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Presidential debate again ignores urban issues

Listen to the national candidates talk, and you'd think American cities don't exist; there is no form of transportation other than driving. A number of bloggers have pointed out how last night's debate, like its predecessor, conspicuously didn't talk about cities.

Photo by mgstanton on Flickr.

At Next American City, Matt Bevilacqua writes:

Neither candidate uttered the word "city." At all. Go ahead, check this debate transcript from ABC News. ...

Urban advocates have raised this complaint many times before: During national campaigns, when pundits and politicos are bickering over everything from reproductive health to drilling for oil to the debt ceiling, issues specifically related to cities get the short shrift.

Republicans hardly ever talk about urban America anymore. ... Though this year's Democratic National Convention had a roster full of big-city mayors, their time in the spotlight largely yielded only sentimental personal narrativesnot much about what they do to make cities function daily, and not much about the needs of the people they serve.

It's not like there weren't moments last night when either candidate could have, at least in passing, addressed the concerns of the country's urban-dwellers. ... [D]uring the discussion on economic growth, Obama could have turned to the Partnership for Sustainable Communities to defend his record. Established during his first term, the partnership has done wonders for economic development in urban neighborhoods.

Streetsblog's Ben Fried wishes cities or transportation policy came up in the answer to a question about energy:
QUESTION: Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?
Fried says, "Let's imagine the contours of the straightforward, leveling-with-America response that never came:"
OBAMA: Yes, I do agree with Secretary Chu that it is not the job of the Energy Department to lower gas prices, any more than it's the job of the Commerce Department to lower the price of tin or cotton.

But there's a lot we can do to become more resilient in the face of oil price shocks. We can give people real transportation choices—invest more in transit, and in making our streets safer—so you aren't forced to burn a gallon of gas every time you need to pick up some groceries.

My administration has started us down a smarter path with the Sustainable Communities Initiative and the Department of Transportation's TIGER program. These programs are laying the groundwork for a 21st Century transportation system that makes our communities more productive and efficient while reducing our addiction to oil. If we make these investments, not only will we free ourselves from constantly worrying about prices at the pump, we'll also stave off the disaster of climate change and prevent the kind of droughts and other extreme weather events that are battering America.

Instead, the President talked about (and then starting arguing with Romney about) how much they've increased oil production. Which is not just about furthering our addiction to a dwindling resource, but also economically silly for anyone who realizes that oil is a world market.

Matt Yglesias posted a great chart showing that gas prices in the US, Canada, and Japan move in almost precise lockstep; the only difference is the size of the country's gas tax. Ours, of course, is extremely low compared to other industrialized nations.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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During the DNC I wondered why the democratic party doesn't mobilize mayor's more. I can't say for certain but I'd put money that there a lot more democrats than republicans in the country's 50 biggest cities. Not to mention that the democratic base is way more urban as a whole than the republicans. Maybe it will have to take a mayor going straight from Mayor to President or VP for this to happen.

by drumz on Oct 17, 2012 3:11 pm • linkreport

"OBAMA: Yes, I do agree with Secretary Chu that it is not the job of the Energy Department to lower gas prices, any more than it's the job of the Commerce Department to lower the price of tin or cotton. "

thank the powers that be, BHO is more interested in being reelected than in sounding high minded. news flash - most voters have not taken econ 101 (and many who have are solid Repubs). That answer will be instant turn off. Cmon.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 17, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

what does "mobilize" mean. Im sure dem mayors are working hard to turn out the vote. Speeches at conventions are more aimed to the swing voters - who probably dont want to hear from Rahm et al.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 17, 2012 3:20 pm • linkreport

They don't talk about that urbanization stuff because most big cities are already in the bag for the DNC. You can thank the electoral college for that. These candidates have to pander to the undecideds and remember that most of the undecideds live out in the suburbs (and probably to a lesser extent rural and midwest). Increasing the gas tax is political suicide if you're working for the undecideds votes. If we didn't have an electoral college system maybe things would be different.

by Neha tehta on Oct 17, 2012 3:28 pm • linkreport

Or it could be that urban policy should be mostly left up to the purview of local & state elections whose candidates can accurately assess the urban and transit planning needs of their localities. While the DC Metro area and some national transit projects may require national partnerships, for the most part "making our streets safer—so you aren't forced to burn a gallon of gas every time you need to pick up some groceries" isn't really a national issue as much as it is a local, state, or regional issue.

by Federalism on Oct 17, 2012 3:49 pm • linkreport

I want cities to further invest in their transit infrastructure too, I just don't want the federal government further paying for and controlling it.

by Fitz on Oct 17, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

Acording to the NYT, republicans don't like cities, and if the democrats go on about cities, they'll conjour up many stereotypes that aren't helpful to them politically, so it shouldn't be a surpruse that cities where omitted. But they didn't mention the suburbs or the country for the same reason, it's politically fractious terrain.

That being said, Obama could have been very effective had he couched the importance of urban investments in economic, environmental, and national security terms that have been outlined here several times over. Even with the know nothing wing of the republican party, its buisness wing owould certainly be able to follow the market's logic that conservative Virginia gets as demonstrated in their support of the Silver Line.

by Thayer-D on Oct 17, 2012 4:03 pm • linkreport

Most people who live in cities already know who they are going to for. They have for a long time, in fact. It's the lesser educated and lower income mouth breathers in the burbs and rural areas that Obama and Romney were trying to win over last night.

by aaa on Oct 17, 2012 4:11 pm • linkreport

Thayer is actually correct. The reason dems don't talk about cities is because Republicans don't "like" them and fear being "urbanized" by bringing it up. The only areas in the country that receive universal political love is NYC, the south, and "middle america."

I mean come on, Obama lives in DC and never addresses our issues unless it's bargaining away our rights. Not surprised the party follows suit.

Doesn't matter that issues like poverty and healthcare affects cities too.

by HogWash on Oct 17, 2012 4:17 pm • linkreport

There are lots of things they didn't discuss: farm policy, gay rights, climate change. Sometimes this place reminds me of Monty Python's News for Parrots sketch.

by jimble on Oct 17, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

Agree Thayer-D. It's been a huge mistake on the part of Democrats to not talk about the economic and national security implications of land use and transportation issues. That's how you swing voters. It's been pretty clear for some time that the middle isn't going to vote purely for environmental reasons yet the left continues to push the "green" angle.

by thump on Oct 17, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

There was also no discussion of farm policy last night either other than perhaps a few references to the price of food.

by Mr. Transit on Oct 17, 2012 4:32 pm • linkreport

Major national politicians ignoring urban issues on the largest national stage? This is a surprise, David? The presidential battlegrounds are in outer suburbs and mid-sized cities in Florida, northern Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada. It's not in major cities like New York, LA, and Chicago, progressive mid-sized civic-minded enclaves like Portland, Austin or Seattle or even fast-growing sun belt cities like Atlanta, Phoenix, Tucson, Houston, Dallas, Nashville or San Antonio. And it's most CERTAINLY not in Washington, D.C. It's still a suburban, automobile owner-dependent nation where despite a modest demographic back to the city movement sizable majorities of people still make the choice to live in the suburbs. It's who the candidates will speak to and the interests and concerns that will be addressed.

by Mike O on Oct 17, 2012 5:05 pm • linkreport

It's been a huge mistake on the part of Democrats to not talk about the economic and national security implications of land use and transportation issues.

Not exactly sure what this means, but I assume you're implying the econ/nat'l security implications of energy (oil) use? If that's the case then the problem is that a huge chunk of the public is dumb enough to believe that if those damn commie enviro Democrats would just let us drill baby drill everywhere we could have 100% oil independence tomorrow. Never mind the fact that we're already the 3rd largest producer and don't have nearly the proven oil reserves of many other countries.

People don't want to hear that. They want to hear that they can continue living their lives as they have, AND that gas prices are going to go back to 1995's $1/gal. At least the president had the guts to say that gas prices being what they are isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Really the only way to beat Mitt is to be nuanced about controversial issues, because Mitt proved last night that he will say ANYTHING to get elected. And that includes absolute 100% contradictions of the policies and plans he's been espousing for the last 18 months.

by MLD on Oct 17, 2012 5:09 pm • linkreport

Jobs will help the city. Employment takes care of many ills.

by Karl on Oct 17, 2012 5:40 pm • linkreport

Talking about cities is a loser, for the reasons mentioned above and more. It sucks, but it is what it is. I am happy Obama has taken this route, because sure, we don't get mentioned, but if he loses, the cities get crushed.

by Kyle-w on Oct 17, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

There's a marked difference between Democratic and GOP administrations being in Washington. Dems tend much more to live in the city while GOPers think McClean and Potomac are as urban as they can handle.

DC is not a fun town under the GOP. Very dull crowd.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 17, 2012 6:54 pm • linkreport

Are there specific issues that are being neglected or ignored by the debates? I have farms. Perhaps I've missed debating the specific issues of farmers, but I did hear discussion of taxes, health care, oil production, and jobs. Those may be broad points, but they were national debates. Another group would complain if farmers were a focus and their group was left out.

by selxic on Oct 17, 2012 7:01 pm • linkreport

DC is DC whichever party is in charge, Tom Coumaris.

by selxic on Oct 17, 2012 7:04 pm • linkreport

Thayer and Mike O hit upon the crux of it above. Urban areas are, by and large, not contested political territory at the national level. Democratic control is not threatened and Republicans don't contest, so neither feels an incentive to bring urban issues up in a time-constrained setting when one is addressing a general audience and undecided/swing voters.

In addition, those swing areas tend to be inhabited by voters who:

1. Fled the cities during white flight
2. Are the children of those who fled, and thus have been raised with a distrust of cities
3. Grew up outside of urban areas, as did their parents, and thus have no personal experience or background to dispute negative prevailing narratives about big cities.

These voters will not be receptive to an urban appeal; indeed, it is usually the opposite, with the Republican Party using coded and loaded appeals that associate cities with minorities, poverty, crime, immorality, etc.

What one could have conceivably hoped for, though, is some of that Obama unifying oratory that exposes false dichotomies and tries to reframe the issue. You probably would not want as direct of a throwback as "there are no urban issues and rural issues, there is not an urban America and an exurban America..." But it would have been straightforward enough to reframe 'shouldn't the Energy Department be trying to keep gas prices low' into "What's important isn't the unit price of a gallon of gas, but how much you have to spend on it overall." That lends itself pretty easily to the 'all of the above' energy strategy Obama says he champions. And transit investment could easily be framed as a positive for everybody under such a framework: every car trip saved through transit use in urban areas reduces overall demand for gas nationwide, which in turn will exert downward pressure on gas prices.

Of course, there are other factors working to push those prices up, and they are probably the stronger factors, but that's an argument for another question.

by Dizzy on Oct 17, 2012 11:49 pm • linkreport

Eh, elections focus on swing voters and are tailored to their interests. Not surprising.

The real question is about what any given politician will actually do when elected (which actually has very little to do with what they say during said election).

by Alex B. on Oct 18, 2012 9:31 am • linkreport

The candidates don't mention cities much but they don't mention suburbs or farms either.

by Michael Lewyn on Oct 18, 2012 10:23 am • linkreport

@selxic- I lived through several GOP and Dem administrations in DC and there is a marked difference.

Right now 3 administration officials live in my block. That never happens under a GOP administration. More important a huge number of staffers, legislative assistants, etc. for Dems live here. They experience our frustration with transit and with public services. You don't get better support than from someone who actually experiences the problems. GOP officials have much less tendency to live in DC when they get here.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 18, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

How many people actually move to the region for a new administration, Tom Coumaris? I don't know where you live, but I've never experienced significant changes in the character of DC with different administrations or Congressional control. If more of your neighbors are part of the administration during Democrat administrations and GOP members don't live in DC, what professions are your neighbors during GOP administrations? It almost sounds like you're saying the Dem administration neighbors are more whiny than other neighbors for the limited time they are here.

by selxic on Oct 18, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

Many thousands come into the area with a new administration of a different party.

Even every January after an election many people come to town even if it's not a party change.Those of us who have rentals learn certain things: Almost no one moves during the Nov-Dec holidays; college grads usually come to work in June-Sept; a lot of new Dem congressional staffers move to DC in January after any election; and after a big GOP win, especially an administration change, a lot of Dems leave that aren't replaced by GOPers looking for housing inside DC.

Of course these are the slightly more transient types than long-term residents. But in all my years of renting in Dupont/Logan I've had plenty of Dem staffers rent but not a single inquiry even from a GOP staffer.

When a Dem administration loses some of it's staff moves to Dem congressional staffs but probably most go away to teach or do research.

by Tom Coumaris on Oct 18, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

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