Let's See That Audacity In Action

Democrats in Washington are juggling their policy lineup. In preparation for January, President-Elect Barack Obama and the congressional leadership must decide which issues to roll out first and which should be left for another time.

The urban crisis should be at the top of their list. Much of this campaign centered on the middle class. Politically, it was a logical focus for Democrats who wanted to win the White House.

But the cities are in desperate need of repair. They cannot wait for another election cycle. The not-so big secret about Hurricane Katrina was that weather was not the main reason that the city was in shambles. The hurricane made things worse, but like so many other cities, decades of total neglect and harmful policies allowed racial and economic inequality to define life in the inner cities. In his award-winning book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, the historian Tom Sugrue demonstrated how urban decline predated the riots of the 1960s, and was rooted in housing and employment discrimination, as well as the flight of jobs out of the cities, dating back to the 1940s.

With the current economic crisis, the situation will only get worse. Mayor Nutter just announced rather draconian budget cuts for Philadelphia which reveal how much worse conditions might get.

Why should President Obama make the urban crisis a top priority? Why take the risk? The first reason is that African Americans constituted a crucial part of President Obama's coalition. He was able to mobilize voters who for too long had been disaffected and disenfranchised from national politics. Obama has raised the hope that this time things will be different. Since the end of WWII, the African American community has been hit hardest in the inner cities. Job flight has left them without viable economic opportunities. Decaying educational systems, often made worse by the requirements of "No Child Left Behind," make it almost impossible to get ahead.

The second reason for making the issue a priority is more practical. America is currently suffering from a severe economic crisis, one that could easily get worse if the federal government does not act soon. Now is the time when politicians need to link Main Street to the "Corner," and not just link Wall Street to Main Street.

The support for government intervention in the economy is much stronger now than it has been in recent decades. Senator McCain's attacks on "socialism" didn't work this time. Many blue collar and middle income voters in states like PA and OH supported the Democrats, defying the so-called "Bradley Effect" and showing support instead for substantial economic assistance. There have even been some Republicans, including Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, who have broken with their party and emphasized the centrality of tackling these issues.

This situation offers Democrats an opportunity to make urban renewal part of an omnibus economic package. Democrats finally have leverage to push for measures to deal with a variety of issues -- inner city schooling, job growth, sentencing and prison reform, and other challenges -- in exchange for the financial assistance sought by automobile makers, Wall Street investors, middle class homeowners and the rest of America.

The Obama-Biden campaign made broad promises about urban policy during the campaign. Their campaign said that Obama would establish a White House Office on Urban Policy to coordinate government efforts and make sure federal dollars were used well. The campaign also said it would back the creation of innovation clusters to boost local economies and strengthen workforce training. The Democratic campaign also discussed the distribution of capital through the Small Business Administration to bolster under-served businesses. Finally, they said they would create "promise neighborhoods" to deal with intergenerational poverty through a network of services and to work on programs to help poor Americans enter the work force.

At a minimum, the economic stimulus package should include infrastructure repair programs that place great emphasis on the cities and make certain that public jobs are allocated toward residents in those areas who are in need of gainful employment.

In the brilliant television show The Wire, viewers were able to see how deeply entrenched the problems are that plague the inner cities of America, where the drug trade is often the only economic game in town. Improving the cities will require a long-term effort and involve multiple interventions. But we must have the audacity to believe that conditions can be improved and do something to make that happen. Now is the time to begin the process.

Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the co-editor of "Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s" and is completing a book on the history of national-security politics since World War II, to be published by Basic Books.