How to Rebuild Trust — and Infrastructure

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Illustration by Oliver Munday and John Custer for TIME

Over the course of this campaign, commentators on both sides of the political divide seemed to agree on one point: this was a campaign about nothing. Barack Obama’s supporters wanted him to lay out a detailed and ambitious agenda for his second term. Mitt Romney’s fans wanted to hear more about the radical restructuring of government. But in fact, by the standards of most elections, this was a campaign about something very big.

Obama and Romney presented two distinct visions of how to rebuild the American economy. Romney emphasized the need to cut taxes and spending and, in general, shrink government. Obama talked about core investments that would allow the country to compete in this century. (Both agreed, without being specific, that they would pursue their agenda while reducing the deficit.) This is not a trivial divide, and the fact that Obama won should have consequences.

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And yet it looks as if it won’t, because the partisan gridlock in Washington means that nothing gets done. A normal process of democratic legislation — each side making concessions to arrive at a compromise plan — has become impossible. Congressional Republicans, in particular, have decided that they would rather have the country be paralyzed than work with a President they have demonized.

Is there a way out? President Obama will have to try to find several — on a debt deal, immigration, energy. But perhaps the most pressing issue is also the one of greatest hope: infrastructure. Dealing with the larger challenges is important, but none of them will have an instant impact on the economy. A large push to rebuild America would. With economic growth still sluggish and unemployment in the construction industry at 11.4% — the highest of any field in the country — an ambitious effort in this area could yield immediate results.

In the long run, you cannot have robust growth without strong infrastructure. The U.S. has historically been world class in this regard. Only a decade ago we were ranked fifth in overall infrastructure by the World Economic Forum; today we have dropped to 25th. The American Society of Civil Engineers calculates that we have a $2 trillion backlog of repairs that must be done over the next five years to stay competitive.

Hurricane Sandy should give us a sense of urgency about these projects. Our crumbling levees, roads, subways and bridges are not just barriers to growth; they are dangers to our lives. We are simply not prepared for a world in which there will be sharp increases in hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and perhaps even earthquakes. We could use concern about these threats to build a new and more resilient system, including most vitally a new energy and information grid, so that we are protected from nature, resilient in hardship and poised for growth.

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Properly done, such a program would also save billions. Before Katrina, the New Orleans water system was losing 30% of its treated water in leaky pipes. (Around the U.S., this percentage is about 25%.) A new system could be far more efficient and detect leaks almost instantly. In almost every area, new technologies would reduce waste in energy, water and time.

Infrastructure improvement is something many Republicans and Democrats agree on. On immigration, taxes and the budget, deals are not happening because conservatives and liberals are deeply divided. That’s not true on infrastructure. Republican Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and Lindsey Graham along with Democratic Senator Mark Warner and others have co-sponsored John Kerry’s legislation to create a national infrastructure bank. It’s an innovative idea for a partnership between the public and private sectors, ensuring that government funds get leveraged and projects get chosen on merit rather than for political reasons and are then executed efficiently. Many European countries use one — with superb results.

In the first debate, Romney made a smart and eloquent case for caution with regard to government spending. He explained that he thought any new government spending should pass this test: “Is it worth borrowing from the Chinese to pay for it?” I would argue that a national bank to rebuild America and give it a 21st century infrastructure passes this test with flying colors. In fact, right now, people everywhere are willing to lend money to the U.S. at rates that are lower than at any point in history, so we wouldn’t need any particular generosity from the Chinese.

Is there a special tactic that might help bring Republicans along? Well, in his gracious speech on Wednesday morning after his re-election, Obama noted that he hoped to talk to Romney about ways they might work together. Why not ask Romney if he would be willing to spearhead this project? It would be an act of bipartisanship in the service of a national interest — and it might just begin to change the tenor of Washington for the next four years.

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