John McCain for President (?)

Michael Lewyn's picture

My sense is that most new urbanists and smart growth advocates were happy to see Barack Obama elected President two years ago.  While John McCain opposed Amtrak and had not been overly supportive of local public transit, Obama created an Administration full of advocates for transit and urbanism, and high-speed rail is one of his Administration's signature programs.  So the Obama Administration will slow sprawl, and will make our cities more transit-oriented, prosperous and walkable.   Right? 

Not so fast.  Since President Obama took office, public transit service has been slashed almost everywhere; the Obama Administration apparently was unable to foresee how deep the recession would be, and its stimulus efforts were too small to forestall local governments' jihad against public transit.  And because the Obama Administration was too busy remaking the health insurance industry to get a highway/transit bill passed in 2010, it essentially punted the issue to the more conservative Congress taking office this year.

To make matters worse, President Obama's failure to jump-start the economy led to a right-wing backlash, causing the election of a Congress eager to cut spending on just about everything but Social Security and Medicare.    Given the House's newfound embrace of austerity, the federal government might not even continue transit funding at current levels, let alone increase funding. 

Admittedly, President Obama can still fight the Republican House with a Democratic Senate and veto power.  But his new budget will include cuts in even noncontroversial government programs such as home heating assistance for the poor- an indication that the President plans to run for reelection as Republican Lite, rather than continuing his pre-2010 pattern of supporting expanded government services.

To be fair, President Obama has started some new programs designed to further walkable urban development.  But these programs are likely to be significantly reduced by the Republican House or are too small to be particularly significant.   For example, in 2010 the government made $168 million in "sustainable communities grants" to state and local planning agencies, and was authorized to make $600 million in grants under the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program,  But this number is puny compared to the $10 billion per year that the federal government spends on the Federal Transit Administration - which means that even a small cutback in FTA funding will dwarf whatever good is done by TIGER and the sustainable communities grants.  In short, it is quite possible that public transit will get less support over the next few years than under the Bush Administration.

Would government have been more generous under McCain?  Possibly so.  On the one hand, urban development and public transit would receive little positive White House attention.  But since the public tends to react against the party holding the White House when unemployment is high, the Democrats would have gained seats in the 2010 midterms, possibly having as much as a 2-1 edge in one or both Houses of Congress.  Such a left-leaning Congress would have been unlikely to support budgetary austerity- good news for transportation advocates.  And on budgetary matters, Congress tends to get its way, since Presidents typically have limited appetite for budgetary shutdowns and trench warfare with Congress.

I cannot say whether John McCain would have been a better President overall than Barack Obama - but I strongly suspect that quite inadvertently, he would have been a better President for mayors and transit riders.








Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Enough Speculation Already

With all due respect, I'm afraid that anyone elected in 2008 had a lot more urgent issues to deal with than urban development and public transit. President Obama has had just 2 years to clean up the mess the Bush administration left behind, both in terms of the economy and the executive branch which they deliberately tried to destroy.

The Obama administration has made incredible strides at cleaning up both messes. For example, it has accomplished amazing things at HUD to which nobody is paying attention (fortunately, because the radical right would go nuts to learn that fair housing is being enforced for the first time in memory and that -- for the first time ever -- the HUD is trying to get recipients to use CDBG funds to achieve the program's actual purpose of racial and economic integration in housing).

The political speculation in this column is just that, pure speculation, and we don't need any more political speculation. We need sound analysis and reasoning in both our government and in writing about our government. To think that mass transit or urban development would have fared better under a McCain administration is pure naive folly. The Republicans have no love for public transit and certainly none for urban development. Had McCain been elected, I strongly suspect the economy would be in even worse shape and going downhill.

And downhill is exactly where it will go if federal jobs are cut and draconian budget cuts are made to domestic programs like CDBG. The private sector's slow recovery (and it's only natural for it to be slow) will be undermined by a new wave of unemployment these cuts will produce and it is highly likely that the recession will be deepened and prolonged (of course the Republicans will blame Obama for the damage Republicans have wrought). Deep recessions are not the time to cut the federal government's domestic budget so much. But the Republicans will use the November election as their excuse to wipe out one important program after another in the name of balancing the budget.

And Presidents don't like to get into budget roulette with Congress because Presidents -- especially this President -- generally tend to be a lot more responsible than Congress.

Obama is no "Republican-lite" and he's never been a liberal. He's long been a moderate, which he continues to be.

Daniel Lauber, AICP
AICP President 2003-2005, 1992-1994
APA President 1985-1986

Asinine Evaluation

Complete and utter speculation with little to show for it; prove what point?

Would we all be speaking German if the Axis won WWII? Maybe. Who knows?

Doesn't really matter.

Mr. Lewyn with this and your recent (weak) article about bicycle infrastructure, I suggest you find a topic you can handle with out relying on wild assumptions.

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