To say infrastructure and trade have never been as prominent in a presidential State of the Union address as they were last week would be an understatement. Presidents have rarely, if ever, addressed transportation and infrastructure needs on such a platform, and that President Obama spoke so much about the need for infrastructure investment to meet competition in global trade had to be encouraging to those who have been pleading for just that kind of attention.
Even more encouraging was that the address seemed to mark a kind of coming out for the Obama administration 2.0 — a refurbished version of an administration that seems intent on working with the business community after relations between the White House and business seemed set to implode last year.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce offered some encouragement on that front, issuing a statement from Chamber President Thomas J. Donohue praising the president’s goals and noting, “While there will be differences on how to achieve these goals, we must find enough common ground to ensure America’s greatness into the 21st century.”
When President Obama and Tom Donohue find common ground, it suggests the administration may have in infrastructure a foundation for the kind of bipartisan talk absent too long from political discussions.
Speeches and statements aren’t actions, however, and that’s what the transportation and trade world is looking for. The president reiterated his goal of doubling exports in five years, but so far there’s little behind the goal.
“We are eager to see details of the National Export Initiative come to fruition as a means of boosting the U.S. economy,” said Marianne Rowden, president and CEO of the American Association of Exporters and Importers. She praised the president’s goal to streamline government agencies, but there wasn’t much else specific in the president’s statement.
For the transportation community, the real work on the infrastructure began less than 12 hours after the State of the Union address, when a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee began with no fanfare but with the important goal of putting action behind calls for infrastructure investment.
That was also where the importance of finding common ground across Washington’s partisan divides was most evident.
Sen. James M. Imhofe, R-Okla., the ranking Republican on the committee chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., proudly noted he is often rated as the Senate’s most conservative member. But Imhofe said he would work with Obama and Boxer to get a multiyear transportation bill through Congress. “I believe strongly that there are very few forms of government spending that are beneficial to our citizens and the economy,” Imhofe said. “Infrastructure spending is one of them.”
But Imhofe also hinted at a divide in his own party, noting, “Many of my colleagues do not view infrastructure funding as one of our primary federal responsibilities.”
That will be where the tough work for advocates of infrastructure investment will be. It will be up to the administration to maintain whatever momentum the president created with his speech, and up to the business community to remind the White House that a speech is only the start of the work that must be done.