With nods to FDR, JFK and LBJ, Biden goes big on infrastructure plan

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·6-min read

President Biden traveled to Pittsburgh on Wednesday to introduce a $2.25 trillion infrastructure plan that, in both scope and cost, amounts to the most ambitious attempt by the federal government to refashion the nation’s economy and social fabric since at least Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s.

As with many of his recent proposals, Biden framed the infrastructure plan as one of a superpower seeking to regain its footing, arguing that the investments the White House has outlined — $115 billion to repair roadways, $100 billion for high-speed internet and many other modernizing initiatives — would “put us in a position to win the global competition with China in the upcoming years.”

In his remarks, Biden noted that the United States was ranked 13th in the world when it came to the quality of its infrastructure. “Our adversaries are worried about us building this critical infrastructure,” the president said, likening his plan to the creation of the interstate highway system under Dwight Eisenhower and to the space race with the Soviet Union that John F. Kennedy vowed to win.

Biden’s ambitions are arguably broader, however, since the infrastructure plan seeks to address both reliance on carbon-based fuels and persistent racial inequalities in housing, transportation and other sectors. His prospects for passing the massive proposal may be helped by a sense of urgency arising from a pandemic that has revealed deep structural flaws in American society. Last summer’s racial justice protests, as well as increasingly frequent catastrophic weather events, have added urgency to the Democrats’ argument that simply patching up bridges will not do the trick.

 Joe Biden
President Biden speaking on infrastructure in Pittsburgh on Wednesday. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Not that patching up bridges is absent from the plan: Biden says his plan will repair 10,000 bridges and 20,000 miles of roadway. His promise to “unclog traffic” could prove more ambitious than Kennedy’s bid to put humans on the moon (that is, if traffic ever returns to pre-pandemic levels, as it is generally expected to).

It was significant, too, that Biden delivered his remarks in Pittsburgh, a onetime redoubt of the steel industry that has diversified its economy in recent years to include tech jobs. A native of Scranton, on the opposite side of Pennsylvania, Biden summoned the storied legacy of organized labor in the state. “It’s about time they started to get a piece of the action,” Biden said of labor unions, which could prove critical in helping him sell the plan. (Pennsylvania is also a state critical to Biden’s reelection prospects.)

Biden has been courting comparisons to both Johnson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, both of whom met fraught moments in American history with unbridled ambition. Like them, Biden will face spirited congressional opposition as well as a measure of public skepticism. Critics were already wondering, for example, why the infrastructure plan included $400 billion for “expanding access to quality, affordable home- or community-based care for aging relatives and people with disabilities.”

Funds allocated for electrical vehicle charging stations, replacement of lead pipes and upgrades to housing and schools met with similar suspicion from the right. In a Fox Business appearance on Tuesday, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wy., called the plan a “Trojan horse” for “more liberal spending and much higher taxes,” previewing what is emerging as a central argument from the Republican establishment.

“They want to do all sorts of social things,” Barrasso said of Biden and congressional Democrats.

Close-up of sign for electric vehicle charging station on Santana Row in the Silicon Valley, San Jose, California, January 3, 2020. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
Close-up of sign for electric vehicle charging station on Santana Row in the Silicon Valley, San Jose, California, January 3, 2020. (Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Biden doesn’t have much hope of convincing Barrasso to vote for the package, known as the American Jobs Plan. But he does need to make sure that Barrasso does not persuade centrist senators Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., to also oppose the forthcoming bill. It may be with that in mind that Biden recently appointed Manchin’s wife to a committee on Appalachia’s future.

Much like Johnson, Biden comes to the Oval Office after having served on Capitol Hill, and if he never wielded quite as much influence, or engendered as much fear, as the legendary “Master of the Senate,” he nevertheless understands much better than either of his two direct predecessors the often unseemly business of turning a presidential proposal into a bill, then turning that bill into a law.

Biden intends to pay for the infrastructure plan by raising the corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent. The conservative Tax Foundation has already argued that such a tax hike would “erode American competitiveness and slow our economic recovery.” Spending for the infrastructure plan is expected to last eight years, while the tax increases needed to pay for that plan will be in place for 15.

Some progressives have said that the infrastructure plan should have been more ambitious; Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for one, said that the plan should have been “way bigger.” The infrastructure plan does have a second component, the American Families Plan, which will include more social programs, and the details of which should become clear sometime in April or May. That second phase will also require a second tax hike that targets high-income individuals.

Overall, Democrats are plainly thrilled at the speed and scope of Biden’s plans. In her statement on the plan, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee, referenced Infrastructure Week, which during the Trump administration became a kind of running joke about the futility of actually addressing the nation’s infrastructure woes.

“We cannot simply return to normal,” DeLauro said, praising Biden’s “relentless focus on green energy.”

President Joe Biden speaks about his $2 trillion infrastructure plan during an event to tout the plan at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 31, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
President Joe Biden speaks about his $2 trillion infrastructure plan during an event to tout the plan at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 31, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Biden’s first major legislative initiative was the American Rescue Plan, a coronavirus relief package unambiguously popular with the American public. Although no congressional Republicans supported the measure, they did not put up the kind of resistance that President Obama saw in 2009, when he introduced the Affordable Care Act.

It will now be up to Democratic leaders in Congress to craft a bill that hews to White House outlines while satisfying centrists and progressives alike and depriving Republicans of easy lines of attack like the one Barrasso and others have already been making. While those attacks may be predictable, they could prove effective in a deeply polarized nation, not to mention a Washington that allows little room for political error.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has also called the infrastructure bill a “Trojan horse” for progressive policies. And that was after a conversation on Tuesday with Biden, one of the few the former Senate adversaries have had in the last two months.

Biden believes that his plan is democratic as much as it is Democratic. He has frequently approached the presidency almost as a local politician might, focusing on policies that, while certainly ideological to a degree, he has sold as common-sense services delivered to his millions of constituents.

In his remarks on Tuesday, Biden said that it was critical to show the world that “democracies still deliver for their people,” as opposed, presumably, to engaging only in unproductive squabbling that has come to define Washington in the recent past.

“I believe we can,” Biden said. “I believe we must."

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