders left us gives most of the weight to rural areas. This could be the watershed election when political power begins accrue to cities. There is no turning back on the gas tax holiday, leave him alone to stake out his own position in whatever way he wants to.

  • Bill Nelson

    The issue of “cities” is not a power that the U.S. Constitution grants to the President. When you want your local interests looked after by the President, then you are also asking for a dangerous consolidation of power in a single individual.

    Incidentally, you should also know better than to rely on Democrats to help cities. Decades of local urban “leadership” by the Democratic Party has led to the gutting of almost every American city.

    The growth of cities was due to commerce among free people, and not the grand visions of politicians.

  • Mike

    Bill – not sure what axe you’re grinding, but I believe Niccolo’s point was about the mathematics of elections, not who is or isn’t “looking after” or “helping” cities. His point was that presidents have historically won elections on “rural” rather than “urban” issues.

  • Bill, I think people here know that the Constitution does not name the president “Cities Czar.” I think Obama supporters here are hopeful that he will have a new set of priorities in broad policies, such as proposed budgets.

  • Also, Bill, sure, cities grew in part because of commerce between “free people.”

    But it could be argued that the “gutting” of cities is due largely to the “grand visions of politicians”–from both parties–with their grand visions of an ever-expanding network of highways, and also due to the “free people” who for generations figured that using those roads to escape cities was desirable.

  • GR

    The fault lines are becoming comically clear. McCain is defending not just the political status quo, but a distinctly cultural one – “I’ll find ways to keep you driving, America – common sense and national security be damned.” The gas tax thing, the coastal drilling BS, the 300 Million dollar McBattery prize. Its all geared towards defense of where we are.

    Obama’s movement toward an “urban solution” is largely in line with his “change” mantra… in that sense, the biofuels stuff is as rhetorically out of whack as it is on a policy level. In lakoff-speak, he subtly reinforcing McCain’s frame with that.

  • Bill Nelson

    Mike: Bringing up a different point of view is not “axe grinding”. Instead, try viewing it as “diversity”. And I did not even read Niccollo’s comment. Or, more accurately, I stopped reading it when he chose to delegitimize the U.S. Constitution by associating it with slavery.

    ddartley: Increasing municipal budgets leads to harm, as it A) Increases taxes for B) Dubious projects, which C) Eventually encourage people to leave. The most worthwhile aspects of NYC are a result of private behavior, and that goes especially for the vitality of its neighborhoods. Example: Prospect Park without a nearby Park Slope would be almost unusable (as it was in the 1970s), but an ugly park-less neighborhood like Williamsburg now functions quite nicely. And it wasn’t government funding that created Williamsburg.

    Also: Of course public highways influenced people to leave the city. But that’s nothing compared with NYC public schools influencing people to leave the city. If people’s preferences were determined by public spending, we would all be competing to live in public housing and being cared for at public hospitals.

    Incidentally, I do not think that public highways are a particularly good idea, either. The Cross Bronx Expressway (Or the LIE, the Gowanus, etc.) are hardly examples of efficient transportation. A privately-operated highway system would instead be quite beneficial. And talk about your congestion pricing: The highway companies would see to it that there would never be congestion again. No one makes money when the cars aren’t moving.

  • Go Obama! definitely, getting that rural vote is important, but also, he really means it.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    So Bill apparently feels that the position that the slaveholders wrote the constitution, apparently a holy document, like the tablets from Mt. Ararat, is in some way incorrect or rhetorical in nature. Did he read the part about the 3/5 compromise? He is shocked and appalled that anyone would associate the founders of this country with slavery, what absurdity!

    His positions on taxation, public education and Prospect Park in the 1970s are equally well founded.

  • Bill Nelson

    That some of the Constitution’s authors held slaves is not relevant to the content of the document — which is intended to limit government power, which is to the benefit of cities.

  • Walter Libby

    Check out “sustainable cities sustainable democracy” on the interent.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    It really has nothing to do with which individuals may or may not have held slaves at writing of the Constitution. It is that most of the Federalist structures were written to guarantee the retention of their hold on power in the new government. The slaveholders, particularly but not limited to Jefferson, were agrarians, the frontier needed to be settled and the slaveholders insisted on a document that would be able to settle the frontier without disturbing the institution of plantation slavery. That is the document they produced and the one that we live with today.

    Sorry if my position disturbs your sensibilities. I don’t even mean slaveholders in a pejorative sense. It was an economic system organic to the history of the American republic. Many of the slaveholders were undoubtedly good people and many of the non-slaveholders were not. Regardless, the slaveholders position ruled at the constitution writing and we are left with much of what they did today. Our constitution is ill-adapted to the modern world. It is not a system prone to adaption. It is a system prone to the idolatry we see in the mass media trickling down to this blog.

  • Walter Libby

    I meant to say check out “Sustainable cities sustainable democracy II” on the internet.


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