Ethics & Public Policy Center

How Obama Is Robbing The Suburbs To Pay For The Cities

Published in Forbes.com on August 13, 2012



Political experts left and right agree: the coming election will be decided by America’s suburbanites. From Florida to Virginia on across the country, in every battleground state, they are the key demographic. All of which raises a question that has not been considered as yet, and ought to be: is President Obama’s re-election in the suburbanites’ interest? The answer emphatically is no.

As many Americans do not know, in the eyes of the leftist community organizers who trained Obama, suburbs are instruments of bigotry and greed—a way of selfishly refusing to share tax money with the urban poor. Obama adopted this view early on, and he has never wavered from this ideological commitment, as a review of his actions in office goes to show.

President Obama’s plans for a second-term include an initiative to systematically redistribute the wealth of America’s suburbs to the cities. It’s a transformative idea, and deserves to be fully aired before the election. But like a lot of his major progressive policy innovations, Obama has advanced this one stealthily-mostly through rule-making, appointment, and vague directives. Obama has worked on this project in collaboration with Mike Kruglik, one of his original community organizing mentors. Kruglik’s new group, Building One America, advocates “regional tax-base sharing,” a practice by which suburban tax money is directly redistributed to nearby cities and less-well-off “inner-ring” suburbs. Kruglik’s group also favors a raft of policies designed to coerce people out of their cars and force suburbanites (with their tax money) back into densely packed cities.

Obama has lent the full weight of his White House to Kruglik’s efforts. A federal program called the Sustainable Communities Initiative, for example, has salted planning commissions across the country with “regional equity” and “smart growth” as goals. These are, of course, code words. “Regional equity” means that, by their mere existence, suburbs cheat the people who live in cities. It means, “Let’s spread the suburbs’ wealth around” – i.e., take from the suburbanites to give to the urban poor. “Smart growth” means, “Quit building sub-divisions and malls, and move back to where mass transit can shuttle you between your 800 square foot apartment in an urban tower and your downtown job.” In all likelihood, these planning commissions will issue “recommendations” which Obama would quickly turn into requirements for further federal aid. In fact, his administration has already used these tactics to impose federal education requirements on reluctant states. Indeed, part of Obama’s assault on the suburbs is his effort to undercut the autonomy of suburban school districts.

Suburbs are for sellouts: That is a large and overlooked theme of Obama’s famous memoir, Dreams from My Father. Few have noticed the little digs at suburban “sprawl” throughout the book, as when Obama decries a Waikiki jammed with “subdivisions marching relentlessly into every fold of green hill.” Dreams actually begins with the tale of an African American couple who’ve come to question their move from city to suburb – the implication clearly being that the city is the moral choice.

Early on in Dreams, Obama tells of how his mother and Indonesian step-father, Lolo Soetoro, were pulled apart by a proxy version of the American dream. Lolo got a job with an American oil company, bought a house in a better neighborhood, and started dining at the company club. Obama’s mother, who had come to Indonesia in search of Third World authenticity, wanted nothing to do with the “ugly American” types who frequented this new world, and she taught her son to disdain them as well. From Obama’s perspective, American-inspired upward mobility had broken his new family in two.

Back in Hawaii after his Indonesian interlude, Obama came to see his grandparents as strangers. The realization dawned as they drove him along a sprawl-filled highway. Obama then threw in his lot with an African-American mentor named Frank Marshall Davis, who lived in a ramshackle pocket of the city called the “Waikiki Jungle” where his home was a gathering place for young leftists and nonconformists. Rejecting assimilation into America’s middle-class, Davis hit on socialist politics and identification with the urban poor as the way to establish his racial credentials.

Dreams from My Father describes Davis’s efforts to pass this stance on to Obama. At Occidental, with Davis’s advice in mind, Obama worried that he was too much like “suburban blacks, students who sit with whites in the cafeteria and refuse to be defined by the color of their skin.” This fear of becoming a middle-class suburban “sellout” is the background to the famous passage of Dreams where Obama explains why he started hanging out with “Marxist professors” and other unconventional types. Recalling Davis’s admonition to reject the standard path to success, “the American way and all that shit,” Obama left Occidental’s suburban campus for Columbia University, “in the heart of a true city.”

After leaving New York for Chicago, Obama met up with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. This relationship, too, reflected Obama’s ideological disdain for the suburbs. Obama was distressed, for example, to learn that one of Wright’s assistants planned to move to a suburb for her son’s safety. After confronting Wright with concerns that his congregation was “too upwardly mobile,” Obama was mollified to discover the congregation’s official “Disavowal of the Pursuit of Middleclassness.” The years with Rev. Wright helped Obama solidify the solution to his identity crisis that Frank Marshall Davis had taught him long before: reject the lure of the middle-class suburbia and identify instead with the urban poor.

Simultaneously, Obama joined up with a clutch of leftist community organizers who attributed the troubles of Chicago’s inner cities to the very existence of suburbs. Among this early group of mentors, Obama was personally closest to Mike Kruglik. Kruglik and his fellow organizers noticed that even when their groups succeeded in forcing some local politician to increase government spending, neighborhood conditions failed to improve. Instead of drawing the lesson that big government doesn’t work, Kruglik and his fellow organizers seized upon a different explanation. They discovered the work of Myron Orfield and David Rusk, national leaders of the fight against suburban “sprawl”—and sponsors of a bold plan to redistribute suburban tax money to the cities.

Orfield and Rusk attributed urban decline to taxpayer “flight” to the suburbs. In their eyes, compulsory redistribution of suburban tax money to cities was the only lasting solution to urban decay. Kruglik and Obama’s other community organizing mentors embraced these ideas and have crusaded for them ever since. From his position on the boards of a couple of left-leaning Chicago foundations, Obama supported his mentors’ anti-suburban activism for years. Likewise, from the time he entered the Illinois State Senate right through to his service in the U.S. Senate, Obama continued to work closely with Kruglik on his anti-suburban crusade.

To this day, Obama quietly coordinates his administration’s policies on urban/suburban issues with Kruglik, Orfield, and Rusk. Kruglik’s anti-suburban battle is set to become one of the defining themes of Obama’s second term. Although calls for “regional tax-base sharing” will strike the public as something entirely new, the program is the fulfillment of the president’s lifetime ambition. Still trying to avoid being mistaken for a middle-class, suburban “sellout,” Obama has hit upon the ultimate solution: a massive redistribution of suburban tax money to America’s cities.

That would not be in the interests of America’s suburbanites or, ultimately, anyone else. Redistribution kills the growth that benefits everyone. Once voters realize that there has never been a president more ideologically opposed to the suburbs, or more reliant on redistribution as a policy, they should know what to do – especially all those suburbanites on whose judgment the election itself will turn.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of the new book, Spreading the Wealth: How Obama Is Robbing the Suburbs to Pay for the Cities.

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