CLEVELAND — If President-elect Bill Clinton ever doubts that his promise for a better future has raised hopes across America, even in places where expectations are notoriously low, he should talk to the people of this struggling, often-ridiculed Rust Belt city.
Led by Mayor Michael White, an outspoken Clinton supporter, Cleveland's Democratic majority voted heavily for Clinton in the presidential election and now these voters are waiting anxiously for him to make good on his pledge to begin programs aimed at reviving the nation's deteriorating cities.
In fact, in unguarded moments, some Clevelanders seem downright giddy over what they expect the new President to do for them.
"Bill Clinton has tapped something in me that's made me believe again," confided Ann Bloomberg, who oversees volunteer programs and other community activities for the mayor's office. "I hate to sound like a sap, but there's a real excitement here. I guess the word is hope."
Her sentiments are shared by many city government officials in Cleveland and all across the country. At a meeting of big-city mayors in Atlanta last week, according to Mayor White, "the Democrats were unceasingly jubilant and the Republicans tried fiercely to hide their excitement."
Cleveland is plainly emblematic of the situation that most American cities find themselves in as they anticipate the new Administration. In Boston, Newark, Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago and Los Angeles as well as in Cleveland, city leaders are dusting off old proposals for federal assistance that were never funded by the Bush Administration.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has compiled a list of 7,252 projects in cities all over the country that they hope will be funded after Clinton takes office in January. The conference estimates these projects will generate 418,000 jobs.
Louisville, Ky., Mayor Jerry Abramson says the cities see themselves as "the delivery system for President-elect Clinton to be able to provide immediate economic stimulus to create jobs."
For Clinton, such enthusiasm is no doubt encouraging, but it also presents a dangerous political problem. No matter how sincere the President-elect's commitment to the cities may be, there is little doubt that fiscal realities and competing demands will limit the impact he can have on urban America.
"The greatest problem the Clinton Administration faces is unrealistic expectations," observed Dorothy B. James, a presidential scholar.
In an effort to lower expectations a bit, the President-elect is warning Americans that they should not expect "miracles" from him.
In Cleveland, high hopes for the new Administration are shared by a surprisingly diverse group of city officials, community leaders and local citizens.
Mike McDermott, who runs a city-wide housing rehabilitation program, says "there is no doubt in my mind that things are going to get better" for Cleveland under Clinton. Ben Walker, a disabled engineer who sits on the board of a local volunteer agency, views Clinton's election as "a time for rejoicing." And Evelyn Logan, a local Democratic ward leader, adds: "I campaigned hard for him because I believe he's going to do things he said he was going to do for our city."
Even members of the city's wealthy Republican business Establishment, such as Richard Pogue, a staunch supporter of President Bush and managing partner of the law firm of Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, shares the notion that the new Administration may be good for Cleveland.
"I think most of us feel the odds are pretty good that some of the new programs will be beneficial to us," said Pogue.
Yet while Clevelanders clearly expect Clinton to make good on his promise to beef up urban programs, they still know that all the problems of their city are not going to be solved by new federal aid alone. They insist they will be satisfied if Clinton simply brings about a change of direction in federal policy, which they think has punished the cities in recent years.
"I am a pragmatic idealist," said White in a lengthy interview. "I know it won't happen overnight, or even in one term. But if we could just turn the boat around and get it going in the right way . . . . We'll never get there if we keep going the wrong way."
Perhaps nowhere in the United States does the desire for a dramatic change in urban policy seem more palpable than in Cleveland, a city that has been the butt of jokes since the 1970s, when one mayor gained notoriety by setting his hair on fire and another mayor allowed the city to default on its debts.
Ever since, Clevelanders have been striving hard with a minimum of federal assistance to correct some of the problems that have contributed to their city's embarrassing reputation. To that end, corporate and community leaders spent the past decade working closely together to bring about some dramatic improvements in the city.