“I truly believe we’re in a moment where history is going to look back on this time as a fundamental choice that had to be made between democracies and autocracies,” President Joe Biden declared during a March 31 speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. What exactly could be so vitally important that not only America’s future but the entire project of liberal democracy hangs in the balance?
Infrastructure. Well, “infrastructure.”
In Biden’s telling, everything hinged on passing a multi-trillion-dollar spending package that was ostensibly meant to upgrade America’s basic infrastructure but that also contained a wide range of unrelated spending on new social programs, industrial policy, and other forms of federal bureaucracy. Previous generations may have fought civilization-defining battles against tyrannical rulers and such toxic ideas as slavery and Nazism. But the fate of the free world, the president would have you believe, now depends on whether 50 senators (plus Vice President Kamala Harris) will vote for bigger Amtrak subsidies and expanded government-run internet service.
On one hand, you can’t really blame Biden for overselling his infrastructure proposal. That’s what presidents have to do to get Congress’ attention, especially at a time when culture wars have come to dominate so much of the political discourse. Biden is working with a razor-thin Senate majority at a time of hardened partisan lines. He knows that Congress almost never does anything without an impending deadline or a lot of outside pressure. And infrastructure is mostly pretty boring—as most things the government does should be. Recasting his proposal as democracy’s last stand might prompt a few more people to pay attention.
On the other hand, he’s really overselling it.
Biden’s American Jobs Plan began its life in March as a $2.25 trillion proposal, but by mid-summer it had been split into two separate legislative efforts: a roughly $1 trillion bipartisan bill that includes about $550 billion in new spending, and a parallel, Democratic-backed $3.5 trillion budget proposal that encompasses many of the so-called “human infrastructure” elements from Biden’s original plan.
However it gets divided up for the purposes of clearing the necessary votes in Congress, what the president outlined in March remains a useful framework for understanding how Democrats, in particular, have approached this summer’s debate over infrastructure—much of which has little to do with infrastructure. Only about a quarter of Biden’s initial proposal was aimed at anything traditionally classified under that term, such as roads, bridges, railroads, ports, pipes, and power lines. The original package spent twice as much to expand government-run health care as it did on highway projects.