If Joe Biden is going to make a success of his promise to be a president for “all Americans,” he would do well to study how mayors of politically mixed cities manage the competing interests of Democrats and Republicans. Like the city where I’m the mayor: Troy, Mich., a community of 90,000 people in the southeastern part of the state.
Unfortunately, Biden starts at a disadvantage because he’s unable to live among his constituents, as mayors do, seeing them in grocery stores and restaurants, at their children’s schools or while walking the dog. That’s when you can really get a feel for the variety of people’s views — not just hearing from one person about another, but directly from the individuals themselves, who seldom hold straight party-line opinions, preferring instead to pick and choose policies from both sides that seem best to them. The president should remember that most Americans are reddish or blueish, not doctrinaire, and the policies most likely to succeed will draw support from both sides.
Biden will also need to fight against the tendency of those who have worked in Washington for decades to think cable news and Twitter feeds are reality. Many Troy residents lately have been focused on matters like an Interstate 75 highway construction project that has dramatically increased traffic noise in residential neighborhoods. The folks watch what’s going on in Washington, sometimes with horror, but they, like millions of Americans, have immediate concerns about living their regular everyday lives — especially about the challenges of getting by during a time of economic instability and a
One way to overcome these obstacles would be for the president to go on a “mayors tour” of America, and not just in cities that are Democratic strongholds. Mayors have a feel for local residents, we hear about their concerns and their desires, and we can convey that to him. “Optics” are always a Washington concern, and the optics of the president hunkering down with mayors and residents — maybe in a town-hall format held in an actual town hall for a change — would send a strong message that the administration is interested in “all Americans.”
He could start right here in Troy. I’d introduce him to Democratic supporters, but also to residents who didn’t vote for him and are skeptical that he will actually be able to make a difference as we continue to struggle with the pandemic and economic troubles. He could see the office buildings that have been mostly empty since last March, and I could introduce him to the owners of some of these buildings — not big corporations but smaller family real estate companies — who depend on the office rents to get by.
If Biden came to Troy, he could also see the direct effect of “working remotely” by meeting our local restaurant and retail store owners, who are just barely hanging on, if they haven’t already gone out of business. These are the people I see and speak with every day. Some are upbeat, but some look as though they haven’t slept in months and are constantly on the verge of tears. Their concerns don’t know party lines; they’re just American worries, plain and simple.
Perhaps the president could go with me to one of our local Kroger supermarkets and meet some shoppers. I see them all the time — some wear masks with political slogans making clear that the masks are not worn happily, some wear two masks and wouldn’t dream of getting within six feet of another person in public. But I represent all of them, no matter their political leanings or whom they voted for in the last election.
And we’re just one city. Imagine the impact of doing this throughout the country — and occasionally dispatching senior staff and administration officials for follow-up visits. The president met plenty of people on the campaign trail, but that was when he was trying to get their votes. Now he has the job, and hearing from mayors and residents could help him do it.
Ethan Baker is the mayor of Troy, Mich.