How Biden should sell his infrastructure bill
When the House of Representatives approved the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last week, President Biden hailed it as “a monumental step forward.” The bill, Biden declared, was “a blue-collar blueprint for rebuilding America,” whose impact would begin to be felt within two or three months “as we get shovels in the ground.”
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg claims the bill will sell itself. He’s wrong. After all, a majority of Americans do not know much about the legislation other than the price tag. In planning a series of visits to project sites around the country, the administration clearly recognizes that to get the credit he (and the Democrats) deserve, especially among working class and middle-class voters, Biden must become the nation’s seller-in-chief. Since his talk at the kick-off event in Baltimore on Wednesday, in my judgment, was digressive and defensive, I propose here a more focused — and partisan — approach.
After setting the stage at each event by revealing that earlier this year, the nation’s infrastructure received a C- from the American Society of Civil Engineers, Biden should introduce two local residents to explain the impact of decaying and dangerous infrastructure on their lives.
The president should then lay out the major provisions of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act:
- $110 billion for roads, bridges, and major infrastructure projects; an additional $40 billion for bridge repair, rehabilitation, and replacement, the largest investment since the 1950s, at a time in which 173,000 miles (20 percent) of the nation’s highways and major roads and 45,000 bridges are in poor condition; $11 billion for transportation safety, especially for pedestrians and cyclists; $1 billion to demolish and reconstruct street grids and parks to reconnect predominantly urban African American neighborhoods that were divided by highways.
- $39 billion to modernize public transit and make services available to many more potential riders, the largest federal allocation in American history.
- $66 billion investments in passenger and freight rail service, extending the former outside the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions; $17 billion in port infrastructure; $25 billion in airports.
- $55 billion to upgrade water infrastructure by replacing lead service lines and pipes (to prevent the toxic contamination that has afflicted the citizens of Flint, Mich., and other cities and towns).
- $21 billion for environmental remediation (of Superfund and brownfield sites, abandoned mines and orphaned gas wells).
- $65 billion to rebuild electric power grids and expand renewable energy; $15 billion for zero and low emission buses and ferries and a national network of electric plug-in chargers.
- $65 billion to improve broadband infrastructure and increase internet access to underserved rural areas and low-income households.
As he stakes his claim that “We did something that is long overdue, that long has been talked about in Washington but never actually been done,” Biden should contrast his achievement on infrastructure with the failure of his predecessor in the White House.
When asked about Hillary Clinton’s $500 billion infrastructure plan in 2016, Donald Trump said, “Well, I would say at least double her numbers.” Although Republicans controlled the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in 2017 and 2018, President Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan went nowhere. In 2019, Trump criticized his own administration’s public-private funding approach as “stupid” (“because you get sued”), blaming it on Gary Cohn, his chief economic advisor. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders acknowledged that “The United States has not even come close to properly investing on infrastructure in many years” — and the administration upped the ante to $2 trillion.
By then, Trump’s “Infrastructure Week” announcements (which began in June 2017 with Trump stepping on his message by accusing former FBI director James Comey of perjury) had become a long-running joke in Washington.
In March 2020, Trump promised on Twitter a “VERY BIG AND BOLD” $2 trillion bill, focused “on jobs and rebuilding the once great infrastructure of our country.” He did not follow through.
When President Biden and Senate Democrats sought to negotiate a bi-partisan infrastructure bill with Senate Republicans in 2021, Trump blasted Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other “RINO” Republicans for “thinking that helping Democrats is such a wonderful thing to do, so politically correct. They just don’t get it.” He threatened Republicans who supported the legislation: “If the deal happens, lots of primaries will be coming your way.”
So much for Trump’s commitment to investing in infrastructure.
Biden should conclude his presentations by drawing one more contrast: between Republicans’ vague, vacuous, and cynical promises to empower parents of public-school children and the transformational impact on American families of pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds; subsidies for childcare; and per-child tax credits in Build Back Better.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University. He is the co-author (with Stuart Blumin) of “Rude Republic: Americans and Their Politics in the Nineteenth Century.”