Inauguration day had turned into night. The mall was frigid and empty, trash piled against barriers lining the avenues. I was thawing in the MSNBC trailer when the mayor of Philadelphia arrived for a cable hit. Michael A. Nutter is part of the changing of the guard symbolized by the new president: he's African-American, Ivy-educated in his hometown at Penn, old enough to remember Martin Luther King Jr. and young enough, at 51, to see himself as a politician, not primarily a black politician. "Today was so inspiring," he said.
But Nutter was not dwelling on the emotions of the day. His mind was on the recession-gutted budget of his city. "We cut a billion dollars just last November," he said. "Now we've got to cut another billion over the next five years." During the transition, he said, he had spoken to the president-elect about the plight of the cities, including his own. "I got our message across, which is that the cities can be part of the solution, not just a problem."
Nutter has reason to hope. As glorious as it was to elect an African-American to the presidency, the political breakthrough with more street-level significance is that we've just sworn in our first modern Metropolitan President. Barack Obama has the right background to handle this economic crisis because the pain is concentrated in cities—in industries such as banking and finance—and it's where the revival, led by new energy efficiencies, might be most easily generated. "He understands the needs of the cities," said Nutter.
But meeting those needs won't be easy. They are vast—a shortfall in the budgets of cities and their suburbs of perhaps $50 billion in the next two years. Cities are facing quadruple indemnity: falling real-estate values, declining sales-tax revenue, shrinking pension funds and skyrocketing social costs. The Feds and the states pay most of the freight for health-care and unemployment benefits, but everything else—from schools to street repair to fighting crime—is mostly a local responsibility. In spite of all this, voters, of course, demand city services and blame the locals if they don't get them. "Every other level of government can kick responsibilities down to someone else," says Christopher Hoene of the National League of Cities. "We can't."
Mayors and metropolitan allies want direct infusions of cash from the Feds. "If you want to help the cities, don't send all of the money through state capitals," says Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans who heads the National Urban League. "To create jobs quickly, including 'green' jobs, give the money directly." But metro areas face another obstacle: a mixed history of handling federal cash. "Block grants" from the Nixon years are long gone, but a reputation for corruption, incompetence (and self-indulgent concrete-pouring) remains. Rahm Emanuel, the new chief of staff, alluded to that history when he met with mayors in Chicago recently. "He told us that the new administration was going to help," said Nutter. "But then he added, 'Don't mess up!' "
Still, politics seems poised to turn its attention "downtown." A generation ago, after the urban riots of the '60s, a new ruling coalition emerged that linked the suburbs with the values of rural areas. We elected Republicans who rode horses, pitched horseshoes or chain-sawed brush, and Democrats who were reared in the small-town South. All that has changed: suburban areas, such as those around Philly, joined with their cities to support the urban Democratic ticket.
Now we have a president who found his wife and his identity on Chicago's South Side—a president who is part of what Gwen Ifill calls the "breakthrough generation" of practical-minded black politicians who are shaped, but not limited by, their heritage. Rather than touch on mystic chords of race, Nutter has kept it low-key in his talks with Obama. When the mayor met with him in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, he gave Obama a memo about how he's handling the mortgage crisis—an innovative plan that brings lenders, courts, sheriffs and borrowers together to prevent evictions. Nutter hopes it could be a national model.
Obama's train trip to Washington began with a rally at Philly's glorious temple of public transportation, 30th Street Station. Nutter took the occasion to pitch the president-to-be on why his city was the perfect place to launch new home-weatherization programs. Nutter has one for the city's 400,000 row houses that are "caulk-gun ready." "I told him we are a microcosm of America, and that our location makes us the perfect demonstration city." Obama was noncommittal, but he offered his congratulations nevertheless. "He told me he was very happy for me that I was so proud of Philadelphia," said Nutter. Now the mayor just has to rescue it.