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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Obama, Dems Challenged to Improve Government’s Image

Bob Herbert’s latest New York Times column, “Our Crumbling Foundation,” updates the argument for major infrastructure upgrade projects as a near-perfect match for the nation’s employment needs. It’s a familiar argument that’s been made for decades, though seldom with such supportive economic realities, and Herbert makes his case about as good as can be done in the columnist’s limited format:

It’s not just about roads and bridges, although they are important. It’s also about schools, and the electrical grid, and environmental and technological innovation. It’s about establishing a world-class industrial and economic platform for a nation that is speeding toward second-class status on a range of important fronts.
It’s about whether we’re serious about remaining a great nation. We don’t act like it. Here’s a staggering statistic: According to the Education Trust, the U.S. is the only industrialized country in which young people are less likely than their parents to graduate from high school…We can’t put our people to work. We can’t educate the young. We can’t keep the infrastructure in good repair. It’s hard to believe that this nation could be so dysfunctional at the end of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s tragic….The link between the need to rebuild the nation’s crumbing infrastructure and the crucial need to find rich new sources of employment in this economic downturn should be obvious, a no-brainer.

Over the years, numerous Democratic candidates for congress and the white house have urged making infrastructure upgrades as a major federal priority. Yet the idea never gets much traction, despite the clear logic of the need for action. The political will ought to be there, but it hasn’t emerged thus far. Democrats just didn’t have the votes in congress to significantly increase expenditures for fixing America’s decaying roads, bridges, sewerage systems, port security and other critical public facilities.
Herbert didn’t analyze opinion polls for clues to how voters feel about infrastructure projects as a major federal investment. If he had, he would have seen that there is strong public support for the concept of a major government investment in shoring up our infrastructure. A poll conducted 12/22/08 by Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research (yes, that Frank Luntz) for Building America’s Future, an organization which promotes infrastructure projects, found 81 percent would pay an extra 1 percent on their taxes to pay for infrastructure repairs, while 84 percent believe their state governments should increase spending on public works.
But he would also have seen that the government does have a persistent image problem, which prevents needed political action. The BAF poll found, for example, that 51 percent said their governor had been very effective in improving infrastructure in the last five years, compared with only 22 percent who said the same for political leaders in Washington. (although here I wonder if Luntz’s Republican leanings have biased questions to get a desired the result). Government-bashing is still fashionable among conservatives and some moderates, though to a lesser extent than a decade ago. Asked “…which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future: big business, big labor, or big government?,” 55 percent of respondents in a Gallup poll conducted 3/27-29 said ‘big government,’ compared to 10 percent for ‘big labor’ and 32 percent for ‘big business.’ Other recent polls show public opinion more evenly divided on the question of whether the federal government should do more or less.
Knee-jerk government-bashing is now boilerplate rhetoric for GOP politicians. Thus far the Democratic response has been decidedly limp, usually changing the subject or ignoring the Republicans. What is absent is any party-wide commitment to address the problem head-on — to use the resources of the white house and the Democratic Party to strengthen the image of the federal government. I’m not talking so much about individual Democrats more assertively defending the federal government. What is needed is a major national campaign to educate the public about the positive accomplishments of the federal government, including federally-funded documentaries on key government agencies broadcast on PBS and major networks, public service advertising on television, radio and the internet, and generally making more aggressive use of public relations to educate taxpayers about the bargain they get for their taxes.
Ken Burns is premiering his new 12-hour documentary series on America’s national parks on PBS this Fall.. Presumably he will show viewers the wonderful resources of the federal parks and also reveal the need to better protect those resources. After giving due credit to Burns as a great private-sector documentary-maker, the question arises, why isn’t there already a great federally-funded documentary series on the federal parks? Or the FDA, NTSB, the NLRB and numerous other federal agencies that save taxpayers’ lives and money.
That’s what the private sector does when a company or industry develops an image-problem. They educate and advertise, and they do it because it works. It makes little sense for the Dems, including President Obama, to cede the case for government-bashing to the GOP, especially when we have a strong counter-argument and the resources to publicize it. A public education campaign about the very real accomplishments of the federal government, on the other hand, might help millions of taxpayers to see the folly in the GOP’s trashing of government and be more supportive of Democratic reforms.

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