A ‘problem solver’ president could turn Baltimore around, like Obama did for Detroit

For some eight years, the residents of Detroit witnessed first-hand the power of compassionate, competent presidential leadership that changed the arc of an emblematic American city’s path from despair and displacement to renewed health and vitality.

Rather than learning from that experience, however, we are instead being versed in power of a very different kind through a puerile tweetstorm that is deriding and disrespecting the citizens, the history and the aspirations of another great American city – Baltimore.


The irony is that a true “problem solver” and “builder” could actually help to turn a city around. We’ve seen it before.

Shortly after assuming office, and during one of the darkest periods in Detroit’s recent history, the Obama administration reached out to our city with heart, expertise and imagination. With the city facing automotive bankruptcies, political corruption scandals and the housing foreclosure crisis, the President told his cabinet that he would not permit Detroit to become the Katrina of his administration. They began by providing temporary federal assistance that averted the collapse of the nation’s auto industry, both the emblem and foundation of Detroit’s economy.


And it wasn’t a one-and-done engagement. A story too-little known is the administration’s subsequent effort to engage its top talent with Detroit’s political, civic, community and philanthropic stakeholders as part of the “Strong Cities, Strong Communities” program. It was an engagement based first on listening and then studying to understand the roots of the city’s decades-in-the-making problems. This partnership proceeded to find workable solutions with resources at hand from all sectors across the city.

Those efforts helped create a scaffolding that supported Detroit even as it fell into the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. After bankruptcy was declared in 2013, I received a call from the administration’s chief economic adviser, who observed that although the administration couldn’t forgive the city’s mounting debt or pass emergency legislation for the benefit of a single city, it wanted to explore other options to help and asked us to propose options to keep Detroit afloat.

Detroit leaders from a range of sectors met with members of the White House to test the limits of the ideas presented in that proposal. Conversations considered the flexibility of housing programs, debated how a regulatory barrier to a proposed light rail line might be waived and explored how the administration’s expertise in technology, municipal innovation and other areas could be tapped.

The ideas that emerged were then shopped around to federal agencies to test their feasibility. Within a few months, the administration assembled a $300 million aid package – including contributions from business and philanthropy. It isn’t possible to overstate the power of that package, which boosted the city’s flagging fortunes and helped Detroit gain the momentum to exit bankruptcy in months rather than years.

The camaraderie exhibited during that time was rooted in something deeper than politics, or even pragmatism. It was instead centered in the realization that any federal administration must be the proud and powerful steward of all this nation’s cities, large and small, vibrant and struggling. It must set an example for true leadership and unity. That is how change happens. This is how one American city was saved.

The tragedy is that the current White House seems utterly incapable of rising to the collaborative nature of the real American spirit. Like Detroit, Baltimore too can use a helping hand. Cities and towns across the country are attempting to solve the greatest challenges of this century. Their leaders are looking for partnership from an administration that understands great ideas have no party, and the responsibility of solving difficult problems falls on the shoulders of every American -- including the president. It is only through collaboration and respect that we reach our full potential and truly become the United States of America.

Rip Rapson is president and CEO of The Kresge Foundation, a Michigan-based private, national foundation dedicated to expanding opportunities in America’s cities through grantmaking and social investing. Twitter: @RipRapson.