Nothing inspires change like a crisis. President Joe Biden has taken advantage of a national sense of crisis-fueled urgency and a thin Democratic majority in Congress to promote bold action in his first 100 days in office, which culminate this week.
Many of Biden’s sentiments have broad appeal such as fixing America’s crumbling infrastructure, protecting the environment and prioritizing coronavirus vaccine distribution. Water Environment Federation Executive Director Walt Marlowe said, “We are encouraged by the Biden administration’s infrastructure investment package and strong commitment to forward-thinking environmental, public health and economic growth policies that promote equity, affordability and resiliency.”
Yet detractors worry some of his proposals cost too much or won’t have their intended impact. As Brian Turmail, vice president of public affairs and strategic initiatives for the Associated General Contractors of America, put it, “We definitely have some mixed reactions to President Biden’s first 100 days.”
Building a legacy
Barack Obama once called it just a Hallmark holiday, but the US president’s first 100 days have held symbolic significance since Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933. To address the Great Depression, Roosevelt spent his early days promoting an unprecedented number of legislative and regulatory items that altered the nation’s economic system and culture for far longer than his term.
Like Roosevelt, Biden took office during a complex crisis and aimed to set a hopeful tone for a weary nation. Key to that is demonstrating early on how the economy and public wellbeing can be improved.
It begins with the most obvious solution: Vaccinating Americans against the coronavirus. Last week, Biden announced he met his 100-day goal that Americans received 200 million vaccinations.
The positive economic impact of widespread vaccinations has long been forecast and is now coming to fruition. Shoppers are returning to brick and mortar locations, with retail rent collections close to pre-pandemic levels. Office occupancy rates are expected to climb in the second half of the year. And in March, daily passenger trips returned to pre-pandemic levels, boosting toll road and gas tax revenues. In general, the ability of vaccinated individuals to congregate should further enable business.
The continuing vaccination campaign will be funded in part by the $1.9 trillion stimulus package American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 signed into law last month. That plan was followed by the American Jobs Plan, which promised to provide “good-quality jobs that pay prevailing wages in safe and healthy workplaces.” Biden foresees many of those jobs emerging from his plans to upgrade the country’s infrastructure, manufacturing sector, research and science facilities, care infrastructure and supply chain systems.
While investment in public infrastructure is welcome by many sectors, AGC for one, has mixed feelings about what it covers and leaves out.
“On one hand, we welcome his commitment to new, and needed, infrastructure investments, his support for immigration reform and his claims to seek bipartisan solutions to key challenges,” Turmail said.
“On the other hand, his first, partisan, legislation included little to support construction employers; our repeated calls for help on materials prices and supply chain challenges have gone unheeded; and we are troubled by his administration’s desire to not support career and technical training opportunities other than via organized labor.”
Build Back Better
Most recently, Biden proposed spending $2.3 trillion on infrastructure, defined to include transportation, public water, health and broadband systems, community care for seniors, and research and development. Some opponents argued the package doesn’t go far enough considering the poor condition of American roads, bridges and water infrastructure. Others say it goes too far. Last week, four Republican senators unveiled a counterproposal a quarter of the size of Biden’s.
It is widely agreed, however, that American infrastructure requires investment and Biden has won supporters by being bold, especially when it comes to the nation’s transportation requirements.
“It is an exciting time for transportation. President Biden’s and [Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg’s commitment and focus to America’s mobility challenges must be commended and applauded. We are at a watershed moment,” said Pat Jones, executive director and CEO of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association.
Biden’s proposal emphasizes public transport and electrification, both in part to curb carbon emissions — a common theme during Biden’s first 100 days. His first act after taking office was to rejoin the Paris Agreement on climate change. And last week at the Earth Day Climate Summit, Biden announced his aim to cut in half the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.
Yet “as populations grow … it is more important than ever that policies strike the right balance between meeting our shared climate goals while promoting innovation, economic growth and energy equity around the world,” according to the American Petroleum Institute.
API added that, “early executive actions like cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline and issuing an indefinite pause on federal oil and gas leasing created significant concern for our country’s energy and climate progress by serving only to reduce our domestic energy supply — not demand. Policies that force a greater reliance on more carbon-intensive transportation methods, increased oil and gas imports from countries with lower environmental standards, and more coal for power generation would likely result in higher emissions domestically, precisely the opposite effect of the administration’s climate goals.”
No easy answers
Acknowledging the complexity of the nation’s many challenges may be the first step to creating lasting change. Katherine J. Duncan, US president of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, sees promise in Biden.
“The Biden presidency has advanced a bold technology agenda, including proposals for much needed investments in critical national infrastructures and innovation. His science and technology advisor Eric Lander was elevated to Cabinet level and key positions in his administration have been filled with capable scientists and engineers,” Duncan said
“At the same time, his efforts to address immigration of skilled workers has stalled and he supports a flawed PRO Act that could hurt America’s technology consultants and tech start-ups if adopted. On balance, it is a strong start that most technical professionals will be able to get behind.”
But to realize improvements in America’s infrastructure, environment and research and development capabilities will take patience — and a lot longer than 100 days.