Infrastructure is Donald Trump’s Most Popular Policy, But The President Can’t Strike a Deal
“The oath of office I take today is an oath of allegiance to all Americans. For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; Subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; And spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
Nearly 31 million Americans were listening in to the new president’s inaugural address on a chilly January morning. The speech they heard was unlike any other given by a U.S. president in living memory, calling out a dying nation whose most basic industry and infrastructure were in ruin. “American carnage,” he called it, pointing to the country’s once-famous highways, airports, and bridges that had fallen into disarray. The president went on to assure the audience that under his leadership, the nation would soon embark on the great mission of rebuilding its crumbling infrastructure “with American hands and American labor.”
This was not the usual promise of newly-elected Republican presidents, but it was a familiar refrain from Donald Trump, who had spent over a year on the campaign trail vowing to invest in American infrastructure. In October of 2016, the Trump campaign unveiled a groundbreaking new infrastructure plan: a spending package that would combine private and public investment, clocking in at over $1 trillion dollars, easily eclipsing Hillary Clinton’s $500 billion plan. Donald Trump’s campaign site on infrastructure included a length list of promises, including a “visionary” new transportation system in the tradition of President Dwight Eisenhower, the establishment of new pipelines and coal export facilities, and the creation of thousands of jobs in construction and manufacturing. Such a massive government spending project was major departure from Republican orthodoxy, which had long been averse to any such public spending increases. Just eight years prior, Republicans had staunchly resisted President Barack Obama’s post-recession stimulus proposal that included, among other things, broad investments in infrastructure and transportation. Donald Trump had never been a typical Republican, however, campaigning on a platform based more in populist nationalism that left little room for the fiscal conservatism that had come to characterize the Republican party. Americans recognized this, with polls showing that voters thought of Trump as less conservative than any other Republican presidential nominee in modern history.
From an electoral perspective, Donald Trump had plenty of reason to embrace the infrastructure investment plan. Increased infrastructure spending is popular among Republicans and Democrats alike, and was one of Trump’s most well-received budget proposals earlier this March with a 79 percent approval rating. At the time of his inauguration, 69 percent of Americans believed that President Trump’s pledge to increase infrastructure spending was “very important,” exceeding every other promise that Trump made on the campaign trail. Infrastructure also handily weds the liberal objective of public investment with the conservative goal of job creation and attracted support spanning the political spectrum from liberal economist Paul Krugman to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. The proposal also deliberately evoked memories of Dwight Eisenhower’s leadership of the Interstate Highway System, which remains widely celebrated by liberals and conservatives alike decades later (a rare feat). Infrastructure spending would theoretically be an easy sell to both the public and D.C. insiders, with significant amounts of support on the left and the right.
Donald Trump’s advocacy of an infrastructure investment plan also highlighted one of his strongest qualities as a presidential candidate, namely his reputation for deal-making and pragmaticism. Infrastructure has long been a major goal of the Democratic party, pushed repeatedly by President Obama and shot down time and again by congressional Republicans. Trump is no stranger to this fact, and has spoken openly about his goal of cutting an infrastructure deal with Democrats in Congress. Democratic senators representing states that Trump won could be particularly open to the promise of an infrastructure package, aiming to reach out to Trump’s base and bring needed investment to struggling states like Ohio and North Dakota. One New York Times interview showed President Trump beaming at the possibility of an deal, hoping for “tremendous” support from Democrats “desperate” for a win on infrastructure.
Eight months out from his inauguration, however, President Trump has taken little action to begin negotiating an infrastructure investment deal. In May, Trump announced that the White House’s plan was “largely completed” and would be released within two to three weeks if not sooner, but the story was quickly overshadowed as the president moved on to traditional Republican policy goals such as repealing the Affordable Care Act. Trump’s initial appointment of Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation was well-received, but other key positions in the department such as the administrators of the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration have been left empty since Trump took office. Now the president seems more concerned with promoting the Republican party’s tax cut plan, even in the wake of destruction unleashed by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma that necessitates large-scale infrastructure rebuilding.
But even if Donald Trump did have his sights set on an infrastructure negotiations, he would likely face several obstacles on the path to a deal. Even though Trump should have an advantage with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress, his spending plan would likely be a hard sell with conservatives. Congressional Republicans have already spent the last eight years challenging President Obama’s proposals to increase transportation and infrastructure spending, including Obama’s post-recession stimulus package in 2009. Though Trump’s proposed plan focuses far more on private spending and investment than Obama’s, Republican leaders have still been lukewarm at best about the prospects of an infrastructure deal. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell have been largely silent on the issue, while House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has emphasized that he would only a consider an infrastructure plan that did not come with any increases in spending. Congressional Republicans, currently preoccupied with the conservative goal of large-scale tax cuts, are unlikely to provide much help to President Trump on a massive infrastructure spending package.
Trump’s recent negotiations with Democratic leaders on the debt ceiling and DACA point to the possibility that the president could push through infrastructure reform by working on a deal with Democratic leadership. However, this path poses its own difficulties. The president’s current deals could quickly unravel, owing to his impulsiveness and tendency to go back on his word, which raises doubts about the fate of any future negotiations. In addition, Trump’s current infrastructure proposal emphasizes private investment, which would likely face resistance from Democrats who favor a plan based in direct government spending. Though Trump could negotiate a new plan featuring greater public investment, he risks alienating many of the Republicans he would need to cross over and vote with Democrats to pass a bill. Congressional Democrats who were initially optimistic about the possibility of working with the president have also grown more wary in recent months. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, once open to negotiating with President Trump in areas they agree on, has expressed fears that the president’s infrastructure plan would empower Wall Street while sacrificing protections for workers and the environment. Trump would have to win over reluctant Democrats by proving that an infrastructure deal will be to the benefit of their own states and not just the current administration’s allies.
The prospects for Donald Trump’s massive infrastructure rebuilding plan seem great, and would likely be met with broad support from both the American public and the chattering class. However, the path to passing such a massive spending plan is far more rocky than the president’s rhetoric seems to indicate. Though Trump prides himself on his deal-making talent, he has yet to to demonstrate the commitment to careful and difficult policy negotiations that a bipartisan infrastructure spending deal would mandate. Striking an agreement between Republicans and Democrats in Congress would require President Trump to walk a fine line between private and public spending, and party priorities are currently focused more on tax cuts and DACA than on infrastructure. As it stands, Trump’s lack of interest in advancing his most popular policy proposal prevents these negotiations from even getting off the ground.