The situation at the southern border is a made-for-television issue. It’s politically polarizing and complex. It’s a human drama unfolding every day. President Trump is right to sound the alarm about destitute migrants illegally crossing the border only, for many, to be permanently ensnared by our taxpayer-funded social welfare complex.
However, the key to the president’s re-election and his greatest potential for a lasting legacy isn’t a border wall or immigration reform. It is embracing a bold plan to deal with another real threat to America’s long-term economic vitality – our infrastructure crisis.
Trump will doubtlessly haggle with Congress and take a beating from the media every day on immigration between now and his last day in office. That’s why it would be a significant tactical mistake to allow the Trump presidency to be defined almost exclusively by the border fight.
A full-throated focus on infrastructure now makes both economic and political sense. It’s a natural fit for a president with a background as a builder, developer and businessman. It also would serve to solidify support among traditional Democratic constituencies such as union workers.
New Yorkers remember well the photos of a younger Donald Trump wearing a hard hat at construction projects from the Wollman Rink to the Grand Hyatt to Trump Tower and more. Truly impactful presidents focus from a policy standpoint on their natural strengths. For President Obama, the community organizer, health care was a natural fit. For President George H.W. Bush, the diplomat and intelligence chief, it was foreign policy. History is replete with similar examples.
For Trump, taking on the role of master builder makes sense.
America’s infrastructure, once a symbol of our economic dominance and national resiliency, is crumbling. The great bridges, dams, airports, tunnels and roads of America were each longer, higher and more advanced than the next. They were once icons of American innovation. Americans were proud of these concrete and steel veins and arteries that connected us. They were the envy of the world.
Our infrastructure was overbuilt and overengineered, anticipating the nation’s growth and expansion. It was built to enhance our national security and personal safety.
When President Eisenhower commissioned the interstate highway system in the 1950s, he put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work for four decades building nearly 50,000 miles of roads. The system expanded the average Americans’ reach across the country. The Hoover Dam was built in anticipation of massive growth in population and electricity needs.
Building with an eye on the future has now given way to a Band-Aid approach that only manages decline. As spending on federal social welfare programs has nearly doubled to more than $1 trillion annually since the late 1960s (accounting for inflation), federal investments in transportation and water infrastructure today amount to less than $100 billion per year.
Infrastructure needs are widespread and impact virtually every American regardless of geography.
The tunnels under the Hudson River are a vital artery for Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which serves more than 800,000 people per day. They are nearly a century old and the proposed Gateway Project to replace them and enhance rail infrastructure will cost more than $20 billion.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, more than 60,000 bridges are considered structurally deficient nationwide. One out of every five miles of road across the nation is in need of repair. A 2017 report of the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that roads will need a $2 trillion in investment over the next decade. The organization gave the United States a D+ rating in 2017 for the state of our infrastructure.
An infrastructure moon shot might sound cliché, but it would boost job creation numbers by an order of magnitude, elicit cheers from trade unions and help maintain the existing momentum among Latino voters
Since President Trump took office, 590,000 construction jobs have been created nationwide, according to the Department of Labor. For a range of reasons, the White House isn’t getting credit for those jobs or even a strong economy.
An infrastructure moon shot might sound cliché, but it would boost job creation numbers by an order of magnitude, elicit cheers from trade unions and help maintain the existing momentum among Latino voters who, in a recent Marist poll, showed a double-digit jump in support for the president.
Infrastructure is a national effort that can serve to bring both sides of the political spectrum together or be used to expose leftist Democrats for fighting Trump at any cost.
This is where the president has a real opportunity to lead. It is understandable that he’s not inclined to do any favors for blue state Democrats such as New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo or Sen. Chuck Schumer, or Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy. But rebuilding crumbling infrastructure is the best way to maintain economic growth in those states.
With economists projecting a slowdown or even recession on the horizon, proposing historic investment in our infrastructure this year will put Democrats on the defensive over job creation and prime the pump to protect against economic forecasts.
The president is a builder. "Building the wall" is fine, but most Americans are still waiting for him to rebuild America. If he makes progress there, he’ll win re-election, grow the economy and craft a lasting legacy felt by Americans from all walks of life for generations to come.
He should get to it.