So over and over we see presidents talk about the need for infrastructure spending and then proposals ripped apart or ignored. Or we see presidents talk about infrastructure in the abstract and set aside a week during which infrastructure will be the focus and then, voilà, you have a new meme. Politics is always hard, even on the easy things.
In Pittsburgh on Wednesday, President Biden threw his bridge into the ring. He formally announced the American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion proposal that would spend billions on improving roads and airports, overhauling water and energy systems and bolstering economic and caregiving systems. It’s an expansive interpretation of the word “infrastructure,” certainly, leading quickly to criticism from Republicans.
South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) disparaged Biden’s infrasandwich in a Fox News appearance.
“I was shocked by how much doesn’t go into infrastructure,” she said of the proposal. “It goes into research and development. It goes into housing and pipes and different initiatives, green energy. And it really is not an honest conversation we're having about what this proposal is.”
That’s not entirely true, of course. The White House has outlined what it includes, and while the bill certainly goes beyond simply fixing potholes — an unusually narrow sense of “infrastructure” — it’s clear that Noem’s objections are themselves political. Of course “pipe” and “green energy” are traditional components of “infrastructure,” it’s just that Noem doesn’t like “green energy” in general.
The White House's approach was almost guaranteed to result in Noem-like complaints. It's intentionally expansive in its aims, hoping to reshape and reinforce the country's underpinnings in a way that extends beyond simply the much-loved “crumbling roads” of political legend.
What it is, really, is the Green New Deal.
When that proposal was first introduced two years ago, it was quickly mired in bad-faith attacks over banning airplanes and hamburgers. The proposal itself was only indirectly centered on climate change, instead using the imminent disruptions that global warming will cause as a reason to rethink the investments the country was making. As I wrote then, it was far more “new deal” than “green,” in that it was centered on revamping the economy more than rolling out more solar panels. It was less about steering the country in a new direction than in preparing the United States for where it was already headed.
The Biden proposal does largely the same thing. It includes a number of the same proposals, in fact, though not as overtly framed as being about climate change.
Politics usually comes down to framing, of course. You can argue for eliminating coal as a fuel for generating electricity because it's more expensive than wind or because it produces particulate matter that can lead to respiratory illness or because it contributes to global warming. The end result is the same, but different people will be compelled by different arguments.
What the Green New Deal proposal did was loop a lot of sweeping changes to the economy into the idea that doing so would better prepare the United States for a warmer world and, ideally, to slow or reverse some of that warming. It was intersectional in the way that our coal example was, offering various reasons for the utility of the proposed changes, but the theme was addressing climate change. The political reception to the Green New Deal reflected that, to its ultimate detriment.
The Biden proposal, on the other hand, uses the more politically popular umbrella of infrastructure to incorporate some of those same shifts. None of this is to say that the Biden proposal is the Green New Deal in sheep’s clothing; it is, instead, to say that many of the components of the Green New Deal that addressed things like increasing clean energy, improving water and bolstering the economy more broadly are also part of the Biden proposal.
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Biden's not new to politics. His 2020 campaign was very effective at giving Democrats from across the spectrum reasons to support his candidacy. He was outwardly moderate but embraced more progressive positions. That aided him in both the primaries and the general election. His presidency is young, but he's already made clear his interest in using his own mellow, let's-get-along brand to help tamp down opposition and get relatively progressive ideas through Congress.
Passing this legislation will be trickier than passing the covid relief bill, both because it lacks the same sense of urgency and because it’s not clear that it will have the same level of public support. But it is a very good encapsulation of the Biden approach: Pick up Democratic priorities and shape them into something as palatable as possible to the public.
Sure, housing and care for the elderly isn’t normally what one thinks of as infrastructure. But fixing bridges is, and if Biden can use the latter as a reason to fund the former, he’ll take it. If he ends up reshaping what Americans think of as “infrastructure”? All the better.