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President Obama will always be welcome in Madison. But it is unfortunate that the president has scheduled his campaign-style swing here for midweek. Had he delayed for just a couple of days, Obama could have been part of a remarkable dialogue that will take place over the weekend with regard to the future of progressive communities.

Obama was the candidate of the urban archipelago, the network of college towns, medium-sized regional centers, and multiracial and multiethnic cities that never backed George Bush and longed for a president who had both the sense of place and the sense of possibility that cities offer.

As such, the president could both add to and gain from the Nov. 5-8 Future Cities 2009 conference at the State Capitol and Inn on the Park.

Future Cities 2009 will be attended by Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, leaders of the international Mayors for Peace movement to abolish nuclear weapons, academics, urban planners and activists from across the country.

The conference is billed as an initiative to "stimulate municipal efforts to engage citizens in their local democracies to promote a shift from carbon and nuclear energy sources to renewables and conservation, greener transportation and development practices, global elimination of nuclear weapons, and a transition from war spending to a peace economy."

That's an ambitious agenda but not an inappropriate one.

Municipalities such as Madison have long histories of pushing the envelope when it comes to public policy, especially on issues of war and peace and environmental protection. While federal and state governments are often slow to innovate - with progress frequently stymied by partisan and regional differences - cities tend to be more unified and thus bolder.

Hence, as Ben Manski of the Madison-based Liberty Tree Foundation and other organizers of the conference note:

• More than 1,000 mayors have now signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, pledging to work to implement the Kyoto Protocol in their own communities.

• Nearly 150 mayors in 35 states have signed on to the Mayors for Peace initiative.

• More than 400 cities and several states have moved to defend civil liberties by enacting ordinances that direct local officials to honor the Bill of Rights over the 2001 USA Patriot Act.

• Nearly 200 have, through referendum votes and resolutions, called for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

These efforts to influence and at times counteract federal policies are just one side of the coin when it comes to municipal activism. The other side involves innovation in areas such as living-wage laws, participatory budgeting initiatives that involve citizens in developing priorities with regard to taxation and spending, the development of municipally owned cable television and energy utilities, pro-pedestrian and bike-friendly transportation projects, community-supported agriculture, and moves to phase out the use of toxic pesticides and plastics.

President Obama is not necessarily on board with all these initiatives. But the president who famously worked as a community organizer on the south side of Chicago must know that cities, villages and towns - as well as counties - sustain the infrastructure of progressive and humane governance that makes the job of the federal government easier.

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Ideas generated along the urban archipelago eventually come ashore in Washington and invariably move the country in sounder directions.

The question now, of course, is whether the country will help cities to remain stable in the aftermath of a global economic crisis. It is no secret that cities, counties and states across the U.S. are struggling to balance budgets. Municipal services face growing demands - especially human services programs that serve citizens who are looking for jobs and trying to make ends meet. At the same time, urban taxpayers can only do so much.

Unfortunately, local government units that may not be "too big to fail" but that are definitely "too necessary to fail" have not enjoyed a fair share of the federal largesse.

There's a good measure of evidence to suggest that the Obama administration has a better understanding of and respect for the needs of cities than the Clinton or Bush administrations. But that respect and understanding has yet to find its full expression in federal spending or policy.

This is something that President Obama would be reminded of at the Future Cities 2009 conference.

But those who participate in this visionary gathering will get their messages to the president and to other federal policymakers. Indeed, that is part of the point of the conference: to teach urban activists to work more effectively at all levels of government. As the organizers say: "Together, we'll make plans for stronger, healthier, more vocal and more sustainable cities, towns and villages."

For more information, visit the conference website: www.FutureCities2009.org.

John Nichols is the associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com