Last updated: January 25, 2011 - 9:20am
When President Barack Obama uses his State of the Union address to rally America to “outbuild” other nations, he will face an unusual challenge: getting Republicans to embrace public works projects again as the kind of worthy bacon they have traditionally fought to bring home, and not as wasteful pork that should be spurned.
President Obama is recalibrating his message and trying to make the case that public works are not just about short-term construction jobs, but about long-term economic competitiveness. He is increasingly arguing that spending money to rebuild the nation’s roads, rails, ports, power grids and even broadband networks will be necessary if America is to be able to compete in the global economy. And he is expected to repeat his call for creating a National Infrastructure Bank, which would choose public works projects by their merits.
“The question is, how do you know you’re going to get a return on your investment?” said David Burwell, the director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment, explaining the importance of careful project selection. “It’s a question of, how do you give us some confidence that you’re investing to grow the economy?”
The speech will be President Obama’s third call to rebuild the nation’s aging infrastructure. His first effort, the $787 billion stimulus package, ended up devoting only a small part of the money to public works, and many stimulus projects were selected more because they were “shovel ready” and could get people working relatively quickly than because they were particularly transformative. His second effort, a call for a $50 billion infrastructure program on Labor Day, went nowhere in the run-up to the midterm elections. The challenge the administration now faces is twofold: negotiating a new transportation bill with Congress amid great uncertainty over where the money will come from and what it should be spent on, and then devising a system that would ensure that in times of limited resources, the worthiest projects get money.