In a sensitive speech before an audience of children who represent the future of Los Angeles after the riot, President Bush held out the promise of specific, new help for America's struggling cities.
POLICY DIRECTION: He embraced urban enterprise zones, a concept that promises tax relief and other incentives for entrepreneurs and investors who situate businesses and create jobs in inner cities. He also vowed to do more than pay lip service to these zones. He vowed to work with Congress toward bipartisan relief--a promise that could break the gridlock between legislative and executive branches.
The President also pledged a small pot of new money specifically for Los Angeles: $19 million for a "Weed and Seed" program to help weed out drug dealers and criminals and help seed educational, employment and social service initiatives.
While $19 million is a pittance for a city that has suffered as much as $1 billion in losses from the riot, the new money will be a start. And the "Weed and Seed" idea has merit because it recognizes that public safety and prosperity go hand-in-hand in urban communities. A city needs to be tough in dealing with problems, but it also must have a heart.
The President and Congress must come up with much more money, of course. Bush, the Republicans and the Democrats need to agree on how to make the "peace dividend" work for the benefit of people in desperate need here at home.
In the wake of the Los Angeles riot, federal authorities already have identified $300 million available for emergency relief and another $300 million for loans to small businesses. Speedy delivery of those public funds, in tandem with a huge private and philanthropic commitment, is needed to rebuild Los Angeles.
PERSONAL ENGAGEMENT: Bush correctly emphasized that Los Angeles is not alone: "Things aren't right in too many cities across our country. And we must not return to the status quo. Not here--not in any city where the system perpetuates failure and hatred and poverty and despair."
But it is good that President Bush came to Los Angeles. He needed to see firsthand the smoldering ruins. He needed to listen in person to grieving families who lost sons or daughters; suffering men and women who lost businesses or jobs; anguished people who lost housing, services, a sense of community. He needed to hear from frightened children who wonder about their future. Bush also needed to remind Americans forcefully that we cannot ignore racism, poverty or crime--even if these cancers do not touch every neighborhood--and expect to live in safety or peace.
Although Bush did not abandon his Republican approach to domestic policy problems, he did put hard-core politics on hold as he preached against hate and violence, and proselytized about what this nation needs to do for our children. Bush cannot be expected to endorse traditional Democratic remedies to the welfare, education and affordable-housing problems, but he can be asked to give high priority to these pressing needs.
In the past, President Bush has been criticized justifiably for his inattention to America's cities. The Los Angeles riot seems to have awakened Bush to the urgent needs of urban America. His speech at the Challenger Boys' and Girls' Club in South Los Angeles sounded promising. Let's hope the President will deliver on his promise for "a hopeful future for our children."