We have been living small. Our public imagination has been stunted for too long. We have failed to confront great challenges that require big, bold thinking and action. We have been held hostage by sociopathy and self-service, rejection of government, partisan warfare, and the daily grind of corruption and crime. This limited vision has been a decades-long byproduct of Washington division and gridlock.
I confess: I’m a bit of a sucker for bold stuff. Big thinking. Action rooted in a desire to improve lives. Confronting existential threats like the climate crisis. It’s why I’m listening closely when President Biden proffers a $2 trillion infrastructure plan and insists this is a “once in a lifetime investment” and punctuates it with a promise: “It’s big, yes. It’s bold, yes. And we can get it done.”
Admit it: You likely didn’t anticipate Joe Biden really could be a transformative president, one who’s determined to make the most of his shot. Like me, you may have hoped that he would at least use his knowledge and experience to repair all the damage heaped upon our democracy and society.
But Biden’s plan, his notion of infrastructure, is not limited to the usual vision of roads and bridges and transportation, and maybe broadband, too. Yes, that’s part of the “American Jobs Plan”: Modernize 20,000 miles of highways and roads, repair 10,000 bridges, modernize public transit, modernize the electricity grid, eliminate lead pipes that deliver water, finally get high-speed broadband into rural areas.
Yet he’s also asking Congress and Americans to think bigger, to expand the idea in which fixing and building infrastructure can mean addressing inequality and recognizing human needs like health and home care and justice and climate change. These things are part of the human infrastructure, the social fabric, that gives the country a fighting chance to fix itself and genuinely advance.
Imagine: $213 billion to improve and build affordable housing. Imagine: $400 billion for expanded in-home care for elderly and people with disabilities and better pay and benefits for caregivers. Imagine: A focus on reducing racial inequities in transportation, housing and job training and hiring.
Put aside Republicans for a moment who want him to think smaller and curtail measures connected to justice and health and equality—you know, those American ideas that hold little sway in their circles these days. Even among the progressive wing of the Democrats, Biden is also facing criticism that his thinking and plan is too small. None other than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she thinks it’s too small by an order of five: Her idea of change, shared with Rachel Maddow, would cost an eye-popping $10 trillion, not $2 trillion.
But even if we accept that Biden’s plan is already pushing the envelope of what can be accomplished in Congress—and likely will depend on a Democrats-only commitment to get it done—let’s not underestimate how his investment represents an expansion of public imagination that can lead to a reinvigoration of the bond between government and the people.
We are talking about fixing the kind of potholes that not only can break your car axle, but break your spirit. We are talking about policies and plans that decades later may be part of the equation that genuinely provided a pivot and improved our world.
There have been big and bold moments before, and not only during the much-discussed FDR years when the Great Depression inspired the New Deal and a host of bold programs (Social Security among them) intended to revive the economy, save Capitalism, and produce more personal stability and less anxiety and fear. Consider two:
In 1862, deep in the throes of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln recognized the importance of linking the nation’s vast expanse from East to West. He committed to building a transcontinental railroad that laid the groundwork for a transformed US, one that by 1890 would be the world’s largest economy (surpassing Great Britain). Completed primarily with federal funding in 1869, four years after his death, the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific laid over 1,700 miles of track. It was one of the great engineering feats of the 19th century.
While WWII was still being waged, a unanimous House and Senate—imagine that—passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill. This landmark legislation made it possible for millions of returning soldiers to go to college, start businesses and buy homes. By 1951, more than eight million vets had benefitted from the education subsidies, representing one out of seven in the labor force. The $14 billion investment (more than $200 billion in today’s dollars) was a key to the rise of the middle class and helped spark a consumer revolution, making it possible for millions to pursue professional and personal dreams. One survey of returning vets found that most expected to face an economic depression when they got back.
We have seen the commitment by President Biden to confront climate change by assembling a dedicated team and a whole-of-government commitment to recognize the ways in which rising carbon emissions affect everything from foreign policy to land use to military operations to racial justice. His expanded, climate-minded concept of infrastructure includes building half a million electric vehicle charging stations, accelerating the electric vehicle market, making the electric grid more resilient to extreme conditions and retrofitting housing to make it more energy efficient, particularly in the most vulnerable communities.
But Biden’s plan also would fund research and development of new technologies to mitigate climate change, retool factories, cap oil and gas wells, help fossil fuel workers transition to new jobs and—harkening back to FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps created in 1933—launch the “Civilian Climate Corps.”
As stated, the new CCC would put Americans to work on projects:
“to conserve and restore public lands and waters, bolster community resilience, increase reforestation, increase carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, protect biodiversity, improve access to recreation, and address the changing climate.”
In a sane world, that’s a big idea that in a healthy society would be embraced across the political spectrum. When the GOP pushback inevitably comes, I’ll be listening to how the critics oppose such a “radical idea” to restore land and aid communities. As Jim Lardner noted in The New Yorker, it’s the kind of effort that would remind Americans of “the capacity of government to be an instrument of the common good.”
In this new, bold Biden era, that’s the ethic that we should expect more and more, at least as long as the Democrats can hold onto their majority.