Biden is betting big that voters will reward him in 2024 for new bridge and road projects
WASHINGTON – Signs are popping up around the country delivering the message that President Joe Biden deserves a lot of credit for the new bridges and roads being built with billions in federal money.
“Project funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” reads a project to ease traffic on the Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River, between Covington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati. “President Joe Biden,” the message continues. “Building a Better America.”
Federal tax dollars are upgrading the bridge and paying for the signs, but Biden hopes there will be a windfall at the polls in 2024.
If he runs again, he will argue that life is improving in noticeable ways because of legislation that most people may not even realize he helped pass. Maybe their commute to work takes less time, or expanded broadband has removed cyber-dead zones in their neighborhood. Biden aims to remind them that he pushed through a $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill and “implemented” it in an efficient way, which makes everything possible, his advisers said.
It can prove to be a tough sell. Through bitter experience, elected officials from both parties have learned that rebuilding tunnels, railroads and highways takes time—so much time that any hope of a quick political payoff vanishes. Intending to jump-start an economy battered by the financial collapse, President Barack Obama rolled out nearly $50 billion in new transportation projects after taking office in 2009, only to lament a year later that projects announced as “forest ready” was nothing of the sort.
What’s different this time, Biden allies argue, is that projects are moving from concept to completion more quickly, potentially making a difference in the 2024 presidential election.
About 20,000 projects have received funding under the bill, which Biden signed into law in 2021. Mitch Landrieu, the former New Orleans mayor who coordinates the infrastructure program for the Biden administration, said the benefits will be visible to people by the time the next election rolls around.
“There are projects coming out of the ground as we speak,” he said. “Almost every physical project that you see coming out of the ground right now has a federal dollar in it. It’s going to be critically important. Some of these things will take a little longer, but most people will know.”
The stimulus projects that Obama launched were in some ways a test run for the more comprehensive program that Biden envisions. “We’re rebuilding the whole country,” Landrieu said.
As much as anyone, Biden is familiar with the pitfalls and successes of what the Obama administration did: Obama tapped then-Vice President Biden to oversee the program, dubbing him “Sheriff Joe.”
One lesson from the Obama years is how to identify and position projects so they are truly “shovel-ready” when the financial spigot opens, officials said.
In Colorado, officials are widening a stretch of I-70 in hopes of easing a notorious bottleneck as drivers travel to iconic ski resorts including Vail and Breckenridge. A $100 million federal grant is helping to underwrite the project.
“We call it the first place to get stuck in traffic going to the mountains,” said Shoshana Lew, executive director of the Colorado Department of Transportation and a former Obama administration official.
“We received the largest federal grant our department has ever received because of” the infrastructure spending law, she said. “It’s already under construction and moving very quickly.”
Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., who heads the House Democrats’ messaging and policy operation, argued that these infrastructure projects “move the needle” for voters when they go to the polls.
Several months ago, Neguse was at the groundbreaking for the I-70 project. “It will transform the mountain and rural communities adjacent to the highway, a huge deal for my constituents, a huge deal for the people of Colorado,” he said. “And you can go down the list in terms of broadband projects, water infrastructure projects and the like that have a real impact every day.”
Others suggest that Biden’s timeline may be too ambitious given the complexities involved in federal spending.
Jim Gilmore, the Republican governor of Virginia from 1998 to 2002, helped launch the construction of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge connecting his state to Maryland. When the ribbon cutting took place in 2006, a Democratic governor was in office, and Gilmore was not invited to the ceremony.
Was the bridge renamed the “Jim Gilmore-Woodrow Wilson Bridge?” Gilmore asked rhetorically. It was not.
“I found federal money very frustrating,” Gilmore said. “There were always so many strings attached, it was very difficult to use the money efficiently and quickly enough to do things.”
Another obstacle facing Biden is an age-old problem facing candidates. Voters are often focused on the present and the future, not what a politician has done in the past. Amidst high inflation and fear of a coming recessionmay many Americans be more focused on paying bills than celebrating new charging stations for electric cars they can’t afford.
John McLaughlin, a pollster for former President Donald Trump, said “the negative impact of higher prices for gas, food, energy, housing and other essentials is being felt now and is hurting Biden and the Democrats badly.”
Once Biden formally becomes a candidate, he will be able to use campaign funds to make the point that his infrastructure package actually improves lives.
“You can bet he’s going to communicate about it and people are going to see it,” said a person close to Biden, who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Until then, the president and his supporters must improvise.
Speaking to House Democrats this week at a retreat in Baltimore, Biden held up a red, white and blue sign for the city’s Frederick Douglass Tunnel, whose future upgrades will allow trains to travel more than 100 miles per hour, up from 30. “Pres. . Joe Biden; Frederick Douglass Tunnel; Bipartisan Infrastructure Law,” the sign read.
“If we did nothing, nothing but implement what we’ve already passed and let people know who did it for them, we’ll win,” Biden said.
Democrats want similar signs touting projects underway in their districts around the country.
“I can just carry it like a sandwich board,” said the rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., on the sign. “I can just walk around with it.”
Peter Nicholas reported from Washington, and Scott Wong from Baltimore.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com