(Washington) — President Joe Biden signed his hard-earned $1 trillion infrastructure deal into law Monday before a celebratory bipartisan crowd on the White House lawn, declaring that the injection of new money to roads, bridges, ports and more will work. Life “changes for the better” for the American people.
But expectations are more dire for more bipartisanship ahead of the 2022 midterm elections as Biden returns to tougher negotiations over his broader $1.85 trillion social spending package.
The president hopes to use the Infrastructure Act to restore his popularity, which has taken a hit amid rising inflation, the inability to fully destabilize public health and economic risks from COVID-19.
“My message to the American people,” he said, “is: America is moving again and your life will change for the better.”
With bipartisan agreement, the president had to choose between his promise to advance national unity and a commitment to transformative change. The final action slashed much of his initial vision for infrastructure. However, the administration hopes to promote the new law as a success that bridges partisan divisions and will lift the country up with clean drinking water, high-speed internet, and a shift away from fossil fuels.
“People, a lot of the time in Washington, the reason we don’t get things done is because we insisted on getting everything we wanted. With this law, we focused on getting things done,” Biden said. I ran for president because, in my view, the only way to move our country forward was through compromise.”
Biden will come out of Washington to sell the plan more widely in the coming days.
He plans to go to New Hampshire on Tuesday to visit the state’s “red-listed” bridge for repair, and he’ll head to Detroit on Wednesday for a stop at General Motors’ electric car assembly plant, while other officials are also scattered across the country. The president went to the Port of Baltimore last week to highlight how supply chain investments from the act can curb inflation and strengthen supply chains, a major concern of voters dealing with rising prices.
“We see this as an opportunity because we know that the president’s agenda is very popular,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Monday before the signing. Communication with voters can go “beyond the legislative process to talk about how this will help them. Hopefully, that will have an impact.”
Biden delayed signing the infrastructure agreement after it was passed on November 5 until lawmakers return from congressional recess and can join in a bipartisan event. Sunday night before the signing, the White House announced that Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans, would help manage and coordinate the implementation of infrastructure spending.
Monday’s gathering on the White House lawn was uniquely upbeat with a brass band and lively speeches, in contrast to the drama and tensions when the package’s fate was in doubt for months. Speakers praised the measures to create jobs, combat inflation and respond to the needs of voters.
Ohio Senator Rob Portman, a Republican who helped negotiate the package, celebrated Biden’s willingness to drop much of his initial proposal to help draw Republican lawmakers into the House. Portman even credited former President Donald Trump with raising awareness of the infrastructure, even though the 2020 election loser voiced strong opposition to the eventual deal.
“This bipartisan support for this bill comes because it makes sense to our voters, but the center-out approach should be the rule, not the exception,” Portman said.
The signature included governors and mayors from both parties, business leaders and businessmen. In addition to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the guest list included Republicans such as Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, Maine Senator Susan Collins, New York Representative Tom Reed, Alaskan Representative Don Young and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
In order to achieve a bipartisan deal, the president had to halve his initial ambition of spending $2.3 trillion on infrastructure. The bill that will become law Monday actually includes about $550 billion in new spending over 10 years, with some expenditures already planned in the package.
The agreement eventually garnered the support of 19 Republican senators, including Senate Republican Party leader Mitch McConnell. Thirteen House Republicans voted in favor of the infrastructure bill. An angry Trump issued a statement attacking McConnell’s “Old Crow” and other Republicans for collaborating on a “terrible Social Democratic infrastructure plan.”
McConnell said the country “urgently needs” the new infrastructure money, but he skipped the signing ceremony on Monday, telling WHAS Radio in Louisville, Kentucky, he had “other things” to do.
Historians, economists, and engineers interviewed by the Associated Press welcomed Biden’s efforts. But they stressed that $1 trillion was not nearly enough to overcome decades of government failure to maintain and modernize the country’s infrastructure. The policy essentially imposed a trade-off in terms of the potential impact not only on climate but also on the ability to outperform the rest of the world this century and remain the dominant economic power.
“We have to be vigilant here about our infrastructure gap in terms of investment level and dig deep into these eyes, and that this is not going to solve our infrastructure problems across the country,” said David Van Slick, dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
Biden also tried unsuccessfully to tie the infrastructure package to passing a broader package of $1.85 trillion in proposed spending on households, health care and a shift to renewable energy that could help tackle climate change. This measure has not yet gained sufficient support from the narrow Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.
Biden continues to work to placate Democratic skeptics of the broader package such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, while also retaining the more liberal branches of his party. Speaking while signing the bill on Monday, Pelosi said the separate package would pass “hopefully this week.”
Texas Senator Ted Cruz expressed concern during an interview with Fox News on Sunday that Republican support for the Infrastructure Act could eventually galvanize Democrats and support the second package.
“They gave Joe Biden a political win,” Cruz said of his fellow Republicans. “He’ll now go cross-country touting, and look at this big bipartisan win. And that extra momentum, unfortunately, increases the likelihood that they will whip the Democrats and pass some multi-billion dollar spending bill on top of this.”
Bargaining over infrastructure showed Biden can still bring Democrats and Republicans together, even as tensions continue to rise over the January 6 attack on the US Capitol by Donald Trump supporters who mistakenly believe Biden was not a legitimately elected president. However, the result is a product that may not stand up to the existential threat of climate change or the transformative legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose portrait hangs in the Biden Oval Office.
“Yes, the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act is a big deal,” said Peter Norton, professor of history in the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering. “But the bill is not transformative, because most of it is very similar.”
Norton compared limited action on climate change to the beginning of World War II, when Roosevelt and Congress redirected the entire American economy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Within two months, there was a ban on car production. Dealers did not have new cars to sell for four years as factories focused on weapons and war materiel. To conserve fuel consumption, a national speed limit of 35 mph has been introduced.
“The emergency we face today requires a similar emergency response,” Norton said.