Obama's Relations With D.C. Examined

Marc Fisher, columnist for the Washington Post, talks about whether the Obama administration will break with tradition and strengthen its relationship with Washington's city hall.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

As you just heard, one of the people Libby Lewis talked to about Mayor Fenty was Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher. We want to continue the conversation with him about the District of Columbia's relationship with the White House. So, Marc Fisher joins us from the Washington Post. Welcome to the program.

Mr. MARC FISHER (Columnist, Washington Post): Thanks so much.

HANSEN: You wrote a column before the inauguration telling President Obama about life in D.C., warts and all. And forgive me for quoting you to you, but your last paragraph says: It's been decades since a president focused attention on cities. Contrasts between haves and have nots don't make for easy political solutions. But our country's future lies in places like this. And you told us you were about the future. The district gives you plenty of chances to show it. Do you think this president will actually pay more attention to the district?

Mr. FISHER: Well, maybe marginally. Certainly in a superficial kind of way, we're already seeing that he's a big change from President Bush in that he gets around town. He goes out and plays basketball. He's hitting the restaurants, both the high-end and low-end places. So I think he's going to be a lot more evident to people who live in the District of Columbia. But is he going to really adopt an urban agenda, is he going to change the way we think about cities? I don't think there's going to be a whole lot of that, either in symbolic ways or in the real, nitty-gritty kinds of things that Mayor Fenty and others would like him to do.

HANSEN: Do you know if Mayor Fenty has been, I don't know, maybe lobbying him to take a more active role in the city?

Mr. FISHER: He has. And obviously, the city's very much struggling public school system is something that both President Obama and Mayor Fenty are very deeply interested in, and so that may turn out to be a place where they can find some common ground. But I think on most of the issues that are of special interest to the District of Columbia - they were talking about voting rights and that unusual status that the District of Columbia has, not so much as the capital city, but as the capital colony - on those kinds of issues that are near and dear to the hearts of Washingtonians, I don't expect we'll see so much from this president.

HANSEN: How does it go? I mean, why has there been a chilly relationship between the city of Washington and the White House? Is it because of the city or because of the White House?

Mr. FISHER: Well, it's really a question of the status of Washington. Washington is not like any other city. It's a special place. It was created for the purpose of being the capital. And the problem is that it's still kind of a colony. It's still more or less run by Congress. And it has been the plaything of Congress. Congress uses it to do all sorts of social experiments that they would never inflict on their own hometowns.

For example, charter schools and vouchers on the education front, or forbidding the District of Columbia having a needles program for addicts, which many other cities already have - these are the kinds of things that particularly conservative congressmen from around the country have either foisted on or prevented Washington from doing more or less to make some big public show, and it's a way that they can do these experiments without getting any grief from their own constituents.

HANSEN: So, even if President Obama wanted to do something to improve conditions in the district, it's going to come with some political baggage because Congress holds the purse strings.

Mr. FISHER: Exactly. The district is very much in the beggar position. It's got to go to Congress for its annual budget approval, and then Congress has actual line-item veto power. And so they have all kinds of control over the district that they wouldn't have over any other city, and that lends itself to this plaything kind of status. The other problem, though, is that the district really doesn't have political friends across the country. It's really not in any senator or congressman's best interests to really stick their neck out for the District of Columbia, which has no voting representation in Congress at all.

HANSEN: Marc Fisher is a columnist at the Washington Post and author of the "Raw Fisher Blog." He joined us from the Washington Post. Marc, thank you.

Mr. FISHER: Thank you very much, Liane.

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