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Public Statements

Address to the U.S. Conference of Mayors

Location: New Orleans, LA

Thank all of you for the opportunity to be here today. America's mayors have been indispensable to the progress that our nation has enjoyed over the past several years, and it's an honor to be with you.

Throughout history, cities have embodied the greatness of human civilization. Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, Paris, London, New York, Des Moines, Iowa, Manchester, New Hampshire.

When we look back across the expanse of history, the names that are synonymous with each great civilization are those of its cities. Cities are where the great dramas of cultures have played out, where the great triumphs and struggles that define a people occurred.

In America, with our high ideals of liberty and opportunity, and our rich diversity, this reality is even more apparent. Whether it be the thriving metropolises of our coastal states, the solid communities of the mid-west, or the melting pots of the southwest and south east, our cities and towns embody much that is America. They are our cultural and economic centers where the immigrants from other countries and the migrants from other parts of America join with long-established city families in the relentless pursuit of freedom and opportunity that defines the American experience.

We have seen a rebirth in our cities and towns under the progressive leadership of innovative, daring mayors. The success stories are too many to number, but they are due in great part to the men and women in this room today. And I commend all of you for your courage and vision.

I sometimes worry that America, for all our prosperity, has lost the best sense of herself; that sense that we are part of something noble; a great experiment to prove to the world that democracy is not only the most effective form of government, but also the only moral government. This mission gave a purpose to our lives as Americans beyond mere materialism. We felt more than lucky to be Americans. We felt proud.

I don't think we're all that proud anymore or that most Americans, especially the young, can see beyond the veil of their cynicism and indifference to imagine themselves as part of a cause greater than their self-interest.

Most of the blame for the cynicism that afflicts so many Americans belongs to those of us who have the honor of representing their interests in the federal government. Congress and the White House seldom seem to be occupied with great causes. Why should we wonder that our constituents are increasingly alienated from us and the work we do when so much of that work seems narrowly partisan, mindlessly political and intended to serve our ambitions at the cost of the national interest?

Politics, I tell young people, only needs the participation of good men and women to become a profession as honorable as the cause it is supposed to serve. Don't be so inward looking, don't isolate yourselves from community and country. There are great causes left that can restore your faith in an America that is greater than the sum of its special interests. Wherever there is a hungry child, a great cause exists. Wherever there is an illiterate adult, a great cause exists. Wherever there is suffering, a great cause exists. And where our cities and towns are bravely trying to restore to their neighborhoods their former vitality, a great American cause exists.

As you know better than anyone, for all the exciting progress our cities are making, there remains much work to be done. Your initiatives have helped create opportunity for a great many people. But there remain too many Americans, living in our cities, who have yet to gain advantage from our thriving economy and the technology revolution, who still despair that they will never share in the American Dream. To reach them we need to continue rethinking the way we approach the challenges of urban renewal. We must shift the focus away from a needs-based approach premised on the notion that if we pump enough money into treating the symptoms of inner-city problems, that economic development will follow.

Certainly, we need some form of basic safety net programs to provide for those in need. Certainly we need job-training programs to address very basic human problems. But that approach alone has failed to generate the sustainable economic growth that can offer opportunity to the most forgotten people in our inner cities.

One of the most encouraging signs that city leaders are looking for new approaches to old problems are the increasingly common partnerships between City Hall and community development corporations, faith-based institutions and other neighborhood organizations. Together, you are taking back the inner city one block at a time. We should provide considerably more resources and attention to building up the infrastructure for private solutions. The good people of these organizations are there every day, in the same zip code, working one-on-one with the people of their neighborhoods. They deserve our help.

By definition, however, the efforts of these organizations are small in scale. To achieve the large-scale economic development necessary for sustainable growth we need comprehensive market-based strategies.

To unleash the power of the free market system we must promote and capitalize on the strengths of our inner cities: First, strategic location, your proximity to high rent areas, business centers, transportation and communications centers; second, local market demand, there is tremendous untapped market demand in our inner cities. Though average household income may be relatively low, population density provides a tremendous consumer market for goods and services.

We need to break the stereotype of the poor inner city market. Of course, the greatest guardian of the stereotype is the federal government. In census data and income-based poverty assessments, a completely negative picture emerges of our inner cities, that doesn't simply understate the strengths of urban markets, but distorts the truth beyond recognition.

The inner-city consumer base represents an estimated $85 billion dollar annual market and you have a tremendous profit-based incentive for retailers to locate in our inner cities. But that reality gets lost in the federal government's pessimism. So, I will soon ask the Commerce Department to compile an annual report on inner-city consumer purchasing power and buying patterns designed to promote urban marketplaces. There is tremendous potential in the people and markets of our inner cities. It is a great untold story and together we must get the message out.

The most important key to progress is, of course, attracting investment. One of the surest ways to unleash free-market forces in our inner cities is to eliminate the tax on capital gains and dividends from long-term investments in inner city based businesses. This type of incentive ensures that the kinds of businesses we attract into our inner cities are profit-focused. We must move away from the subsidy mentality of economic development. A move to an inner city need not be a strictly civic-minded decision; it should be a self-interested decision as well.

The Social Compact, an organization dedicated to promoting market approaches to solving the challenges of our inner-cities, points to three vital elements to attracting investment to urban areas: buying power, stability, and security. Promoting the consumer strengths of inner-city markets, and focusing the dynamics of capital markets in these areas will go a long way toward addressing these first two components. The security issue represents a problem of a different nature.

As you all know, far better than I do, crime is a major impediment to attracting sustainable economic development to the inner city. Theft and vandalism drive up operating costs. The threat of crime makes it difficult to attract and maintain quality employees and customers.

However, here again, to minimize the impact of crime on inner-city economic development we must move away from the symptoms-based approach. Certainly, a tough response to crime is necessary. But to make lasting progress, we must address the underlying human conditions that give rise to criminal activity.

America, our cities in particular, is enjoying a general decline in crime. This is in no small part due to the aggressive and innovative policies of America's mayors. However, criminal activity among our nation's youth continues to be a major problem.

It will take all of our best efforts to get this problem under control. We have to reach at risk children at a very early age before they are ruined for life by the influences that surround them. Of course, education is critical to our efforts. But so our positive role models outside school. Even if inner city children live in decent, two parent families, they must survive in environments that would challenge the best efforts of the most loving parents. We need to find additional positive influences for these kids.

Nothing is more basic; nothing is more critical to changing the lives of our inner-city youth than providing mentors. A young boy stands at an inner city intersection and two BMWs pull up, in one is a lawyer on his way to a downtown law firm, in the other is a crack dealer. Who do you think is more likely to end up connecting with that young boy? When the light turns green, chances are the lawyer drives on to work. The crack dealer stays, and the odds stacked against that kid grow worse.

Currently there are dozen-or-so federal mentoring programs with a combined budget approaching $100 million. We should consolidate these programs into one community mentoring block grant that will be made available directly to our nation's cities.

Every day, on every street, in every neighborhood, in every city in America there is a young boy or girl who is making a decision that set the course of the rest of their life. We have to be there with them when they make that decision. Otherwise, those who wish them only misery and despair will be their counselors. That, my friends, should shame us all.

We can break the cycle of crime that robs our inner cities of their full potential, and traps children in hopelessness. You have all lent your hearts to that cause, and often to great effect. But young Americans of every economic background need role models in their daily life, and they need to see worthy role models involved in the public life of their cities and their country.

I often ask college graduates to accept a new patriotic challenge, to join together to defeat the cynicism that is enervating American public life. But I understand that to encourage young people, even affluent young people, much less those whose daily existence is a struggle, we must first challenge ourselves to give them an example worth emulating.

In Washington, we seldom do anything big enough to convince even the most gullible that we are serving a cause greater than ourselves. We act distraught over violent crime not just among our inner-city youth but in well-off communities, in places like Littleton, Colorado.

But how do our children see us respond to that tragedy. They see us engage in our typical partisanship. They see Congressional Republicans accuse Democrats of being soft on crime, and Democrats jockey for advantage on gun control questions. They see the President criticize Hollywood for driving our culture toward the bottom after he caters to them for campaign contributions. Juvenile violence shouldn't be a sound bite. It should be a cause for which we at least temporarily suspend our partisan Kabuki theater.

The higher ground for all of us has become the politically advantageous ground. I wonder if we know what the concept of country means anymore. It's not supposed to be a synonym for party.

The patriotic challenge I offer to our children would better be offered to the Congress and the President. And you are the good people who should issue the challenge? Challenge us to be, like so many of you, problem solvers, truth-tellers, patriots, who love our communities and our country more than we love the acclaim of political success.

My father's generation fought the depression and the Second World War. My generation fought the Cold War. They were noble causes that gave our public lives meaning. They gave even the most obscure lives historical importance. They offered us a form of immortality. Even after our names are forgotten the world will still remember what we did.

When I was a young man, I thought glory was the highest ambition, and all glory was self-glory. My parents and the Naval Academy tried to teach me otherwise. But I didn't understand the lesson until later in life, when I confronted challenges I never expected to face.

I discovered then how dependant I was on others, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, they gave me a larger sense of myself. Nothing is more liberating than to fight for a cause larger than yourself; something that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone.

Let us all work together for a cause greater than ourselves. Let us recall Americans to the faith that has made us the greatest force for good on earth. Let us help you build neighborhoods that every American, no matter where they live, can point to with pride and say this is my country, these are my people. Let us prove once again that people who are free to act in their own interests will conceive their interests in an enlightened way, and will gratefully accept the obligation of freedom to make of our wealth and power a civilization for the ages - a civilization in which all people share in the promise of freedom.

Thank you.

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