President Obama gives his State of the Union address tonight, and you’re likely to hear one of my favorite words a few times: infrastructure. No, really. Robert Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, follows infrastructure as part of the Metropolitan Policy Program. He says President Obama’s State of the Union speeches have been unique in their focus on the topic.
“I mean, infrastructure doesn’t usually come up in the State of the Union. Until this president it wasn’t really part of the speech,” he says.
Investment in infrastructure was a big part of the stimulus package. Remember all those shovel-ready projects?
Puentes says last year’s speech was less about getting people jobs with shovels, and signaled more of a shift to big-picture planning.
“Not just spreading money like peanut butter all around the country so everybody gets something,” he says, “but focusing on those investments that matter because they’re going to result in long-term economic goals.”
That’s happening, though slowly. Puentes says the Obama administration has been looking hard at systems. One example? How streamlining shipping and freight can expedite an increase in U.S. exports. Last year’s speech suggested the end of the war in Iraq meant more money for that kind of thing. The president said he wanted to take money that was being used for the war in Iraq to pay down debt and “do some nation building right here at home.”
That’s not easy, since war funds cannot simply be shifted over to domestic projects. As for the likelihood that infrastructure projects mentioned in last year’s State of the Union — or this year’s — will get going?
“The reality is that none of those are going to get passed by the Congress,” says Chris Krueger, a policy analyst at Guggenheim Securities.
He says even though improved roads might seem easy to agree on, infrastructure spending has been a sticking point for the two major political parties since 2009. Krueger says Democrats see it as more investment, while Republicans call it more failed stimulus.
Until lawmakers build more bridges between each other, no actual bridges are likely to get started.