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Polman: This time infrastructure week is for real

Polman: This time infrastructure week is for real

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Dick Polman

What welcome words these were, from a newly elected president: “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure…our highways bridges, tunnels, airports…which will become second to none, and we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.”

That must be Uncle Joe, right?

Think again people. That was Trump, riffing in the wee hours of the dark night he was elected in 2016. But predictably, his purported quest to repair our crumbling infrastructure turned out to be just another con.

So how refreshing it is to finally have an administration that’s willing to go big, because nothing less will suffice.

President Biden’s progressive infrastructure plan carries a price tag 10 times bigger than the one Trump failed to fight for. He wants to pay for it by hiking taxes on those most able to afford it, and the public is on board. According to the latest national poll, 54 percent of Americans support a plan financed by a higher corporate tax rate and tax increases on people making more than $400,000 a year. (Only 27 percent oppose the idea.)

With the wind at his back, Biden is well aware that now is the time to push hard for necessary transformational change. He clearly wants to be an acronym president in the mold of FDR and LBJ. “I’m convinced that if we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say this was the moment that America won the future,” he said Wednesday.

Will he get everything he wants? Probably not. Republicans have already rediscovered their hostility to debts and deficits, neither of which they cared about during the MAGA era, so they’ll likely do nothing to help Biden repair America and put people back to work. The whole concept of using federal spending to address long-festering crises (economic, social, foundational) is anathema to a cult-of-personality party that equates governance with trash talking on Twitter. And it’s hard to foresee the GOP buying Biden’s provisions to expand Amtrak.

In the end, it may be necessary in the Senate to squeeze the infrastructure plan through the “reconciliation” procedure (as happened with the COVID-19 rescue plan) because it’s budget-related and thus would require only a simple (Democratic) majority rather than the artificial 60-vote filibuster threshold. And along the way, some wish-list provisions that don’t quite meet the definition of “infrastructure” (strengthening labor unions; spending $400 billion on home caretakers for the elderly and disabled) could wind up excised.

Nor are all Democrats united on everything. Some progressives still don’t think the infrastructure plan is big enough, while some centrists think it’s too ambitious for the business groups that need to be brought on board. On the other hand, surely there’s some common ground, even between the parties, because who can possibly be “against” repairing highways and bridges – which will create jobs in every state, red and blue?

The time is now to go bold, because if not now, when? Biden’s plan in the broadest sense connects with Democrats and independents – and by any measure of self-interest, it theoretically should appeal to Republican Senate and House members who care about bringing home the bacon to their states and districts. They’ll probably vote against it anyway, then boast in press releases about the arriving bacon – as many have done with the COVID-19 rescue benefits.

Most importantly, a president whose election derailed America’s march to autocracy feels the weight of this historic crossroads. As he said Wednesday, “I truly believe we’re in a moment where history is going to look back on this time as a fundamental choice having been made between democracies and autocracies… It’s a basic question. Can democracies still deliver for their people? Can they get a majority? I believe we can. I believe we must.”

When Obamacare was enacted a decade ago, Biden famously blurted that it was “a big f-g deal.” What he’s proposing now is far more ambitious – much to the surprise of those on the left who fought him in the Democratic primaries.

If he can pull off a sizeable chunk of the sweeping infrastructure package, that BFD could put him in the history books as JRB.

Dick Polman is the national political columnist at Philadlephia NPR affiliate WHYY and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania.

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