Biden’s big infrastructure bet could define his legacy – for better or worse | Joe Biden | #dating | #elderly | #seniors
Joe Biden, the oldest US president ever elected, seems keenly aware of the sentiment expressed in the Broadway musical Hamilton: “History has its eyes on you.”
Before taking office he reportedly read biographies of Franklin Roosevelt, who steered the nation through the Great Depression. Recently, at an eerily quiet White House, he hosted presidential historians to explore the virtues of thinking big – or more precisely, the perils of thinking small.
And on Wednesday, promoting a suitably audacious $2tn infrastructure package, Biden made clear that he has an eye on posterity. “I’m convinced that, if we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say this was the moment that America won the future,” he said.
But often what seems inevitable with hindsight was rarely that way in the moment. The 46th president now faces a tough political grind to turn his expensive vision into reality.
Indeed, his recent $1.9tn coronavirus relief package will probably look like a breeze by comparison. That plan saw Biden hailed as an unlikely progressive hero and prompted Maureen Dowd, a columnist at the New York Times, to quip: “Democrats are thinking that if he keeps it up, they’ll soon be picking up their chisels to carve his face on Mount Rushmore.”
In truth, it was a case of desperate times calling for desperate measures. Overall the US government – first under Donald Trump, then under Biden – has now thrown more than $6tn at the once in a century pandemic. “It was an emergency,” the current president acknowledged on Wednesday. “We needed to act to save jobs, to save businesses and to save lives, and that’s what we did.”
Now comes a bigger ask that will truly test Biden’s Rushmore credentials. Infrastructure – even the word is deadening and uninspiring – is a hardy perennial that everyone wants to get done but no one is willing to pay for. Trump’s “infrastructure week” became a running joke.
Biden can expect pushback not only from Republicans but moderate Democrats worried about what the required tax hikes will mean for their electoral chances. Progressives and climate activists, meanwhile, have already argued that his new plan does not go far enough. Democratic unity is about to undergo a serious stress test.
Biden’s strengths, however, were on display on Wednesday in Pittsburgh, the city in his home state of Pennsylvania where he launched his campaign for president two years ago.
He won that campaign partly because he is seen as unpretentious and lacking artifice. His blue collar background in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and unpolished demeanor make it hard to accuse him of belonging to the metropolitan elite. He is not a champagne socialist so much as a grandfather with grit and a surprising radical streak. “I’m a union guy,” he said.
So it was that Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” speech took place not with a slick presentation but in the echoey Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center, where the customary row of US national flags was offset by uneven planks of wood in the wings.
Removing a black face mask, Biden, wearing dark suit, blue tie and white shirt, promised “not a plan that tinkers around the edges. It’s a once-in-a-generation investment in America unlike anything we’ve seen or done since we built the interstate highway system and the space race decades ago. In fact, it’s the largest American jobs investment since world war two.”
No, infrastructure is not as pressing an emergency as a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans, yet many a visitor to the US has been surprised to find that the richest, most powerful country in the world can often feel like its roads and railways are held together by double-sided sticky tape.
And now China is breathing down its neck. “Our infrastructure is crumbling,” Biden said. “We’re ranked 13th in the world.”
Not long ago there were fears that Biden would be hopelessly naive about Republican intentions and expect the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to play ball like in the good old days. The coronavirus relief bill showed how improbable that is. Biden’s White House has concentrated instead on how popular the measure is among Republican mayors and voters.
That is likely to be the strategy again – for example, the appeal of bringing broadband to remote areas. As McConnell and co prepare to rage about tax increases, Biden made a direct case: “No one making under $400,000 will see their federal taxes go up. Period. This is not about penalizing anyone. I have nothing against millionaires and billionaires. I believe in American capitalism.”
Still, months of haggling in Congress await.
Republicans are not buying Biden’s claims of bipartisanship. Democrats who swallowed their objections to certain elements of the coronavirus relief for the sake of urgency are unlikely to be so forgiving this time. Wednesday’s announcement may well prove to be legacy-defining, but not necessarily in a manner of Biden’s choosing.