Obama’s Infrastructure Proposal A Step Forward

On Labor Day, President Obama rediscovered his roots. He traveled to the LaborFest rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and proposed $50 billion in infrastructure spending to “create jobs” and “make our economy hum over the long haul.” Everything was on target — from the substance to the politics. The only thing off was the size.

Start with the substance. Obama recognized that our country is falling apart, and proposed some sensible fixes.

• Roads. Rebuild 150,000 miles of roads, the backbone of our transportation system.
 
• Rail. Construct and maintain 4,000 miles of track, and overhaul Amtrak’s fleet. Continue to develop national high-speed rail, and support transit in metropolitan areas.
 
• Air: Rehabilitate 150 miles of airport runways, and update our air traffic control systems.
 

It’s a six-year plan and tied to the surface transportation bill scheduled for reauthorization — but front-loaded to create jobs sooner rather than later. It continues the work of the 2009 Recovery Act, with less emphasis on “shovel-ready” than on long-term growth. It also offers some creative new funding proposals:

• Infrastructure Bank. A National Infrastructure Bank has a bipartisan history and an ability to leverage government dollars with private investment. It can focus on infrastructure of national and regional significance that falls in the gap between agencies, or transit projects that cross state lines or metropolitan boundaries. Europe has had a European infrastructure bank for longer than it has had the Euro.
 
• Closing tax incentives to ship jobs overseas. Obama renewed a campaign pledge to close “these ridiculous tax loopholes that actually rewarded corporations for shipping jobs and profits overseas.”
 

Obama also noticed that it’s an election year. In this relatively safe space and with a base that feels forgotten, he drew the contrast with the Republicans.

• Obama assailed the Republican Party of No. Republicans would deny it if Obama said “the sky was blue” or “fish live in the sea.” They oppose everything Obama proposes, even if they’ve proposed it in the past. Representative John Mica (R-Fl.) a strong proponent of infrastructure investment came out against the President’s proposal (and reinvented the history of the Recovery Act while he was at it).
 
• Obama assailed the rebirth of trickle-down economics. People say “we can move this economy forward with just a few folks at the top doing well, hoping that it’s going to trickle down to working people who are running faster and faster just to keep up. [Y]ou’ll never see it.”
 
• Obama accused Republicans of making the same mistakes all over again. “They’re betting that between now and November, you’re going to come down with amnesia. They figure you’re going to forget what their agenda did to this country. They think you’ll just believe that they’ve changed.”
 

“These are the folks whose policies helped devastate our middle class. They drove our economy into a ditch. And we got in there and put on our boots and we pushed and we shoved. And we were sweating and these guys were standing, watching us and sipping on a Slurpee. And they were pointing at us saying, how come you’re not pushing harder, how come you’re not pushing faster? And then when we finally got the car up — and it’s got a few dings and a few dents, it’s got some mud on it, we’re going to have to do some work on it — they point to everybody and say, look what these guys did to your car. After we got it out of the ditch! And then they got the nerve to ask for the keys back! I don’t want to give them the keys back. They don’t know how to drive.”

It’s nice to see the fight. It’s nice to see the contrast message. It’s nice to see Obama do something that his base wants and may be willing to fight for — rather than bending over backwards to appease people who won’t vote for him anyway.

Yes, I would have liked to have seen this fight six months ago. Or even eighteen. Yes, I would have liked to see the ideological contrast stated clearly over time.

And most importantly, I’d like to see it bigger. The American Society of Civil Engineers says $2.2 trillion is needed over five years to put our infrastructure back into satisfactory condition — and that’s only satisfactory. It doesn’t include that new high speed rail. As I’ve said in the past, the proposals are off by orders of magnitude.

None of this is going to pass anyway. The Republicans won’t give Democrats a victory just before the election. At this point it’s purely political, a chance to draw a contrast and point in a new direction. Obama might as well spell out the whole vision and give us something to aim for.

Roads don’t build themselves. Schools don’t fix their own roofs and high-speed trains don’t lay their own tracks. We need our public sector to step in. That’s what it’s for.

Obama can use his great gifts of oratory to explain what’s needed and how long it will take. He can talk truthfully about the deficit, and close it with proposals like top end taxation, financial transaction taxes, and ending a range of subsidies from oil companies to agriculture

Monday’s speech was a step in the right direction. It’s definitely too little. We’ll see if it’s too late.

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