President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan is no joke.
The huge — more than $2 trillion — proposal he will unveil Wednesday covers an expansive and vital policy area that became a Washington punch line in the Trump administration and resulted in painful dashed hopes for previous presidents.
For Biden, infrastructure is about far more than fixing America’s creaking and crumbling roads and bridges, airports and railroads that are often compared unfavorably to gleaming 21st century projects in developing countries like China. The program is the latest massively ambitious sign that he senses that fate, political circumstance and shifts in public opinion offer him a sudden but fleeting opening to accomplish his long-term political aim of improving the lives of American workers.
While Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan, the infrastructure effort and a coming jobs bill ostensibly address targeted policy areas, they have a broader common purpose. They form the foundation of the President’s effort to engineer a generational reorganization of the US economy itself. The Covid rescue plan for instance that cleared Congress this month was hailed by progressives like Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and independent analysts as the most significant effort to lift millions of Americans out of poverty in decades.
Biden’s vision now is not just for new highways, broadband and ports. He sees revived labor unions, equally shared GDP growth, easier access to health care, equal pay for women, clean energy and better child care for workers.
“My economic plan is all about jobs, dignity, respect, and community. Together, we can, and we will, rebuild our economy,” Biden said in his Democratic National Convention speech in August, which explained his core philosophy.
The ambition of the infrastructure and jobs plans leave no doubt about his desire for transformation in an economy that has further enriched the most wealthy in the last 40 years but left the working class as roadkill.
The first includes investments in manufacturing, research and development, climate and transport infrastructure. The second targets child care, paid family leave, health care and education — crucial considerations for US workers, a senior White House official told CNN.
Even the venue of Biden’s speech on Thursday — Pittsburgh — sends a message. The Steel City, the place where Biden launched his 2020 bid for the White House, is exactly the kind of gritty, blue collar labor union fiefdom where the President feels at home. But it is also an example of a city already on the road to accomplishing what the infrastructure plan seeks to do for the rest of America. It has evolved from a post-industrial apocalypse to a hub of modern industries, medical tech firms, world leading education institutions and innovation that is now a showcase for economic regeneration.
The President also has a sentimental attachment to the city.
“It’s home,” the native born Pennsylvanian told a reporter after jogging through the city’s Labor Day parade in 2015 in one of his first public appearances after the death of his beloved son Beau from cancer.
“I am hot. I am mad, I am angry,” Biden told a crowd and vowed to fight for workers denied a share of profits garnered from rising productivity.
“Something is wrong, folks … the level playing field doesn’t exist,” he roared in what looked like the launch of a presidential campaign that never materialized, only for Biden to end up in the White House five years later.
Shifting political trends give Biden hope
In a conventional political environment, Biden’s infrastructure plan would probably be dead on arrival in Congress already. While he will seek Republican buy-in to the push, his desire to finance part of it by a rise in corporate taxes and its scale will almost certainly scare off any GOPers not already bought into their leadership’s strategy of denying the new President big wins.
But in the wake of the pandemic and thanks to shifting political sands before it struck, Biden’s plan may just about have a chance — though it will face the limitations of a 50-50 Senate and could test Democratic unity to breaking point as the President agitates for the bill’s passage this summer.
Biden clearly established his authority in Washington and bolstered approval with his Covid rescue package that included hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits to workers and the least well off Americans.
No Republicans voted for it, but the rescue bill was broadly popular — even with some GOP voters — showing that in the worst domestic crisis since World War II there is a growing desire for government to address the country’s problems.
How Trump helped Biden
Many Democrats might have preferred Biden to pick other issues for his next big political gambit, like gun control, climate change, abolishing the Senate filibuster or joining the battle for a sweeping voter reform plan to confront Republican ballot suppression.
But the infrastructure bill was exactly the kind of measure with the potential to be broadly popular to which the President seemed to be referring when he spoke about the importance of political timing last week.
“Successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing,” Biden said at a White House news conference.
Had Biden waited until after an effort to pass the “For the People Act” until after other liberal priority issues, which will likely ignite an irreversible political schism on Capitol Hill, infrastructure reform would have stood no chance.
The President’s push for his $2.25 trillion plan may also benefit from indirect help from an unlikely source: former President Donald Trump.
He doesn’t just benefit by comparison to the ex-President’s incompetence that left the federal government disastrously unable to deal with the waves of coronavirus the swept across the country and smashed the economy. The former President changed the Republican Party itself in ways that Biden could exploit.
Trump’s inroads with White working class Americans and success in fracturing the conservative creed of low deficits helped may mute the classic Republican attack line about big spending Democrats and win him some support from conservative voters more open to seeing government fix their problems.
It’s just possible that the United States has reached a rare moment, experienced under President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, when there is a brief political window for overwhelming government intervention to help the poorest Americans. At no time since the 1980s has the unchained capitalism represented by President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seemed so threatened.
The centrist “era of big government is over” politics of ex-President Bill Clinton that was designed to sand the soft edges of Reaganism seems outdated too. And Biden’s aides now talk openly of how the Obama administration in which he served as vice president didn’t go sufficiently big after the Great Recession and initially erred by indulging Republicans who really wanted to hobble the presidency in a months-long search for bipartisan buy-in.
And like Trump, Biden can speak the language of Americans who believe that the riches of the US economy have been unfairly hijacked by the wealthy Wall Street barons who sent their jobs to low wage economies abroad.
The President’s paeans to the working class, reverence for his birth place of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and tales about his hardworking struggles might sound hokey. But they are authentic because he’s been at it his entire political life.
Biden, like Trump has tapped into anti-globalization and “fair trade” sentiment popular with the ex-President’s core supporters.
Even his foreign policy is geared towards advancing the interests of blue collar Americans first. While Biden rejects Trump’s disdain for allies and appeasing of tyrants, his central principle of American retrenchment and building strength at home has conceptual similarities with Trump.
“Biden isn’t doing ‘America First’ but his policy is ‘Americans First.’ That makes total sense. It’s why he was elected,” said Nicholas Dungan, a nonresident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council.
In Trump’s White House, officials were repeatedly to reschedule “Infrastructure Week,” a scripted series of events meant to show a disruptive and obstreperous President could behave normally and get things done. Their plans always fell foul of Trump’s volcanic temperament and torrent of scandals.
Biden however showed in his news conference that he has a strong theory of why he was elected: to fix problems holding back working and middle class Americans.
While daunting political obstacles stand in his way, the centrality of the plan he unveils Wednesday to his personal and political philosophy will ensure his commitment to the issue long outlast Trump’s.