Thursday, May 20, 2010

Buffalo, the backdrop

Advance-men versus the policy we need

By Bruce Fisher

When President Obama visits Buffalo, the symbolism of his hour-long visit will be conveyed to the worldwide audience. The White House communications team acts much like a permanent version of a campaign, a short-lived entity whose principle function is to arrange backdrops for symbolic utterances. The higher-ups have decided on a message, and they choose a backdrop – a controlled environment for the media to dutifully report on after they load up onto Air Force One, go to wherever he goes, then load back up for the haul home.

It would never have been likely that the President’s entourage would drive him the fifteen minutes north from the airport to Timothy McVeigh’s hometown of Pendleton, or the fifteen minutes west to Lackawanna, to make the point that terrorism is intolerable no matter what neighborhood it comes from. The black Suburbans could easily take him to the banks of the Niagara River, where the cameras would pan the peaceful yet secure border where both Canadians and Americans catch every last bad guy and yet keep commerce flowing right where Canadians and Americans used to liberate enslaved people traveling the Underground Railroad.

We have symbols aplenty here, a bounty of backdrops in this town of ours where McKinley got shot and where Teddy Roosevelt took the oath. The message team on Pennsylvania Avenue could go just about anywhere to send the Obama Equals Roosevelt progressive message, not just here. But there’s good scenery here, good political history here to use, here in the hometown of the inept Millard Fillmore, who thought he could compromise with pro-slavery Democrats, and of Grover Cleveland, the pro-business Democrat who kicked corrupt Republicans out of the White House not once but twice.

When I heard he was coming to the hardest of Rust Belt hard cases, I hoped that Obama and his message team would be bold – that he would come to our beloved town to send the message to the planetary audience that he truly understands the need for radical new thinking to retool American industrial competitiveness, and that to do so, he’s ready to challenge us. In Buffalo, our new president would say that it’s about time we engage tough issues, like schools that should all be like City Honors, and that more than the 26 percent of our workforce that has them should get BA’s , and that with effort, we can clean our ancient polluted sites, and seize our freshwater opportunity, but that we need to knit the raveled sleeve of our broken metros with new regional governance structures.

The energy hope is not made up. Studying up on the Obama Administration’s bold new venture into new fourth-generation nuclear reactors which are going to be built in the state of Georgia, one sees that Obama could bring that same message to the Bethlehem steel property – that 1,200-acre zone of possibility, where he could well pledge to build one of the new, clean, safe nuclear reactors that the Buffalo-founded company known as Westinghouse is building not only in America but also over in China.

Wouldn’t that be a great bit of messaging – taking a brownfield in an economically irrelevant Great Lakes town, and turning it into a generator for energy that won’t melt the icecaps atop the neighbor’s house. Squeamish environmentalists would have to applaud the bold President who offers his country an alternative to more oil disasters like the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Democrats in marginal districts would be able to say “Look, our guy wants to make the Blue States thrive again, and he’s bold enough to say it in Buffalo, where it’s a whole lot worse than here!”

Frankly, Buffalo has such a bad rep, it’s hard to see why the handlers thought that coming here with anything less than a radical message would be worth the hour-long flight from Washington.

Alas, alack and alay. Our President’s message team decided to send him to a Rust Belt town to deliver a script about American competitiveness in manufacturing. Reporters are going to drive through abandoned industrial sites, abandoned urban neighborhoods, and everywhere see evidence of failed policy, of racism, of depopulation all around, and all of it so photogenic, just two days after a new Brookings Institution report is released, a report which once again hammers home the point that manufacturing towns need something radical, and soon, before they shut down for good.

Bypassing local elites

A recent report by the international consulting firm KPMG made the point that Buffalo one of the cheapest three places in the US for doing business, even if energy costs remain a concern. That independent, non-local assessment stands in very sharp contrast to what we hear, endlessly, from our local Chamber of Commerce. (The same KPMG report points out that Ontario next door is an even better deal, in significant part because the cost of healthcare is so low, but we digress.) Somehow, though, the power of financial elites at the other end of New York State persists in steering investment in manufacturing to places very far from Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland, Akron, Youngstown, Erie, Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo – which all show up in the new Brookings Institution report as metros that are losing population and that have flat or declining incomes from manufacturing.

One would think that the last believable message one could send from Buffalo, or any of those other places that Think Tankers have once again run the numbers on, is that manufacturing in the Rust Belt is what the President wants us to think of when we think of the phrase “our future.”

Local elites want federal money for new buildings – especially for the downtown Kaleida-centered medical complex – and federal money for new pavement near the border. Local elites here long liked large projects much better than they’ve liked systemic change, because there are always a few developers, construction firms, banks, law firms and some friendly construction unions who can join in the short-term feasts.

What we want from Obama is some statement about systemic change, because all those cities that are like Buffalo have the following in common (besides local elites that like big construction projects):

* they’re all losing population;

* they’re all closely tied to the manufacture of GM or Ford cars;

* they’re all set up as multiple jurisdictions within sprawling metro areas, with suburbs that are 90% white and cities that are at or above 50% visible minority;

* in every one of them, only around 25% of the adult population has a BA.

So the President’s message team is sending him to a place that looks like everywhere from Albany to Milwaukee, from St. Louis to Wheeling, West Virginia, all with the same phenomena of localized governance, racially-polarized settlement, school districts that keep poor kids isolated from middle-class kids, sprawl without population growth, metro population shrinkage, not enough educated workers, a declining manufacturing sector – and the best these folks can think of is to say “Buffalo, the place where manufacturing is making a comeback.”

That Bethlehem Steel site is a reminder of what manufacturing once was. The first new thing that went in there after the 100-year tenure of a major steel operation was a set of eight power-generating wind turbines, and it happened because the late Laird Robertson of Ecology and Environment, Inc., convinced Joel Giambra’s people to give it a try. If there is any prospect for new economic life in the Rust Belt, the problem of energy supply is going to have to be solved. If there is any prospect of manufacturing coming back, then green, carbon-free energy will have to be the central plus to any calculation of comparative advantage.

Obama is willing to go to Georgia to send the message about nuclear power. His Energy Secretary has committed $60 billion in loan guarantees for building new nuclear power plants.

Instead, the White House advance men are pushing an event that offers Buffalo, and the Rust Belt, nothing new. It is telling the world that Buffalo, as backdrop, has something to say about the new economy ahead. One wishes, most earnestly, that the event will do that. But so far, the President’s visit reminds me of the events David Axelrod and I cooked up for our 1984 client Paul Simon to do back when Walter Mondale was running for president against Ronald Reagan. We would send Simon, the late US Senator from Illinois, to this place and that place down in central and southern Illinois, reiterating some message that we had polled up in Chicago, but that we had already delivered in the Chicago media market. Bloomington, Peoria, Pekin, Carbondale, Springfield, Galena, Rockford, Kankakee – whichever town had a radio station or a local newspaper, we’d have Simon give the Ag position paper, or the Nuclear Disarmament position paper, or the Industrial Policy paper, just to make sure that the theme of the day was addressed. We used those towns as backdrops. Where they were, and what they needed, mattered less than what Chicago needed to hear and see. Perhaps Washington merely needs to see the President visiting the Rust Belt, talking about what Washington imagines the Rust Belt to be, fixed in time, forever rusty, forever about manufacturing, forever about broken-down steel mills long since overshadowed by something new.

http://artvoice.com/issues/v9n19/buffalo_backdrop

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