President Obama Should Make Rebuilding America His Legacy

Isaiah J. Poole

The severe damage that President Obama’s obstinate pursuit of fast-track authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership did to his relationships with the labor movement and his progressive base, and his loss of face with the business community when an overwhelming majority in his own party turned against him on Friday’s trade votes in the House, are not irreparable.

He could go a long way toward repairing his legacy through a bold campaign to rebuild America’s infrastructure, starting – but by no means stopping – with a long-term surface transportation bill that is currently stuck in Congress.

The president has shown that he already gets the importance of ending the cycle of underinvestment in our transportation network, our water systems and our other public assets, plus our behind-the-times electric grid and broadband networks, largely privately owned but should nonetheless be treated as the essential public assets that they are.

But there are powerful forces in Congress that want to move the nation in an opposing direction, removing revitalization of infrastructure from a national priority and turning that task into a series of negotiations between state and local governments and private entities.

For example, today the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. – the man who pushed the idea of privatizing Medicare – is holding a hearing on how to address the chronic shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, between $10 billion and $15 billion a year, that is used to help finance road, bridge and public transit improvements. (The Senate Finance Committee is holding a similar hearing Thursday, featuring anti-tax activist Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation and Former Obama transportation secretary Ray LaHood.)

Ryan has ruled off the table any notion of increasing the gasoline tax that goes into the fund to close a , even though that tax hasn’t been increased since 1993. He’s also ruled out simply paying for the increased spending we need by borrowing more money – at the near-zero interest rates we still have but perhaps not for long – or closing tax loopholes that enable corporations and the wealthy to profit off our roads and bridges without paying their portion for maintaining and improving them. So he has constrained the debate over funding to what can be gained through public-private partnerships. His star witness at today’s hearing is Robert Poole, the director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank generally hostile to federal transportation spending and which has been pushing an agenda that would shift most of the federal role to the states and to private interests.

We already have a taste of that world, thanks to a gridlocked Congress. After a burst of Recovery Act spending early in President Obama’s first term, federal funding for transportation has been kept alive only by a series of short-term patches to the status quo, the longest lasting only two years. That’s not enough time for states and localities to plan and execute the kind of big projects that federal funding for transportation was envisioned to support.

With states left to their own devices, they are building more toll lanes, often with private financing schemes that too often go awry. A recent example surfaced in Virginia, born in the conservative administration of former Gov. Bob McDonnell, in which the state struck a deal for a private company to build a 55-mile toll road – but construction never started and the state is left trying to recoup $256 million the company received from the state.

For all of the outcry – some warranted – against the kind of bridge-to-nowhere projects that got greenlighted when Congress earmarked projects for federal dollars, the record shows that moving the backroom deals from the offices of elected representatives to meeting rooms with representatives of multinational corporations and state appointees doesn’t make it better, and often makes it worse.

The president has not elevated the debate to the extent that he should because he has allowed himself to be limited by the framing of austerity, the notion that we as a nation are unwilling or unable to rise to the need for investing in our commons if we understand the problem and appreciate the benefits of doing the right thing. Thus his proposal for bolstering the Highway Trust Fund involves taxing profits that corporations shelter overseas, but at a rate that essentially rewards corporations for their past deeds of tax evasion and sets the stage for substantial reductions in the corporate tax rate if Congress ever gets around to overhauling the corporate tax code.

It is true that both the president and Congress is concerned about an electorate that says it is deeply skeptical of government’s ability to take on big tasks and spend wisely. But what a good look at the polls we’ve aggregated on also shows is that an overwhelming majority of Americans want the federal government to prioritize rebuilding America – 75 percent, according to one recent poll.

The president, having boxed himself politically into a corner by opposing an increase in the gasoline tax and putting his stakes on a flawed corporate tax scheme, could nonetheless give running room to members of Congress who have much bolder proposals, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and the House’s Progressive Caucus, and to the progressive activists ready to muster grassroots support. Both Sanders and the Progressive Caucus have put forward proposals that would spend big – up to $1 trillion over five years, in the case of Sanders – but reap even bigger rewards. The spending would go a long way toward closing the investment gap between our current spending and our actual need. The funding would create millions of badly needed, good-paying jobs, and would bolster the American manufacturers under siege as a result of our bad trade policy. And just as the investments in the Interstate Highway System started by the Eisenhower administration left us with the foundation for economic growth in the 1960s and 1970s, a renewed national infrastructure that includes a greener transportation grid, high-speed rail, replacements to century-old water mains and all of our other public assets, will pay dividends for decades to come.

This cause needs a champion, and President Obama just might be able to restore his political standing and restore some common sense to this debate.

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