Most of the money from President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure bill is being handed out this summer and fall, nearly a year after passage, just in time for a campaign season he hopes will keep his fellow Democrats in power. But his team’s task is getting people to pay attention – and give them credit for what they did.
Starting Tuesday, Biden administration officials will start a weeks-long blitz across the country – including in many midterm battleground states, where they’ll appear with governors, senators and members of Congress – with a pitch focused on generating local attention and media coverage, either through in-person or virtual events with local officials.
This comes after multiple conversations over the summer with the Cabinet secretaries most focused on implementing the projects in which infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu stressed that they’d been selling the bill all wrong. They were talking too much about the win in Washington and less about how they projects would make a difference in people’s lives.
But now administration officials think they’re about to get a second chance: the way that the law was structured, the actual money – rather than promises of what could be – was always set to start flowing in August. And they’re hoping to draft off a larger sense of Biden wins from other major bills he’s gotten through in recent weeks.
There are over 5,300 infrastructure projects getting underway across the country – in every state, and multiple in every congressional district, from the smaller ones Landrieu refers to as “spreading the peanut butter” of the law’s funding to the massive ones Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has dubbed their “cathedral” projects. They range from laying wires for rural broadband to modernizing the terminals at Los Angeles International Airport. Administration officials hope that gives them enough to make infrastructure interesting – a perpetual problem for politicians, regardless of how many voters say it’s important to them.
“The conversation in Washington has always been about the next fight, the next hill, the next bill – so much so that I think some folks seeing the tug of war over ‘Build Back Better’ kind of lost track of the fact that the infrastructure law passed,” said Buttigieg, referring to the struggle over Biden’s signature legislative package that was eventually passed in a scaled-back version earlier in August after months of intraparty squabbling.
“It is important for them to know that that this bridge over the rail yard in Chattanooga that we just announced is coming to you because the President’s vision and ability to work with Congress, both sides of the aisle, to get funding for this,” he added.
And there will be signs: thousands of them soon going up over projects all over the country. Some red and blue, others green and white, all with “Funded By the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law” in big letters and the White House’s “Building a Better America” logo, with “President Joe Biden” written right in the middle. Oversize novelty checks to hand out on construction sites were considered, but ultimately nixed. There was no need, administration officials decided, to reinforce the focus on the law’s $1 trillion price tag.
Administration officials admit, though, that they flopped in getting out the word for the first nine months after passage, with the law getting lost in the shuffle of a year of other party infighting and bureaucracy.
“You can’t just snap your fingers as though the country was ready on Day 1 to make sure that this all got built by Day 30. That’s not the way massive infrastructure projects work,” Landrieu told CNN. “That this is not at the top of people’s minds doesn’t mean that we can’t do big things.”
“We have to do some work,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm acknowledged as she headed out of the White House last week after Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, the sweeping $750 billion health care, tax and climate bill, which administration officials are also hitting the road to tout.
White House officials are trying to learn some lessons from the credit-grabbing ways of former President Donald Trump, who famously went so far as having a letter with his signature on it placed in boxes of food handed out during the early days of the pandemic. They want to go further than former President Barack Obama’s efforts around his 2009 stimulus bill – in part because they have more money to announce now, and in part because they feel like Obama’s efforts, which included more muted signs, didn’t go far enough.
The administration-led effort comes as House Majority PAC, the group dedicated to trying to hold onto Democrats’ slim House majority, has started airing a new ad with the tag line “Democrats – Delivering for America’s Families.” The spot argues that after Biden inherited a “deeply damaged economy,” Democrats “went to work,” ticking through a list of accomplishments including “repairing our roads and bridges” and allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, which was part of the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act.
“The President says, ‘Look, I can’t sit in my office and turn a dial and move gas down. I can’t sit in my office and move inflation,’” Landrieu said. “But what I can do is ask Congress and my team to help me reduce everybody’s cost in other areas and wring efficiencies out of the system. That’s where the infrastructure bill comes into play.”
‘Why ‘Love Actually’ starts and ends in an airport’
But the communication problems persist. Sitting in his office in the Old Executive Office Building, Landrieu said he’s even been having trouble talking infrastructure with his mother. She complained that the streets on the way to her doctor’s office were in bad shape. Now she’s complaining that the repairs are making it hard to get to her doctor on time.
“I said, ‘Mama, you can’t have it both ways,’” Landrieu said. “And her answer was, ‘I can have it whichever way I want because I’m your mama.’”
Landrieu, who’s headed to New Mexico and Pennsylvania this week, said he accepts most voters won’t be that different and that it’s hard to get the political benefit from infrastructure, as much as people say it’s important to them.
“People are going to be frustrated because it’s not too fast, then they’re going to be frustrated because it’s getting built and it’s inconvenient,” Landrieu said. “And when it’s done, people may not even remember that it started.”
Buttigieg, in an interview in his office, recalled a mid-August visit to Phoenix and Tucson, where he stood with a company owner who talked about how much opening a new bridge would mean in terms of saving time and money on labor and gas by providing a more direct route.
He appeared with Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, who’s is in a tough reelection fight this year, and made sure to tell the crowd that he and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the state’s other Democratic senator, “were central players in negotiating this Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that is directly funding projects like the fantastic one that we’re celebrating today.”
With a model of a new Amtrak train running on tracks on a conference table in his office, Buttigieg – who’s hitting Florida, Oklahoma, Nevada, Minnesota, Ohio and New Hampshire this week – stressed the conversation he wants to have about infrastructure, admitting that he was being a little cheesy.
“We’re talking about the person who lives in Tell City [Indiana] and has a job at the foundry and is much better off now that this port is improved … or the woman I met in New Jersey who described not being the mother she wants to be because of her commute,” the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor said.
“Transportation actually is at least the backdrop, sometimes the basis, for a lot of these really important things in our lives. It’s why ‘Love Actually’ starts and ends in an airport.”