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The Biden Agenda Doesn’t Run Through Washington

How the president can partner directly with America’s biggest cities and suburbs—even in the reddest states

President Joe Biden can’t expect a lot of cooperation from Texas. That much has been made clear by state Republicans’ behavior in just the past three months. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a far-fetched federal lawsuit to overturn Biden’s victory. After that failed, he brought a suit against the new administration’s plan to pause immigration deportations only two days into Biden’s presidency. Just days after that, Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order pledging to fight Biden’s climate-change agenda—and when a bitter winter storm knocked out the state’s power, Abbott erroneously blamed Democrats and renewable energy for the crisis. For the Republicans who dominate Texas politics, Biden’s honeymoon ended before he had unpacked all his boxes in the White House.

But the leadership in Harris County, Texas, the third-largest county in the country and home to Houston, responded to Biden’s ascendance with a very different attitude. The county’s chief elected official, Lina Hidalgo—a Democrat, Colombian immigrant, and 30-year-old Stanford graduate—views the Biden administration as something like the arrival of the cavalry.

After taking office in 2019, Hidalgo dealt with a Trump administration whose attitude toward the nation’s biggest cities and inner suburbs ranged from indifference to open hostility. The Republican-ruled state government has been equally combative. In recent years, Abbott and the legislature have grown more and more assertive in overriding policies from the state’s Democratic-leaning metropolitan centers. (On Monday, Abbott endorsed legislation that would ban the innovative measures—such as keeping polls open later in the day during the early-voting period—that Harris County used to expand voter turnout last fall to a 30-year high.) After years of these headwinds, Hidalgo is eager to work with the Biden administration on a range of issues, including pandemic recovery; expanding access to health care, transportation, and affordable housing; and combatting local flooding linked to climate change. Republican leaders in Texas have been “targeting local governments as their political tool, and it almost seems they keep a to-do list of what counties and cities are doing so they can cancel it out at the next session,” Hidalgo, one of Biden’s hosts when he recently toured damage from the storm in Houston, told me. “Being able to work with someone—anyone—helps.”

Hidalgo’s enthusiasm about working with Biden illustrates the president’s opportunity to fundamentally rethink the way the federal government pursues its domestic goals. Biden could advance both his agenda and his political interests by channeling his policies through major metropolitan areas, without relying on states as his principal partners, as previous White Houses have traditionally done.

Cities and their inner suburbs need an immediate lifeline from Washington to stabilize their finances after the devastation of the pandemic. But once those communities regain their balance, they could become crucial allies for Biden. By working with big metros, the president would be aligning federal policy with powerful economic, social, and electoral trends—and empowering local officials overwhelmingly sympathetic to his core objectives. If Biden can forge such partnerships, he could both ignite a new wave of local innovation and solidify the Democratic Party’s advantage in the fast-growing, diverse, and well-educated metro areas that have become the bedrock of its electoral coalition. “If Joe Biden could be the president who reclaimed federalism and rewrote federalism for this next generation,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told me, “I think that’s going to be one of his most lasting legacies.”

Donald Trump, though himself a native New Yorker, had little use for cities except to condemn them, using them as a foil to energize his predominantly nonurban base. He not only targeted urban areas with inflammatory rhetoric, but also assaulted them with policy—including his attempt to cut off federal funding to those that would not fully cooperate with immigration authorities and his deployment of federal law enforcement into Democratic-run cities last year over the objection of local officials. Congressional Republicans, few of whom now represent urban voters, were no warmer: In negotiations on a COVID-19 relief plan last year, for example, then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked additional aid to state and local governments whose budgets had been ravaged by the pandemic, thus pressuring them to cut key services. The Trump administration didn’t communicate much with local governments, Garcetti said. “And worse than that, obviously, what they’ve communicated—whether it’s McConnell or others—is: Drop dead.”

Biden has a very different history. His political career began five decades ago in local government, when he won a seat on the New Castle County Council in northern Delaware. As vice president, he worked closely with mayors while implementing the economic-recovery plan that Barack Obama signed into law in 2009. He has selected three current or former mayors for his Cabinet: Pete Buttigieg at the Department of Transportation, Marcia Fudge at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Marty Walsh at the Department of Labor. Biden made one of his first postelection appearances before the advocacy group the National League of Cities, where he insisted that cooperation with urban areas would be crucial to his success on the biggest challenges he faces, including the pandemic and racial and economic inequality. “American cities are on the front lines of all of these crises,” Biden said.

Democratic presidents almost always express some version of that sentiment. But Biden has good reason to translate it into a genuine reassessment of how the federal government implements its domestic policies. Any president who wants to accelerate economic recovery, widen the circle of opportunity, close the racial wealth gap, reduce carbon emissions, and rethink the country’s education system must recognize that cities and their inner suburbs are the principal arena in which those efforts will succeed or fail.

On most issues—whether it’s health care, infrastructure, or education—the federal government’s default position for decades has been to work with states, not cities or counties. This approach has typically seemed logical: America has only 50 states, compared with more than 19,000 cities and towns and more than 3,100 counties. But in many ways, that strategy now seems anachronistic, especially for a Democratic president.

The most obvious reason is that in this highly polarized era, the states controlled by Republican governors or legislators—currently slightly more than half of all the states—are hostile to almost everything a Democratic president wants to do. In the most consequential recent example, red states were conspicuously slower than blue states to expand Medicaid to more of the working poor following the passage of the Affordable Care Act. Eleven years after the ACA became law, 12 states with Republican-controlled legislatures (most of them also with Republican governors) still haven’t done so. During Obama’s presidency, coalitions of red states, many of them organized by Texas, filed a series of lawsuits to block the administration’s agenda on immigration, health care, climate, and other concerns. Texas’s success at winning a nationwide injunction against Biden’s immigration-enforcement policies less than a week after his inauguration shows that the new president can expect more of the same. Far from partnering with Biden, red states are much more likely to fight him using every tool at their disposal.

Relying on states as partners also ignores the increasing economic importance of the big metro areas, particularly in the growing knowledge-based economy. Since the late 20th century, when many cities seemed to be facing terminal decline, “we’ve had a radical economic restructuring,” says Bruce Katz, a former HUD chief of staff and now a distinguished fellow at Drexel University’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation. “What the market is rewarding all over the world is metropolitan concentration and agglomeration.” The 100 largest U.S. counties now account for more than half of the nation’s total economic output, nearly half of its jobs, and more than two-fifths of the total population—measurable increases from 2010, according to tabulations provided to me by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Additionally, about three-fifths of nonwhite Americans and more than two-thirds of the country’s immigrants live in just those 100 largest counties.

Targeting metro areas as the principal partner for federal action would also acknowledge the rapidly evolving electoral landscape. From the 1960s through the ’90s, urban politics was defined by endemic conflict between inner cities, which were largely minority communities and tilted Democratic, and their suburbs, which were filled with Republican-leaning white-flight families. But over roughly the past 20 years, and especially during the Trump era, a different dividing line has emerged. Economic opportunities, especially in the digital economy, have attracted more white people back to central cities, and suburbs have diversified with the migration of more Black, Latino, and Asian American families. Economic ties between central cities and their surrounding suburbs have solidified.

The result: More and more, cities and their inner suburbs find their interests converging—while those interests simultaneously diverge from the conservative priorities of the mostly white people living in small-town and rural places away from urban centers. As November’s presidential results demonstrated, if you draw an imaginary beltway around almost any major metropolitan area, Democrats are growing stronger inside that circle, while Republicans are consolidating their position outside of it. Tabulations by The Daily Yonder, a website focusing on rural issues, found that Biden not only won the counties anchored by the nation’s biggest urban centers by a crushing 13 million votes, but also carried their inner suburbs by more than 4 million, and even won midsize urban centers by 1.5 million or so. (Those three categories of communities provided almost four-fifths of all Biden’s votes.) Trump dominated the smaller places beyond those centers, but that wasn’t nearly enough for him to overcome Biden’s advantage in the metro areas.

The political convergence between cities and inner suburbs would multiply the impact of any Biden partnership with local leaders: He has the chance to build alliances—and thus extend policies—across entire metropolitan regions, achieving greater scale than he could by working with central cities alone. “Regionalism becomes much more realistic today than it ever was before,” Julián Castro, the HUD secretary under Obama and a former mayor of San Antonio, told me. This convergence also underscores another reason for Biden to channel his agenda through metropolitan areas: Most of them are already moving in the direction he wants to go. Because Trump and the previous Republican Congress treated cities and their inner suburbs with such hostility, many were forced to develop their own capacities to respond to a broad range of domestic challenges that in the past they might have left to state or federal officials. Cities still have plenty of problems, but in the cold wind of the Trump years, the best of them grew more creative about nurturing new approaches and building new coalitions that engage business, labor, and philanthropy for region-wide solutions. “It’s not just that these urban counties … are home to the bulk of the nation’s economy and represent the future,” says Amy Liu, the vice president and director of Brookings’s Metropolitan Policy Program (MPP). “It’s that these places are more likely to come up with the innovative solutions that are going to put the U.S. back into global leadership.”

This means that on almost any domestic issue Biden cares about, he doesn’t have to start from scratch. Hundreds of mayors and county executives, such as Garcetti and Hidalgo, are already attempting to accomplish many of the same goals—and they are eager for federal help that could scale their efforts. Although Biden’s agenda may provoke opposition from the majority of Republican governors and state legislators, this army of largely Democratic local officials provides him with “a coalition of the willing,” as Mark Muro, the MPP’s policy director, put it. Garcetti, who has worked to organize mayors on climate, transportation, and other issues, agrees. “I think that we have definitely increased our capacity,” he said. “But we haven’t given up on the idea that Washington will be a partner.”

Biden may have the greatest opportunity to partner with cities on the problem that he’s described as the “No. 1 issue facing humanity” and an “existential threat”: global climate change.

Despite his strong words, Biden faces structural political constraints that could prevent him from responding sufficiently to the problem. In Congress, the prospect of meaningful legislative action is virtually precluded by what I’ve called “the brown blockade”: the tendency of the states most reliant on the fossil-fuel economy to elect Republicans opposed to any efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Biden may respond to that legislative stalemate by imposing tough climate regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency, but the conservative majority on the Supreme Court could block him there too—just as it sided with mostly red states to bar some of Obama’s emissions regulations on power plants.

Partnership with cities offers Biden his best way out of this box. With Trump undoing almost all of Obama’s federal efforts to fight climate change, hundreds of mayors committed to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and reducing greenhouse-gas emissions through organizations such as America’s Pledge and Climate Mayors. Brookings recently reported that 45 of the nation’s 100 largest cities have established specific commitments for reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions, and another 22 have set more general reduction goals. The municipal organizing during the Trump years established “some really important groundwork,” Antha Williams, the global head of climate and environment at Bloomberg Philanthropies, told me. “We have a bunch of leaders who have now run their political races on climate change and won, and now we are pivoting to what has to be the time for action.”

Biden has many options for boosting cities’ climate efforts in ways that advance his own goals. He could start by helping them transition their transportation fleets to electric vehicles. Biden laid down a bold marker in his first week as president when he said that he wanted to replace the federal government’s entire 650,000-vehicle fleet with fully electric options—a way of using Washington’s purchasing power to turbocharge the market for electric vehicles. But Biden can virtually double his reach by nudging municipal governments to electrify too: According to Bloomberg’s calculations, they have a combined fleet that’s nearly as large, about 600,000 vehicles.

Some local governments are moving on their own to integrate more electric vehicles, but progress has been slow. And supply simply isn’t available right now for some of the vehicles that cities want to electrify, such as school and transit buses. Federal grants to cities to buy electric vehicles could speed up the transition. “There’s a bottleneck with manufacturers who are saying, ‘There’s not the market, so we’re not making them,’” Williams said. “Cities are saying, ‘We can’t buy them, because they don’t exist.’”

“Having the signal that the market’s going to be there because the weight of the federal government is behind it makes a really big difference,” she added.

Rethinking energy usage in buildings, also a Biden priority, could be another shared goal. Lauren Faber O’Connor, Los Angeles’s chief sustainability officer, says the federal government has a huge opportunity to cut emissions and add jobs by giving cities money to undertake energy-efficiency retrofits in public and private structures. “Every building in the country is basically a shovel-ready project,” she told me. Electricity generation offers yet another chance for partnership, as Castro pointed out to me. Biden wants to require all utilities, public and private, to generate 100 percent of their electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2035. While such a mandate faces difficult odds of surviving Congress or the courts, many municipally owned utilities would voluntarily enlist in such a crusade, Castro predicts. They have been “much more willing than investor-owned utilities to invest in renewable energy and take on green-economy initiatives,” he said.

Biden also has huge opportunities to partner with cities to more broadly rethink policy around transportation, now the single largest source of U.S. carbon emissions. Almost all federal transportation money is now distributed through states, producing frustration in urban areas that too much funding goes to building roads and highways—especially in rural areas—rather than to mass-transit projects. In recent years, “roads were being paved that had more cows walking on them than people driving on them,” former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, now a professor of practice at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, told me. “The money gets used for political chits that governors need.”

In Houston, Hidalgo’s fight with the state over a crucial transportation project is an example of counties’ and cities’ funding struggles. She’s engaged in a lengthy, but fruitless, effort to redirect transportation money from a planned expansion of Interstate 45, through the center of the city, toward greater investment in mass-transit options, which are few in Houston. “We’ve tried so hard, as the city and the county, to get them to modify this I-45 expansion,” Hidalgo said, noting that the county hired a Rice University expert to develop an alternative plan. “But they are just unwilling.” The state planning board that controls the decision is “set up to increase the power of the nonurban areas.”

To Hidalgo, this is precisely the sort of anti-metro impulse in red states that the Biden administration could combat, since the highway project is being funded largely with federal money. “I’m hoping that a Biden administration that is committed to modern and effective transportation might … step in and say, ‘Look, why do we need to keep building this kind of highway that really nobody wants and hurts on so many other issues—including, by the way, encouraging the [housing] sprawl that causes us to flood?’” she said.

Beyond Houston, cities across the country are trying to reduce residents’ long-term dependence on cars. Even in the ultimate car city, Los Angeles, voters approved a visionary ballot measure in 2016 that will raise $120 billion over the succeeding 40 years to fund mass-transit improvements through a permanent increase in the sales tax. The next year, Garcetti founded an organization, Accelerator for America, that has worked with other cities to pass their own, similar ballot measures.

Yusef Robb, a senior adviser at Accelerator for America, told me that Los Angeles’s experience offers one model for Biden to reimagine federal transportation programs: providing matching grants to cities and metro areas that raise their own money for transit initiatives. Such an approach could also benefit rural communities, he said: If metro areas raise their own taxes to partially fund transit improvements, that would free up more federal dollars for nonurban places with a smaller tax base.

Mass-transit investment is only one example of how Washington could rethink transportation in partnership with big metros. Shouldn’t a 21st-century transportation plan also fund denser development, especially around transit hubs, to reduce the need to commute at all? Robb asked. Shouldn’t it examine how to better connect those hubs through greener options such as scooters, bicycles, ride-shares, and electric vehicles? Or why not explore what Garcetti calls an even more radical idea: free mass transit? “It would help get people out of cars. It would help get ridership back” after the pandemic, Garcetti said, adding that L.A. is studying the idea. If the federal government gave the city money for a pilot program, it could “double the number of people taking transit, because it was free or very, very low-cost for most people,” he said. That would have significant environmental and economic-justice impacts, and could encourage industry to produce greener transportation options, Garcetti said: “There’s a whole virtuous cycle in this.”

The biggest change available to Biden cuts across the full range of domestic policies. Nothing would contribute more to a new federalism than preventing red-state governors and legislatures from standing in between Biden and the metro areas sympathetic to his goals.

The past decade’s experience with the Affordable Care Act crystallizes the problem. In the red states that have refused to expand Medicaid, many local officials in the largest cities and counties might welcome the opportunity to cover more of the uninsured. Under current law, though, counties and cities can only partner with Washington to expand Medicaid if their governor agrees to forward their application, says Cindy Mann, who ran the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama.

In most, if not all, red states, Republican governors would likely block such federal-local partnerships, but a Democratic-controlled Congress could change the ACA to allow local governments to bypass those governors—and even to make such partnerships more financially feasible for the locales by providing them with enhanced federal funding. Authorizing local governments to expand coverage directly would make a big dent in access to health care, since most of the uninsured in those red states live in urban areas—the five biggest Texas counties, for instance, account for nearly half of the state’s uninsured. And a law empowering local governments to expand Medicaid might be easier to pass through Congress than an alternative Biden has already floated: automatically enrolling eligible Americans in the non-expansion states into a new “public option.”

The principle of allowing cities and counties to circumvent hostile governors could provide the cornerstone for this new federalism. The sweeping immigration-reform bill Biden proposed in late February gestures in this direction: It includes a small pilot program to allow cities or counties facing a population squeeze to directly petition the federal government to obtain new green cards for immigrants willing to settle there. Biden could apply that instinct more powerfully by allowing cities and counties to participate, even if their state refuses to, in any new funding stream he establishes, such as money for universal pre-K and expanded child-care programs, or even his call for tuition-free community college.

During his two terms as president, Obama took some initial steps toward allying the federal government more directly with local governments. The former president created an especially valuable model through a set of programs that required local governments to compete for federal grants by assembling coalitions of local businesses, educational institutions, and philanthropies. He applied that approach most prominently to the “race to the top” educational grants that provided new dollars to districts that committed to sweeping reforms. He also made cities compete to host new advanced-manufacturing research centers. Although only a handful of applicants ever won funding in either of those competitions, many communities found that just convening all the local players behind a shared vision spurred fresh thinking and new initiatives, the MPP’s Liu and other experts in urban policy note.

Biden could build on that precedent, many of those experts told me, by incorporating into his plans funding incentives for cities to work with their surrounding counties. “Inducements for cooperation could be a really transformative thing,” says Brooks Rainwater, the director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions. “In the same way the politics is converging within broader metro areas, the economies really have converged in the last couple of decades. You could really see the federal government encourage that.”

Promoting such regionalism would reflect the realities of how problems are actually solved—or not—in today’s economy. It would also advance the Democrats’ political goal of encouraging inner suburbs, already trending toward them in the Trump era, to see their interests as aligned with those of central cities. That process of strengthening a sense of shared purpose could reach far beyond the government toward a much broader range of local constituencies. “What I see is a coalition of business, civic, and philanthropic leaders around the country committing to a set of national goals through local action,” Liu told me. “I could imagine CEO circles with mayors in different parts of the country committing to drive those goals in those regions, and the federal government could easily align their resources to help regions meet their goals.”

Washington’s role in this new federalism doesn’t need to be limited to writing checks. Biden could also advance his agenda by pushing local governments to adopt policies consistent with his priorities. The president, for instance, has endorsed a $15 minimum wage and mandatory paid leave for illness or family needs, such as the birth of a child. Save for what he’s able to shoehorn into the special budget “reconciliation” process that can clear the Senate with just a majority vote, he is unlikely to pass those measures through Congress. But some local governments have already adopted those policies, and Biden could extend them to millions of more workers by campaigning to win them approval in more cities, either through personal appearances or by dispatching his Cabinet secretaries. “There is a groundswell of urban-policy experimentation on the wage and labor sector that could be supported on the national level,” Rainwater told me.

With Biden’s emphasis on fostering national unity, his instinct likely will be to search for ways to disperse economic growth more widely into small-town and rural areas where Republicans dominate. (His chief of staff, Ronald Klain, spent the past few years working for the AOL founder Steve Case’s investment fund to encourage more venture-capital financing in midsize and smaller cities.) Spreading the wealth around would fulfill a real need: The growing concentration of economic activity into a few superstar cities has left everyone frustrated. People living outside those golden circles feel deprived of opportunity, and those within them feel crushed by traffic, soaring housing prices, and neighborhood displacement. By showing the possibilities of remote work and the potential risks of density, the pandemic might encourage more people to move farther away from crowded metropolitan areas.

Yet, on both economic and political grounds, it would be a mistake for Biden to divert his attention too much from the largest metropolitan areas. Even if some remote workers flee big-city rents, the underlying trends in the information-age economy that reward the concentration of talent, investment, and ideas in dense metro areas show no signs of slackening. Cities and their inner suburbs are likely to remain America’s driving engine of economic innovation, racial and religious diversity, and population growth. America’s biggest challenges, from social inequality to racial equity to climate change, will either get solved in those large metro areas or they won’t get solved at all.

The political case for Biden to focus primarily on big metros is equally compelling. He can try to attract more voters in Trump country by steering resources toward their tangible needs: better infrastructure, more widely available broadband, more access to health care, and stronger economic development. But so long as the GOP continues to stoke those voters’ racial and cultural resentments—and as Democrats more unreservedly embrace racial and cultural liberalism—Biden is likely to have only limited success, at most. For the foreseeable future, Democrats’ ability to hold on to power in Washington will depend mostly on their capacity to maximize support in and around the nation’s largest cities.

That reality leaves Biden facing what, in the end, may be a straightforward equation. In an era of intense political polarization and widening social division, Biden’s best chance at enlarging his political support—and recording gains on the issues he cares most about—may come from finding new ways to work with the places that most want to work with him. If Biden ever doubts that proposition, he need only remember the immense gulf between the hostility he’s facing from all of Texas’s statewide Republican officials and the excitement that’s greeted his victory from the leaders of the state’s biggest cities. “He says he will govern for everyone, and I’m sure he is going to continue to try to reach out to those rural, red areas,” Hidalgo said. “But ultimately it is these urban areas where his bread is buttered.”