The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s 2016 campaign pledges on infrastructure have fallen short, creating opening for Biden

The president made changes to taxes and trade, but the White House’s plans on roads, bridges and airports fizzled

President Trump visits a Cameron LNG facility last year in Hackberry, La., to speak about energy infrastructure. (Evan Vucci/AP)

MILWAUKEE — Gerry Winkleman points across the Milwaukee River at the former tannery where he worked for almost two decades as a union welder, repairing blow pipes and net machines that produced thousands of leather shoes and handbags every year.

Winkleman, 74, drives through a stretch of downtown Milwaukee that once served as a hub of U.S. manufacturing, pausing occasionally to note the factories that have either shuttered or moved their production to China over the past three decades: the Pabst and Schlitz breweries; the Allis-Chalmers manufacturing giant; several different tanneries; the Briggs & Stratton foundry; and Kearney & Trecker, which produced milling machines.

Winkleman voted for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in his life in 2016, largely due to Donald Trump’s promise to bring back manufacturing jobs and invest $1 trillion to rebuild U.S. infrastructure in Rust Belt states like Wisconsin. This year, Winkleman will vote for former vice president Joe Biden, a decision sealed in part by Trump’s decision to pursue tax cuts — which Winkleman says primarily benefited the rich — over infrastructure investments. Winkleman said he and other members of the building trades were “snookered” by Trump’s 2016 promises to rebuild the country.

“He was giving this golden chariot of all that he was going to do. I was hoping my kids and grandkids would see what a prosperous country could look like,” said Winkleman, stopping to point to the aluminum siding he fitted for a hotel skybridge in downtown Milwaukee. “The way [Trump] was talking — it was like he was backing us. It’s been a complete farce ever since.”

A small city made famous by an insurance company with the same name, Wausau, Wis. could be central to whether the Badger State swings red or blue in 2020. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump can claim credit for pursuing and at least partially fulfilling many of his key 2016 economic campaign pledges, such as cutting taxes, slashing government regulations and revamping America’s international trade deals. But on one central part of his economic pledge — a massive infrastructure package — the president has much less to boast of on the campaign trail.

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After repeatedly touting infrastructure during his 2016 campaign, Trump has through four years in office failed to advance infrastructure legislation through Congress. Under his administration, federal investments on roads and bridges as a share of the economy have remained stagnant, while federal spending on water infrastructure projects have fallen to a 30-year low. Unable to boost infrastructure projects with federal dollars, Trump has also proved unable to meet his 2016 promises to update and upgrade parts of the United States, including roads, ports and airports.

Speaking about infrastructure regulatory reform in Atlanta on July 15, President Trump claimed the United States would continue to have clean air and water. (Video: The Washington Post)

The president’s unfulfilled pledges on infrastructure highlight the disconnect between his populist campaign message in 2016 and the results of four years in office governing in partnership with congressional Republicans who partially redefined his economic agenda. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has tried exploiting the issue, repeatedly highlighting infrastructure on the campaign trail in Midwestern states and vowing swift action on the issue if elected.

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“We were told and promised Trump would ‘Build America;’ it was supposed to be a lot of money in there, almost $1 trillion. He talked about it before he got elected, after he got elected, and nothing’s happened. They won’t vote for him because of that,” Kenneth E. Rigmaiden, president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, said of his members. “Workers can see things are slowing down. Our members are losing work. Infrastructure is a big piece of the business we tend to.”

Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former top strategist, said in 2016 that Trump’s “economic nationalism” would transform the GOP from its alliance with the business lobby to one that backed sweeping government interventions for blue-collar workers. Numerous pollsters and political experts say these appeals to economic populism helped Trump win over traditionally Democratic White working-class voters in the Midwest.

Trump has revamped Republican economic policy in key ways that have upended traditional conservative preferences, approving new American trade deals and pushing the Federal Reserve to lower interest rates. But his populist economic appeals are now undermined by four years in power in which his rhetoric collided with the realities of governance and the constraints imposed by the global economy.

Trump’s 2020 campaign has largely abandoned his calls from four years ago on infrastructure. Trump brought up infrastructure as a critical national need during the 2016 presidential debates, his Republican National Convention speech, addresses throughout the Midwest and his inaugural address. In campaign speeches last month in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, the president made no mention of repairing crumbling infrastructure or fixing the nation’s roads and bridges. Bannon, who boasted “the conservatives are going to go crazy” over Trump’s embrace of infrastructure, has been out of the White House since 2017.

Asked about the issue at the Economic Club of New York on Wednesday, Trump blamed congressional Democrats and said infrastructure legislation would pass in his next administration. He also cited the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall along the southern border. “We consider that infrastructure,” Trump said. The president has also frequently talked about his administration’s deregulatory agenda as clearing federal hurdles to new building projects, including highways.

Trump’s standing among the White working class that thralled to his message on infrastructure has eroded. In Pennsylvania, Trump leads Biden by 17 points among White voters without four-year college degrees, who account for about half the state’s electorate, according to a Washington Post-ABC poll released last month. Trump won that group by more than 30 points in Pennsylvania in 2016.

The failure of Congress and the Trump administration to provide additional aid to states and localities amid the coronavirus risks adding a further drag on infrastructure investments, setting back work on highways, roads, sewers and other municipal projects already delayed for years.

U.S. manufacturing was in a mild recession during 2019, a sore spot for the economy

Mike Vandersteen, the mayor of the small northeastern Wisconsin city of Sheboygan, said he voted for Trump in 2016 in part because he heard the real estate mogul channel his frustration with the inadequacy of the nation’s infrastructure. Sheboygan has for years struggled to finance local road repairs, but the city’s problems have intensified since 2016. The water levels on Lake Michigan have soared to unexpected and historic highs over the past two years, battering the 100-year-old water intake system on the mouth of the city’s coastline. Vandersteen worries the pipes are at risk of being flooded or damaged, imperiling residents’ drinking water.

Vandersteen has written to the campaigns of both Biden and Trump asking for them to commit the federal government to fund $20 billion for cities along Lake Michigan to mitigate damage from rising coastlines. Neither has agreed to provide the aid the towns along Lake Michigan say is necessary.

“The president talked a lot about infrastructure, and nothing’s really come of it yet,” said Vandersteen, who added he is still undecided about whom to support in the 2020 presidential election. “This could really be catastrophic.”

Even many of the White, blue-collar supporters of the president still hope he comes through with a deal. Don Iverson, 50, a logger in western Wisconsin, has for three decades used County Route K and Pray Road to haul red pine trees, white pine trees and oak trees to nearby sawmills. For the past five years, both Route K and Pray Road have been closed to Iverson’s trucks. New weight limits have also been imposed on a nearby bridge, on Highway 54. That means Iverson has to cut down his shipments and add another 30 miles’ drive each way to the sawmills.

Four of Jackson County’s nine loggers have quit or gone out of business, Iverson said, in part because of their struggles with the shoddy town roads. Trucks are now forced to reroute through the city of Black River Falls, which is both more expensive and more dangerous due to more congested traffic. Without federal support, a half-dozen Wisconsin town managers say they have no means of repairing the roads or bridges.

“It is a huge added burden on our business. It never used to be like this,” said Iverson, 50, gesturing from his blue Dodge truck to the patchy and uneven splotches of blacktop applied to the town road. “They really need to get it fixed. I have no idea how they expect us to do this.”

The White House needed votes in Congress to approve an infrastructure plan. In the early days of his administration, the president and GOP prioritized repealing the Affordable Care Act and implementing a large tax cut instead of an infrastructure plan. Three former senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said there was never a serious discussion at the White House of putting infrastructure at the top of the GOP’s legislative to-do list. “Paul Ryan and these guys had waited 30 years for this once-in-a-lifetime chance to cut taxes. They were not going to let that go,” one of them said.

Trump’s aides did work for months on an infrastructure package, eventually producing a package in 2018 with only $200 billion in new government spending stretched out over 10 years that relied heavily on leveraging additional private financing through “public-private partnerships.” Trump was ambivalent about the plan for private-public partnerships and even criticized it in front of the aides who developed it. Advisers believed that such a large package would be not acceptable to Congressional Republicans as they and the White House struggled to agree on how to pay for an infrastructure bill.

In 2018, White House officials believed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was willing to reach a bipartisan agreement on infrastructure, but talks collapsed amid partisan arguments over the impeachment inquiry. White House officials also did not believe Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was willing to give the president a victory on infrastructure spending. Congressional Democrats have said they were willing to make a deal as early as 2017 with Trump on infrastructure.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, you have every Democrat and every Republican prepared to devote a significant amount of money to an infrastructure program’ … I told Trump and his whole economic team in several meetings, ‘We have it all teed up for you,’ ” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee. “It will go down in history as legislative malpractice that Donald Trump did not come out with a major infrastructure effort.”

Peter Navarro, the most populist of the president’s senior economic advisers, said over the summer that the president supported a $1 trillion infrastructure package to help the United States build back from the pandemic. The message was privately ridiculed by other senior administration officials, and Navarro’s proposal never materialized.

The president and some of his senior advisers remain committed to the idea of infrastructure. Trump has continued to muse to advisers in recent weeks that he would do infrastructure in the second term.

D.J. Gribbin, the president’s former adviser on infrastructure, left the administration in 2018 before the midterm elections when he saw little momentum to get a package through Congress. “One of the big head winds that any federal infrastructure runs into, there is a lack of understanding that the federal government cannot just create new money,” Gribbin said.

Infrastructure eventually became a standing joke in the Capitol and even the White House, with West Wing staffers joining jokes about “infrastructure week” as the issue was drowned out by impeachment and other serial Trump controversies, according to two former senior administration officials.

Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.