» President Obama’s stand on his vision for the U.S. budget, in opposition to that of the House Republicans, suggests he will argue for a public role in the civic discourse. But his efforts may not be solid enough.
The transportation industry — and specifically mass transit — has over the past few decades been one of the primary domains of public sector intervention, both in the United States and abroad. With the demands of a modern citizenry requiring investments in improved mobility, governments have made ensuring the well-being of their roads, railways, and airports one of their primary raisons d’être after measures designed to guarantee social welfare and national defense.
For that reason, transportation is an intensely political issue: Choosing where and how to invest in getting people from one place to another requires agreement from politicians. Any move forward on funding new infrastructure requires leadership.
In some ways, the United States stands at a crossroads. The right is making increasingly firm its conviction that the government’s role in society must be limited — even if that means reducing spending on things people like a lot, such as highways. And the left, whatever remains of it at the edge of a Democratic Party humbled in last year’s elections, has been largely marginalized. Where does that put political leadership?
After the President’s agreement with House Republicans last week, Mr. Obama’s speech may have appeared as a ringing defense of the importance of the public sector. He argued to the American people that the country could not abandon itself. “I will not sacrifice the core investments we need to grow and create jobs. We’ll invest in medical research and clean energy technology. We’ll invest in new roads and airports and broadband access. We will invest in education and job training. We will do what we need to compete and we will win the future.”
And indeed, in comparison to House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) vision for the nation’s budget, the President’s own ideas come across as downright radical. On discretionary spending — which, if anyone needs reminding — includes transportation, Mr. Ryan would cut $1 trillion more than would Mr. Obama over the next ten years. Mr Obama is right to label Mr. Ryan’s “vision” as one “that says if our roads crumble and bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them.” Because that is what a 55.6% drop in transportation spending would do.
In fact, President Obama positioned himself to the center-right last week, suggesting just as President Clinton did fifteen years before that the government’s constrained role is to “do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves… [and provide] some basic measure of security.” Out of date were two years of promises of public sector innovation and an effort to reverse thirty years of rising inequality. In were modesty and fiscal restraint.
Mr. Obama recommends cutting $600 billion in all on discretionary funding. That is not progressive in a country whose population continues to grow quickly and whose infrastructure cannot keep up with its current, let alone future, needs.
Which brings us back to the question of leadership. In a democracy like that of the United States, the future of the country is determined by the will of its political actors. If an individual or a group or a movement can convince the populace
populous or the voters of the importance of their goal, they can make a change, or at least promote it. Those who do not will be irrelevant when it comes to making decisions about public policy.
America doesn’t need bipartisan agreement in favor of some policy objective: Compromises like those are either so weak as to be meaningless or simply further solidifications of the status quo. Rather, America needs politicians who push.
Mr. Obama campaigned on reforming the health care system, and — in spite of the insane machinations required to make it happen — managed to pass a law that advanced many of his initial goals. Based on his recent statements, the President understands of the importance of investing in the nation’s mobility systems. He knows that if we want to maintain access to mobility to a wide range of the population, the public sector must continue to play the defining role. But he has not yet made a strong enough case to the public, which is one of the reasons Republicans have been so willing to campaign against his proposals in favor of high-speed rail and livable communities. He has not done a good enough job explaining why these things must be funded.
Perhaps he will do so throughout the 2012 campaign. Or perhaps the country will have to wait for someone else.