President Joe Biden has signed his hard-fought $1tn infrastructure deal into law before a bipartisan, celebratory crowd on the White House lawn, declaring that the new infusion of cash for roads, bridges, ports and more is going to make life “change for the better”.
The president hopes to use the infrastructure law to build back his popularity, which has taken a hit amid rising inflation and the inability to fully shake the public health and economic risks from Covid-19.
“My message to the American people is this: America is moving again and your life is going to change for the better,” he said.
However, the prospects are tougher for further bipartisanship ahead of the 2022 midterm elections as Biden pivots back to more difficult negotiations over his broader $1.85tn social spending package.
With Monday’s bipartisan deal, the president had to choose between his promise of fostering national unity and a commitment to transformative change. The final measure whittled down much of his initial vision for infrastructure. Yet the administration hopes to sell the new law as a success that bridged partisan divides and will elevate the country with better drinking water, high-speed internet and a shift away from fossil fuels.
“Folks, too often in Washington the reason we didn’t get things done is because we insisted on getting everything we want. Everything,” Biden said. “With this law, we focused on getting things done. I ran for president because the only way to move our country forward in my view was through compromise and consensus.”
Biden will get outside Washington to sell the plan more broadly in coming days.
He intends go to New Hampshire on Tuesday to visit a bridge on the state’s “red list” for repair, and he will go to Detroit on Wednesday for a stop at General Motors’ electric vehicle assembly plant, while other officials also fan out across the country.
“We see this as is an opportunity because we know that the president’s agenda is quite popular,” said Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary. The outreach to voters can move “beyond the legislative process to talk about how this is going to help them. And we’re hoping that’s going to have an impact.”
Biden held off on signing the hard-fought infrastructure deal after it passed on 5 November until legislators were back from a congressional recess and could join in a bipartisan event.
The gathering on Monday on the White House lawn was upbeat, with a brass band and rousing speeches, a contrast to the drama and tensions when the fate of the package was in doubt for several months. The speakers lauded the measure for creating jobs, combating inflation and responding to the needs of voters.
Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who helped negotiate the package, celebrated Biden’s willingness to jettison much of his initial proposal to help bring GOP lawmakers on board. Portman even credited former president Donald Trump for raising awareness about infrastructure, even though the loser of the 2020 election voiced intense opposition to the ultimate agreement.
“This bipartisan support for this bill comes because it makes sense for our constituents, but the approach from the centre out should be the norm, not the exception,” Portman said.
In order to achieve a bipartisan deal, the president had to cut back his initial ambition to spend $2.3tn on infrastructure. The bill that became law on Monday in reality includes about $550bn in new spending over 10 years, since some of the expenditures in the package were already planned.
Senate GOP leader Mitch cConnell supported the agreement, saying the country “desperately needs” the new infrastructure money, but he skipped Monday’s signing ceremony, telling WHAS radio in Louisville, Kentucky, that he had “other things” to do.
Historians, economists and engineers welcomed Biden’s efforts. But they stressed that $1tn was not nearly enough to overcome the government’s failure for decades to maintain and upgrade the country’s infrastructure.
“We’ve got to be sober here about what our infrastructure gap is in terms of a level of investment … that this is not going to solve our infrastructure problems,” said David Van Slyke, dean of the Maxwell school of citizenship and public affairs at Syracuse University.
“Yes, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a big deal,” said Peter Norton, a history professor in the University of Virginia’s engineering department. “But the bill is not transformational, because most of it is more of the same.”
Norton compared the limited action on the climate crisis to the start of the second world war, when Roosevelt and Congress reoriented the entire US economy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Within two months, there was a ban on auto production. Dealerships had no new cars to sell for four years as factories focused on weapons and war materiel. To conserve fuel consumption, a national speed limit of 35mph was introduced.
“The emergency we face today warrants a comparable emergency response,” Norton said.
Biden tried unsuccessfully to tie the infrastructure package to passage of a broader package of $1.85tn in proposed spending on families, health care and a shift to renewable energy that could help address the climate crisis. That measure has yet to gain sufficient support from the narrow Democratic majorities in the Senate and House.
Biden continues to work to appease Democratic skeptics of the broader package, while also holding on to the most liberal branches of his party. Pelosi said in remarks at the bill signing that the separate package will pass “hopefully this week”.