Editor’s note: On Friday afternoon, Oak Park Village President David Pope was in Washington, D.C., among a select group of local leaders from across the country who met with the president and some of his advisers. As one of the 70 members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ leadership group, Pope spoke with the president, the vice president and five cabinet members about implementation of the recently passed stimulus package. Pope was one of three local leaders from Illinois. Also at this meeting were Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago and Mayor Arlene Mulder of Arlington Heights.
So what was it like? Pretty interesting to be honest. Given that he was our U.S. Senator, I’d met President Obama on a number of occasions previously. But, at least for me, there was something very different about meeting him as a sitting president in the White House.
I thought more than once of the profound challenges that he will face in the months to come. Elected during a time of war and profound global economic threat, he carries the concerns and hopes of billions of people with him at his every step. Also, as our first African-American president, he faces the wildly unreasonable expectations of some, and the equally unreasonable demands for perfection by others. Both are unfair, and unrealistic.
The president has often referenced the very warm spot that our community holds in his heart, stemming from Oak Park’s unsurpassed level of support for him in his 2004 U.S. Senate bid. This past summer, after securing the Democratic nomination, he commented to me, “Look what you guys started,” referring to the people of Oak Park. This time in greeting me, he asked me to convey his appreciation to everyone “back home in Oak Park.”
In addition to standard ceremonial elements – including the larger than life introduction of the president and vice president – the meetings were an occasion for strong substantive exchange, perhaps most importantly with the cabinet secretaries and with Valerie Jarrett, special adviser to the president.
The stimulus package, formally titled the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will provide over $700 billion dollars of investment through a combination of tax credits and direct support for infrastructure, police and public safety, job creation and the arts. However, the emphasis on providing a quick injection of capital to help support the labor market means that this investment will be funneled through existing funding formulas. In turn, any fundamental changes required in how and where dollars are allocated (that is, a greater emphasis on urban re-investment) will be part of a much longer-term undertaking. This longer-term issue was an important undercurrent in the discussion with the president and cabinet secretaries, and it had been the central issue during discussions among all the mayors the night before.
Having last seen the inside of the White House as a child on a public tour, the emotional impact of this visit for me grows far more out of the intangible than the tangible. The real grandeur of the place stems from our ideals, our history and, most importantly, our future. It is the promise of this future, particularly as we face today’s challenges, that was most compelling for me during this visit.