D.C. officials thrilled by Obama’s license-plate decision but want more


"Dummy" DC license plates are shown during a press meeting at the White House on January 11, 2013. These "dummy" plates will eventually be placed on President Obama's limos. (Tim Craig/The Washington Post)

When they heard that the White House would use the District’s pointed “taxation without representation” license plates on presidential limousines, city leaders called friends and reporters to share the news — and made plans to take photos of the plates during Monday’s inaugural parade.

District leaders originally felt as if a special crush had just called them for a second date. They wondered whether President Obama’s decision could be a breakthrough in the District’s decades-long struggle for more autonomy.

“It’s a symbol of hope,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who added that he will “always remember” the “800-002” digits assigned to the presidential plate.

But as the initial rush of excitement fades, there’s little to suggest the White House is poised to do more on D.C. autonomy beyond its license-plate decision. In a Democratic city that gave Obama 91 percent of its vote, some officials remain conflicted about what kind of friend they have in the White House.

“The president needs to do a lot more, and it’s as simple as that,” said D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), a former four-term mayor who has pressed for statehood and voting rights since the 1970s.

With his announcement, Obama acknowledged his connection to the District and surprised city leaders by endorsing most of the city’s agenda for more autonomy.

The president said that as a four-year resident of the District, he had “seen firsthand 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.”

By agreeing to use the plates, a White House spokesman said, Obama demonstrated his “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.”

But with the president facing battles over gun control, spending and immigration reform in Congress, few expect city issues to be a priority for him.

The White House has not announced any new actions in support of District autonomy, and spokesman Jay Carney stuck to the themes of Obama’s earlier statement when reporters asked him about the matter Thursday.

A week earlier, council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) met with David Agnew, a deputy assistant to the president and director of intergovernmental affairs, after the council had approved a resolution urging Obama to use the plates.

But Mendelson said Agnew, a District resident, talked more about city schools than about other issues. And in a city where hopes for statehood or voting rights have been getting crushed for more than a generation, advocates say they are bracing to be let down again.

Obama’s general support of voting rights dates to at least July 2007, when then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) endorsed his budding presidential campaign when most Democrats expected Hillary Rodham Clinton to earn the party’s nomination.

“Folks in D.C. still don’t have a voice in their national government. That’s wrong,” Obama said after Fenty’s endorsement. “Residents shouldn’t be treated like tenants.”

But once in office, Obama, facing a recession and eager to push a major health-care bill, did little to advance the cause.

When Gray brought up the license plates during a meeting with the president in December 2010, he said Obama replied it was a decision only the Secret Service could make.

A year later, despite a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, city officials watched a deal to give the District a voting member in the House of Representatives crumble over the politics surrounding gun control. Obama largely stood on the sidelines.

The city’s relationship with Obama reached “a low point,” Gray said, in the spring of 2011 when Obama was quoted as saying, “John, you can have D.C. abortion,” during negotiations with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on a spending deal that included a ban on city spending on abortions.

“The administration has gone out of its way to ignore, belittle and diminish,” said Mark Plotkin, a leading District statehood advocate who helped convince former president Bill Clinton to briefly use the “taxation without representation” plates on his limousine in 2000.

Still, both Plotkin and Gray said the plates could be a sign that Obama is interested in giving a bit more time and attention to the city in his second term.

“There is no way anyone will ever convince me the president doesn’t care,” Gray said. “I think he gets it.”

Gray is looking for a “next step” from the president — perhaps mentioning voting rights in his inauguration speech Monday or his State of the Union address next month. Plotkin, a political analyst for WTTG Fox 5, hopes Obama also gives a speech before District residents about the issue.

Beyond hoping Obama uses his bully pulpit more forcefully, District officials see an opportunity for budget autonomy this term, although voting rights appear unlikely with continued GOP control of the House.

Gray said that the city now has “a good friend” in Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who, as leader of the committee with oversight of District affairs, has spoken in favor of greater D.C. autonomy. Former congressman Tom Davis, a Northern Virginia Republican, said the Obama administration should also appoint a senior official as a visible point person on D.C. matters.

In April, D.C. residents will vote on a controversial and legally untested referendum in which the District essentially appropriates the right to control its own finances. If approved, according to an analysis by DC Vote and D.C. Appleseed, the move can only be overturned by an affirmative vote of Congress and a signature from Obama.

Although he is waiting the president’s next move, Mendelson said Obama took a big step this week toward becoming more like any other neighbor.

“What if he had said no?” Mendelson asked. “Can you imagine how we would have felt if he said no?”

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
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