Joe Biden pursues his ‘Great Society’ with historic infrastructure proposal

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Griffin Connolly
·4 min read
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President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center (AP)
President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center (AP)

If Joe Biden told us once, he told us a thousand times: he’s a Senate Guy.

Seventy days into his new job, the president has exuded the legislative ambition and vigour of the last true Senate Guy to occupy the White HouseLyndon Johnson.

With commanding Democratic majorities in Congress after the 1964 election, Johnson pursued an historic legislative spending regime.

Aiming to eliminate poverty, put Black Americans on an equal footing with whites, and take care of the nation’s most vulnerable, Johnson’s “Great Society” agenda delivered Medicare and Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a raft of transportation and infrastructure projects, and massive funding increases for public schools.

The Vietnam War — and the loud opposition at home among anti-war liberals within his own party — have overshadowed President Johnson’s legacy, perhaps the single most enduring one since Franklin Roosevelt, statutorily speaking.

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Mr Biden does not have a major war (or, more importantly, a major domestic anti-war movement) to contend with.

And with Republicans gunning for majorities in both chambers in the 2022 midterms, the president is racing against the clock to create his own Great Society.

On Wednesday he introduced a sweeping $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan that would touch nearly every aspect of American life. He intends to offset the cost of that investment by raising taxes on households bringing in $400,000 or more annually as well as hiking the corporate tax rate — effectively undoing core elements of Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cuts.

The new proposal, which would be even more expensive than Mr Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief package from earlier this month, comprises four main categories of government spending.

  • $621bn for traditional transportation infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, and public transit.

  • $650bn for “modern infrastructure” that will affect Americans “at home”: broadband internet expansion, revamped water systems and electricity grids, massive investments in public schools facilities.

  • $400bn for “care infrastructure” projects such as schools, child care facilities, veterans’ hospitals and other federal welfare buildings.

  • and $580bn for research, development and training projects, including providing incentives for companies to keep manufacturing jobs in the nation’s “industrial heartland.”

All of those projects would be geared towards sustainability and mitigating the causes and impact of anthropomorphic climate change.

Mr Biden’s infrastructure package would shovel $174bn into programmes to increase the US share of the electric vehicle (EV) market by establishing new tax incentives and sales rebates for consumer EV purchases. Billions would go towards grants and other incentives to spur construction of a national network of half a million EV charging stations by the end of the decade. And billions more would be put towards fulfilling his campaign promise to electrify the federal vehicle fleet.

The plan, as a whole, will not garner bipartisan support despite the administration’s lip service to courting Republican moderates,

“Given the amount of tax increases that they’re discussing, there’s no way they’re going to be able to get anything done on a bipartisan basis,” Jim Manley, a longtime aide to former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, told The Independent.

Capitol Hill insiders agree Mr Biden’s infrastructure package is destined to become law in some way, shape or form through the budget reconciliation process that allows Democrats to sidestep Senate GOP obstruction.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be easy.

Democrats in Washington are bracing for progressives such as Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Jeff Merkley of Oregon being more vocal with their demands for green energy investment and more aggressive tax code changes.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin III looms as a potential foil for progressives’ penchant for unbridled spending.

To achieve his Great Society, Mr Biden must broker another deal between those two camps, as he did for his historic Covid relief bill.

“Some day people are gonna look back at this, and … the first bill’s going to be a walk in the park based on what they’re going to have to face the next go-round,” Mr Manley said.

“And potentially the next go-round after that,” he said, referring to the administration’s planned rollout in April of another economic package to expand health insurance coverage, subsidise child care, and make community college tuition-free, among other provisions.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set an ambitious legislative schedule that could allow her chamber to take final votes by the July Fourth holiday on Mr Biden’s infrastructure package, which she has dubbed “a visionary, once-in-a-century investment in the American people.”

The infrastructure package could represent the last major push for big-ticket legislation this year before lawmakers must get to work on annual items such as the military budget and government appropriations bills.

Before you know it, congressional primary season will be upon us, as the 2022 midterms take shape.

Mr Biden is urgent about cementing his legislative legacy before then.

“The president and his team are moving quickly,” Mr Manley said, “because they’re smart enough to realise that he’s got a narrow window to act.”