Almost 65 years ago, President Eisenhower came before a joint session of Congress and proposed the greatest public works effort seen in the history of the United States. On June 29, 1956, Congress responded by passing the Federal Aid Highway Act that provided the funding to develop the nation’s interstate highway system, today officially known as the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Within 20 years, almost 90 percent of the planned 41,012 miles had been completed.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gagarin into space, the first human to orbit the globe. Less than a month later, President Kennedy came before a joint session of Congress and put forward a national priority of putting a man on the moon within the decade. Just eight years later, Kennedy’s goal was met when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon.
What can we learn from these two initiatives that were put forward and championed by these two leaders? These messages to Congress were presented within the context of the Cold War and were delivered, in part, as actions necessary for national security.
However, both presidents presented their message as an initiative that would enhance the economic health of the nation. Eisenhower’s argument reflects the need to prepare for the future, a future with a larger population requiring a growing economy. The interstate system would aid this economic growth by providing jobs and assuring a more efficient flow of goods and services within the country. Kennedy, in a subsequent speech given at Rice University, made it clear that the “growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as school.”
Not only were both presidents responding to perceived threat, but they were considering a potential future, even though the fruits of their decisions would not be realized for years to come. Both had clarity of vision and showed leadership in translating that vision to action.
Today, many would argue we are also facing very real existential threats to our national security, in the form of changing climate, within the context of an economy dependent on fossil fuels and a system that has historically disadvantaged many in our society. To shift the very systems that have brought us to this convergence of challenges, an effort on the scale of Eisenhower and Kennedy can begin a process to change the landscape of the nation.
During the 1996 presidential race, both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot called for a significant increase in federal spending over what George H.W. Bush had done to invest in what many economists called the foundation of the nation’s economy: transportation and communication infrastructure, as well as addressing waterworks. This was echoed by President Obama, who launched the Build America Investment Initiative that instructed executive branch agencies to take steps to bring private sector capital and investment to bear on improving our nation’s roads, bridges and broadband networks. In some ways this echoed the first President Bush’s Infrastructure Privatization executive order.
President Biden can go many steps forward by crafting an approach to the aging nation’s infrastructure with a focus on building resilience into new on-the-ground public works projects to withstand the projected disturbances that come from extreme weather events due to a shifting climate. But this can also concurrently build better transportation infrastructure that takes advantage of renewable energy sources and support private initiatives such as General Motors’ recent announcement to have an all-electric fleet by 2035. Such a step would shift the privatized vehicle fossil fuel delivery system to a electrified recharging infrastructure across the nation. This can be complemented by upgrading rail transportation corridors to support high-speed rail, as is already common in many other parts of the world. These and other public works challenges should take the uncertain climate future into account, while significantly reducing the country’ emissions of green-house gases.
A well-crafted public works bill can build bipartisan support. There is no state, nor territory, that is not facing degrading infrastructure. Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration summed up the general acknowledgement by other states that 21st century transportation, water, energy and communication infrastructure is in very bad shape. This perspective has been supported by Obama’s transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, who characterized this as a “massive infrastructure deficit” that will cripple the U.S. economy.
As many analysts have recently posited, it is time for Biden to go big or go home. An effort on the scale of Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s visions for the future are needed now to address the existential challenges of the 21st century. Create a public works initiative that supports a more sustainable economy, retrains and puts people to work, moves us to a more secure energy future and improves the health of our natural resources. This effort must also have as an overarching priority to address the historic inequity of past infrastructure decisions that limited access to the communication, mobility and healthy air and water experienced by marginalized communities across the nation.