In the 2008 presidential campaign Barack Obama said great things about cities. And cities did great things for him.

More than a year before Election Day the then-senator pledged to appoint "a new director of Urban Policy who will cut through the disorganized bureaucracy that currently exists and report directly to me." A year later and a few weeks before he accepted the Democratic nomination, Obama told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Miami that "the truth is, what our cities need isn’t just a partner. What you need is a partner who knows that the old ways of looking at our cities just won’t do; who knows that our nation and our cities are undergoing a historic transformation."

When the balloting was over, Obama had won 63 percent of urban voters to John McCain's 35 percent, a solid gain over John Kerry's 54-45 urban advantage versus President Bush. Indeed, the nation's 50 largest cities comprise 16 percent of the U.S. population, but 86 percent of Obama's popular vote margin came from the counties containing those cities.

With his political roots in Chicago's South Side, Obama had the most urban pedigree of any president since one-time New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. And unlike earlier discussions of cities on the national stage, Obama's focus was as much on planning as on programs. "We need to promote strong cities as the backbone of regional growth," Obama said on the campaign trail. "And yet, Washington remains trapped in an earlier era, wedded to an outdated 'urban' agenda that focuses exclusively on the problems in our cities, and ignores our growing metro areas; an agenda that confuses anti-poverty policy with a metropolitan strategy, and ends up hurting both. "

He added: "Now is not the time for small plans. Now is the time for bold action to rebuild and renew America."        

As City Limits has reported, there is a push for New York comprehensive planning for its future. Quietly, the White House is making a similar push nationwide. Very quietly.

High hopes, low profile

A month after Inauguration Day, Obama made good on his promise to create a White House Office of Urban Affairs, naming as its director Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, a former urban planner. The president's executive order directed the office "to coordinate all aspects of urban policy." Carrion went on a national listening tour to learn about "best practices" already being used in nine cities that he visited from July 2009 to that December. In Philadelphia, the visit highlighted the Fresh Food Financing Initiative that brings healthy produce to underserved areas. Out in Flagstaff, Carrion toured the Northern Arizona Center for Emerging Technologies, a business incubator.         

In August 2009, Carrion joined other White House officials in a memo to all federal agencies calling for a "place-based review" of federal policies. This called on the departments to evaluate all their policies and find the ones that have a specific impact on particular places—for instance, a program that supports local workforce development—and develop ways to measure success, learn more about why the program works or doesn't, and team up with other agencies operating in the same places.

The review reflected a totally new way of thinking about federal policy, which has always been top-down and one-size-fits-all. In one change to place-based policy, the administration eased rules on locating federally insured housing on remediated brownfields.

But the listening tour and place-based review—and the behind-the-scenes work Carrion said he did coordinating 17 agencies that touch federal policy—didn't garner headlines, which was part of what urban advocates hoped the White House office would do: elevate the urban agenda. "They've definitely been working behind the scenes, but they are a very small office in a vast, vast bureaucracy," says Harry Moroz, the Drum Major Institute's senior advisor on federal urban policy. "I thought the office would do more in public to generate momentum behind a broader kind of urban agenda. That hasn't happened."

Carrion announced last March that he was leaving the White House after about a year in the Urban Affairs post to become the Department of Housing and Urban Development's New York/New Jersey regional director. The White House office still exists, with two employees, and no one named to take Carrion's place as director.

The fact is, the Office is only a small part of the urban policy story in the Obama administration. As has always been the case, that policy is being driven by the federal agencies—but as Obama envisioned on the campaign trail, these departments are working in concert with each other and local leaders more than before.

An emphasis on planning

Some of Obama's urban agenda went unheralded because it was tucked into the federal stimulus bill, particularly in the form of infrastructure improvements under the TIGER program. Aiding cities within the context of a broad $814 billion spending plan may have been unsatisfying to urban advocates who wanted a Marshall Plan for cities, but it was an easier political lift than approaching urban areas separately. "I think they saw an opportunity to fold some of these things in," Moroz says of the administration. "That was looking down the road and seeing that some of these things might be tough to get done on their own."

Now other, more ambitious and distinctly urban programs are getting underway. Under the umbrella of Obama's Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative, there is HUD's Choice Neighborhoods housing program, the Department of Education's Promise Neighborhoods antipoverty program, a crime prevention initiative run by the Justice Department and health clinics and mental health support coordinated by Health and Human Services. A separate initiative aims at developing “regional innovation clusters” that build off a metro area's natural strengths to make them better places to work and live; the departments of Commerce, Labor and Education and Small Business Administration are in on that.