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Obama Opens Up to the Capital City

On Monday, the inaugural parade will march past the John A. Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, where the District of Columbia’s government does its business.

The viewing stand erected for the occasion will be outfitted with a banner that reads, “A More Perfect Union Must Include Full Democracy in DC.”

If spectators look carefully, when the presidential motorcade drives by, they’ll see that President Barack Obama agrees. Earlier this week, the White House announced that all official presidential vehicles would be outfitted with D.C.’s standard license plates, which bear the motto “Taxation Without Representation.” And local officials and advocates hope the president doesn’t stop there, as they push an April ballot initiative that would unlink the District’s budget from congressional approval.

A comment on the District’s lack of voting rights in Congress, the license plates have for the past decade been issued automatically to any resident who registers a vehicle locally; to get a different tag, the driver would have to opt out. Throughout his first term in office, Obama did just that.

But on the heels of a grass-roots campaign by local activists and the D.C. Council that culminated in a meeting with councilmembers and the White House director of intergovernmental affairs, Obama made the decision to opt in.

“President Obama has lived in the District now for four years, and has seen first-hand how patently unfair it is for working families in D.C. to work hard, raise children and pay taxes, without having a vote in Congress,” Keith Maley, a White House spokesman, said in a statement.

Political cynics could argue that Obama supported expanded D.C. autonomy all along but was not willing, until now, to risk alienating adversaries.

But, after four years in office expressing support for expanded D.C. autonomy largely from the sidelines, Obama’s sudden decision to sport “Taxation Without Representation” tags is causing a stir. Could it mean a new level of presidential involvement in local affairs over the next four years, particularly at a time when there are a number of issues on and off Capitol Hill where White House support could be pivotal?

The symbolism of displaying the license plates is in itself a statement not to be undermined, D.C. political watchers say, though they cite the circumstances leading up to the decision as greater cause for optimism.

For one thing, the White House listened to local concerns and proactively responded. And then, days later, there was Maley’s statement, which many say had a force behind it they had not seen before from the Obama administration.

“Attaching these plates to the presidential vehicles demonstrates the President’s commitment to the principle of full representation for the people of the District of Columbia and his willingness to fight for voting rights, Home Rule and budget autonomy for the District,” Maley said.

“The statement is much stronger than just license plates,” said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent Gray. “It’s clear that they are looking to move forward.”

The most immediate area where Obama could use his leverage would be on budget autonomy, which would unlink the District’s budget from the congressional appropriations process and spare the city the anxiety of a shutdown each time Congress nears a spending deal stalemate.

Thanks in part to champions in Congress such as House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the concept of budget autonomy gained traction over the past year, but efforts to pass a bill were derailed by threats of policy riders.

In April, D.C. voters will weigh in on a budget autonomy charter referendum on a special election ballot, but this local effort could fall victim to a court challenge, punting the issue back to Capitol Hill.

“If he wanted to leave his mark, he would find a very substantial barrier to what we really want, which is the fullest equality with other Americans,” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said of Obama. “But I think that there is every reason for him to want to work with us on a strategy for budget autonomy. … I want the president to leave a legacy.”

Obama has expressed support for D.C. budget autonomy in the past, but so far he has not put significant muscle behind it. Norton acknowledged that she, along with others, was “disappointed” by Obama’s lack of “action” and “boldness” during his first term.

An Issa spokesman said the Oversight and Government Reform Committee had reached out to the administration on a number of local issues over the past two years, but the administration never called back.

Issa’s mentor, former Oversight Chairman Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., wondered whether Obama hadn’t already missed his window to act, which might have come in 2009 when an all-Democratic Congress appeared tantalizingly close to passing a D.C. voting rights bill.

But James Jones, communications director for DC Vote, said what really happens now is going to be wait and see.

“The question is, with so much going on, whether when we really need [Obama] to step up, will he?” Jones said. “I don’t think this statement changes that fundamental question.”

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