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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Who Will Be ‘The Infrastructure President’?

One of the staples of federal, state and local Democratic campaigns is the call for a major investment in upgrading the infrastructure. Dems have been great at making the call, less impressive in delivering the upgrades. Yet the need remains so compelling that it would be hard to identify an American city of significant size that doesn’t need major improvements in roads, bridges, transportation systems, harbors, airports, utilities or waste disposal facilities.
In his post, “Obama Should Call Chamber’s Infrastructure Bluff,” Dave Johnson of the Campaign for America’s Future works a slightly different angle to illuminate the problem and a strategy for addressing it more effectively:

The Chamber of Commerce claims it supports spending on infrastructure. President Obama should call them on it because a majority of the public supports rebuilding our infrastructure and millions of us need work. The President should tell the Chamber to take its rhetoric seriously and support spending what is needed. Imagine the jobs it would create and the boost it would give to our economy now and in the future. The President should make it the centerpiece of his re-election campaign.

Johnson does an excellent job of documenting the extent to which many other nations are taking infrastructure upgrades far more seriously to enhance their competitive advantage, while the U.S. muddles on, quibbling about budget cuts and deficit reduction. Republicans have dodged the infrastructure issue artfully, often parroting libertarian cliches about privatization as a solution to the problem.
Johnson notes the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that $2.2 trillion investment is needed to get America up to current standards. According to the ASCE, “Years of delayed maintenance and lack of modernization have left Americans with an outdated and failing infrastructure that cannot meet our needs.”
Johnson notes that 80 percent of the public supports major infrastructure upgrades, according to a survey by Hart Research/Public Opinion Strategies for the Rockefeller Foundation. Even the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce recognizes the need, as this excerpt from its web page indicates:

The U.S. Chamber is leading the charge to modernize and expand our nation’s transportation, telecommunications, energy, and water networks. Without proper investment and attention to our infrastructure systems, the nation’s economic stability, potential for job growth, and global competitiveness are at risk.

With all of the conservative whining about the need for budget cuts, it’s hard to imagine a multi-billion dollar infrastructure upgrade program, much less a two trillion dollar one get much traction. But, with 80 percent public support, maybe a little bully pulpit could help elevate infrastructure upgrades as a national priority. As Johnson suggests,

This is a tremendous opportunity for the President to lead with a plan for massive investment in infrastructure, employing millions and positioning the country to compete in the world’s economy again. The publiic is overwhelmingly behind this. The Chamber says they support updating our infrastructure, and the President should challenge them to really support it. This popular plan is good for the country and is the right thing to do, and that makes it the right thing to do politically as well.

FDR showed what a President could do with an iron clad, refuse-to-take-no-for-an-answer commitment to infrastructure improvement. To a lesser extent, President Eisenhower was ‘the infrastructure President’ of the post-war period, modernizing the nation’s interstate highways into the finest system ever created.
America will have to upgrade our infrastructure sooner than later. I’d hate to think that it’s going to take another Republican to meet this challenge (“Only a Nixon can go to China” sort of paradox) The need has never been more urgent, and President Obama should make the commitment to be ‘The Infrastructure President’ who takes America into the 21st century.

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