Urban Ideology in Obama’s Brand of Regionalism


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Generally, whether or not presidents are reelected and how they are judged historically depends on their stances on a few key issues. President Obama’s reelection was, as he noted, a positive referendum on his health and stimulus bills, and his proposed taxing of the rich. But the measures which better reveal a president’s underlying philosophy are the small ones he takes, often incrementally and with little public notice.

Under Obama, such measures have amounted to a cornucopia of placations for traditional left-wing groups, from his energy policies, to his favoritism of unions, to his further nationalization of public schools. Such measures, writes Stanley Kurtz, signal his preference for centralized governance, and are particularly noticeable in his urban policies, which Kurtz criticizes in his new book Spreading the Wealth: How Obama is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.

According to Kurtz, Obama’s urban policies center on “regionalism”, which the author defines as the goal to “abolish the suburbs, ideally by having cities annex surrounding suburban municipalities.” Because this is unpopular, it is advanced by officials today in indirect ways. One is by establishing urban growth boundaries, which protect farmland by pushing potential suburbanites back into cities. Another is zoning measures which mandate that developers build affordable housing throughout entire regions, rather than just specific neighborhoods. And another is tax-base sharing, which redirects service money from wealthy suburbs into cities.  All three, he writes, are “hostile to our traditions of individual freedom and local self-rule”, since they encourage the consolidation, rather than autonomy, of neighboring municipalities.

Although regionalism, in its various forms, has long been practiced at local and state levels, it has largely escaped federal interference in the US. The closest thing has been congressionally-funded Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which for decades have played advisory roles on local transportation projects. But Kurtz claims that Obama is changing this with programs like the Sustainable Communities Initiative, which uses the EPA, the DOT, and HUD—along with hefty federal grants—to nudge localities towards regionalist goals. This interference will only escalate, he writes, in his second term, when Obama, less accountable to political pressure, uses such programs to dictate even the minutiae of local land policies.

Like in previous writings, Kurtz’s concerns about Obama come from having studied his background. Throughout the book he plows through the president’s past writings, and his time as an organizer, to detect his bias for cities over suburbs, and big rather than small government. Not only did Obama mature in a political climate inspired by socialism, according to Kurtz, but in a city, Chicago, that has been shaped by top-down policies. He writes particularly of Obama’s tutelage under several of the city’s “radicals”, and later under regionalists like David Rusk and Myron Orfield, many of whom have consulted him while in office. He also criticizes Obama for subsidizing light rail, viewing this as evidence of an urban agenda.

But Kurtz’s own bias—and his relentless detection of nefariousness in Obama’s every grey hair—blinds him to how city-oriented policies could benefit an increasingly urbanizing U.S. Such policies represent less a turn towards socialism, than one away from the nation’s longtime subsidization of sprawl, which often places services where they are less needed. For example Obama’s supposedly “urban” bias didn’t explain why his various stimulus measures disproportionately benefited low-density states, with low unemployment, rather than cities like New York or San Francisco, where more transit is desperately needed.

Kurtz also doesn’t note, to an even slight degree, some positive aspects of regionalism, which distances him even from many business interests.  Regional policies, after all, can reduce waste by combining services between dozens of municipalities who would otherwise operate their own schools, libraries, policing, etc. It can also help metropolitan areas complete broad measures, mainly for transportation, that would be impossible without expanded revenue pooling, and cross-bureaucratic cooperation.

By ignoring this, Kurtz is unable to distinguish between regional policies that are efficient and favorable to growth; and those favored by progressives that restrict property rights and mandate social equity. Anybody who feels endangered by this latter type, and by a president who would engineer it, should, as Kurtz suggests, pay close attention to Obama’s second term. But Kurtz doesn’t help his own cause by making “regionalism”, in this oversimplified form, a dirty word; nor by suggesting that urban-based policies are bad in themselves. Such policies are needed given the importance of cities. Whether or not they are helpful depends on how they are applied—which Kurtz could have clarified, following his justifiable rebuke of a president ideologically geared towards redistribution.

Scott Beyer is living in different cities on a month-to-month basis to write the chapters of his new book about revitalizing U.S. cities. He blogs at Big City Sparkplug.

Image via Becker1999

  • Drew Reed

    Thanks for writing on this. This book looks like a real stinker, and I suspect that Kurtz is one of those Agenda 21 believing, tin foil hat wearing nut jobs that still believes Obama was born in Kenya. It’s sad that simply arguing in favor of infrastructure such as light rail is seen as tantamount to stalinist redistribution, and more importantly, that fringe opinions such as Kurtz’s are given legitimacy in public discourse in the US. It’s worth adding to the arguments made in this article that historically the federal government has instituted policies that massively favor suburban sprawl and, moreover, generate an environment where the “people of quality” will naturally migrate to the suburbs while the poor are relegated to the inner city (a term which has become a catchall for any poor neighborhood). The last paragraph is a nice balanced analysis, probably more balanced than one I could give, giving the author of this book as much benefit of the doubt as possible. But I’m left with the feeling that when I read this book, I will have little doubt to how erroneous his analysis is.

  • http://meadonmanhattan.com/ Howard Freeman

    Drew, I don’t know if that’s a fair assessment of Kurtz (I just read a couple of his bios on different sites and while he might be a conservative, it doesn’t appear he’s a “nut job), nor do I think that Kurtz’s opinion is “fringe.” I’m a born-and-bred New Yorker, but having lived in South Hamilton, MA, for eight years–which has a history dating to the late 18th century and is not a product of sprawl–I can say that many local townships like this will object (rightly) to the loss of local autonomy and control. I think what concerns me even more than the philosophical differences I have with the President’s (alleged) policies Kurtz criticizes is that our Federal Government is not an expert in running businesses, and local municipalities are just like that: they have to meet budget and grow locally with a minimum of outside aid, or they are unsustainable. Perhaps a point I’d concede, and by way of analogy, is that abutting poor towns/areas could group together either formally or informally and receive a federal loan–much the way someone might get a micro-loan–and that the group would have a covenant to use that loan to grow and then would pay it back, the way we’ve seen in successful micro-lending. But top-down policies seem to me to make localities less sustainable in the long run.