- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama, who yesterday outlined his economic-stimulus plan, is taking a chapter out of Jimmy Carter’s playbook.

The Carter administration took the education components out of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and, with a Democrat-controlled Congress more than willing to oblige the Democratic president, established the Department of Education in 1979. America’s public school systems - especially those in urban America - are still suffering the consequences of that wrongheaded policy.

Mr. Obama promised during the campaign to raise the status of urban policy, and yesterday he announced that Melody Barnes of the Center for American Progress will direct domestic policy. Also, one of his chief advisers, Valerie Jarrett, announced recently that an urban affairs team is developing strategy for urban America. But an Office on Urban Policy?

Credit Mr. Obama for being the presidential nominee who most identified with what ails urban America.

As a community organizer, he witnessed up close and personal the day-to-day strife of families that failed to make ends meet no matter how hard they tried. Indeed. The less fortunate among us deserve a hand up, but too frequently they receive a handout that more often than not leads to government dependence - and sometimes they never break free. Federal and state bureaucracies are chock-full of policies that lead to dependence: temporary assistance for needy families, food stamps, Medicaid, school feeding programs, job training and welfare-to-work, as well as subsidized housing, day care and public transportation, to name a few. The intent of such programs reflects the largesse of compassionate Americans, regardless of political affiliation. The obvious downside is that even the best of intentions has, well, a downside.

The incoming Obama administration will wrestle with the same spending and policy pressures as the outgoing Bush administration. But Mr. Obama’s White House will face the added pressure of trying to rightsize the economy as he transitions from candidate to president. That is, rhetoric and speechifying aside, he now has to marry campaign promises with presidential policies.

Yesterday, Mr. Obama announced his economic team amid continued talk that he has hit the ground running to solve America’s - and Americans’ - financial woes. Of course there are no facts to bear that out.

Which raises questions: Does America need an Office of Urban Policy or an “urban czar”? Can American taxpayers afford either of them?

There are several cabinet and non-cabinet posts already in place that have urban components. The most obvious are the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Justice Department and the Congressional Budget Office. Even the three most recent cabinet posts created by both Republican and Democratic presidents - the Environmental Protection Agency (Richard Nixon), the Department of Education (Jimmy Carter) and the Department of Homeland Security (George W. Bush) –- all have policies, grants, and rules and regulations that dig deep into urban affairs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, or drug czar, also tends to urban issues.

Mr. Obama’s inclination to raise the level of importance regarding urban policy is natural and understandable. Besides being a former community organizer, he was a former Illinois state lawmaker, and to succeed in both endeavors he had to get into the weeds of urban policy. And for 20 years he was a member of a congregation that was deeply involved in the health, education and welfare of Chicagoans.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama told voters that a strong urban America is crucial to a strong America (and we wholeheartedly agree).The heart beat of America rests in Big City America and regional growth rests on the big shoulders of big cities. Both depend on effective strategies that center on fiscally viable and sustainable policies for public works and transportation, good schools, low crime rates and tax policies that help, not hinder, families and entrepreneurs.

All eyes are on Washington as the troubled economy shakes the confidence of families and investors alike. Now is not the time to expand government spending by creating an Office on Urban Policy.

The need to create jobs is undeniable. But Mr. Obama’s ambitious proposal to create 2.5 million jobs with public works projects is simply not rooted in today’s real-time economy crisis.

Mr. Obama should reconsider. A White House panel on urban affairs could, for instance, define and prioritize his urban agenda by seeking innovative nongovernmental proposals and by drawing from the budgets of agencies already at hand. He could appoint advisers from a deep and wide pool of pragmatists, intellectuals and experts. But a new agency tethered to the tax rolls is wrongheaded.

Mr. Obama can learn a thing or two from the short-sighted Carter administration. Four years from now, Mr. Obama will face the same question as Mr. Carter: “Are you better off than you were in 2008?” When Americans fail to answer in the affirmative, they go to the polls and vote for change.

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