"A Bureaucratic Nightmare"

Dayo Olopade, a reporter with The Root Web site, has written a story suggesting that President Obama's Office of Urban Affairs, and his urban policy ...
by | May 1, 2009

Carrion Dayo Olopade, a reporter with The Root Web site, has written a story suggesting that President Obama's Office of Urban Affairs, and his urban policy in general, are not living up to their pre-inaugural hype and in fact are "looking more like a bureaucratic nightmare."

Changes in urban policy have taken a back seat to the economy, Olopade points out, while the stimulus package clearly favored states over cities. The new White House urban affairs bureaucracy is itself fragmented, with various officials answering to different presidential aides and councils, while it's in turn trying to get a handle on policies run by more than a dozen different federal agencies.

Olopade notes that Adolfo Carrion, who heads the new office, lacks federal experience and isn't as well-known as some of the big-city mayors who had been rumored to be up for the job: "Picking a 'celebrity' to run the office might have inspired more confidence that it will make a difference to urban America."

Carrion, incidentally, has finally paid an architect who did work on his home while angling for a big project in the Bronx while Carrion was borough president there.

Most of Olopade's criticisms are valid, as far as they go -- and, having written a piece that was as optimistic about Obama and the cities as Olopade is skeptical, I don't want to carp.

But it's important to remember that even as Obama has finally reached the 100-day mark of his presidency, the White House Office of Urban Affairs has had even less time than that to accomplish enormously complicated, large and, in a way, vague goals.

My one argument with the piece, other than wishing for a more patient perspective, stems from this passage:

Obama's Cabinet is full of city dwellers with big ideas of their own, from Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, to Nancy Sutley, former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and head of the Council on Environmental Quality. So while the mandate of Urban Affairs includes "breaking down the traditional jurisdictional boundaries," according to Douglas, its regulatory authority appears as limited as its challenges are great.

It's the very fact that policies and agencies that touch on urban and metropolitan issues are so diffuse and diverse and powerful that led to the creation of the White House office. It was always going to be a lot to ask yet another White House czar to ride herd over much larger bureaucratic entities.

Meanwhile, the fact is that even as Carrion and company continue to try to sort out their role, the big agencies -- HUD and Energy and Transportation -- are talking to each other about local issues in a way that hasn't happened too often. That certainly may not last, but it's a hopeful sign.

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