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Biden Rolls Out Plan To 'Win The Future,' But Disagreement Looms Ahead

Evan Vucci
President Joe Biden delivers a speech on infrastructure spending at Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center, Wednesday, March 31, 2021, outside of Pittsburgh.

Speaking before a small crowd at a Collier union hall, President Joe Biden laid out a jobs plan that pledges both to heal the wounds of the past and position the United States for the years ahead. “I'm convinced that if we act now, in 50 years, people are going to look back and say, ‘This was the moment that America won the future,’” he said. 

But there's likely to be a lot of arguing first.

On its face, the American Jobs Plan is a roughly $2 trillion investment that aspires to create jobs and improve the country’s infrastructure – both by performing long-deferred maintenance and by investing in futuristic technology. 

But during his appearance at the Carpenters Pittsburgh Training Center that overlooks the Parkway West, Biden also stressed the plan’s commitment to social justice, assuring that the benefits of the plan would be spread equally to include "everyone regardless of your race and ZIP code.” In earlier plans, he said, “Too often investments have failed to meet the need of marginalized communities.”

The half-hour speech highlighted a long list of spending priorities which the White House released publicly earlier in the day. It included everything from high-speed internet access to highway modernization, from railroad upgrades to massive investments in researching and developing electric vehicles.


Biden also addressed some priorities that arguably fall outside many people’s ideas about infrastructure, like a $400 billion outlay to expand access to care for the elderly, and to better reimburse those who provide it. Biden noted caregiving work was often done by “women and women of color and immigrants [who] have been unseen, underpaid and undervalued.”


He also touted a plan to pay workers to cap abandoned gas and oil wells, a job that would have environmental benefits while also “paying the same exact rate that a union man or woman would get, having dug that well in the first place.”


Biden touched repeatedly on such economic-justice concerns, taking pains to differentiate his economic plan from trickle-down approaches that rely on tax cuts. Part of his plan involves adopting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which would remove a slew of obstacles to workers forming a union. 

“Those at the very top in America are doing very well, which is fine ...  but everyone else is falling behind,” Biden said. “The pandemic only made the division so much worse and more obvious, millions of Americans lost their jobs last year, while the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans saw their net worth increased by four trillion dollars.”

“We all will do better when we all do well,” Biden added. “It's time to build our economy from the bottom up, from the middle out, not the top down."

Biden has proposed paying for the plan by raising the corporate tax rate from its current 21 percent to 28. In his speech, he noted that his proposed rate would still be lower than the 35 percent that had been levied throughout the postwar era until Donald Trump’s 2017 tax cut plan. But Biden stressed he was open to other approaches, provided they don't violate his pledge not to raise taxes on people earning less than $400,000 a year. 

Biden ended his half-hour speech with an appeal to bipartisanship – and sought to up the stakes of the debate ahead.

“The divisions of the moment shouldn't stop us from doing the right thing for the future,” he said. "I truly believe … history is going to look back on this time as a fundamental choice had to be made between democracies and autocracies. You know, there's a lot of autocrats in the world who think the reason why they're going to win is democracies can't reach consensus any longer. … Can democracy still deliver for their people? Can they get a majority? I believe we can. I believe we must.”


Early reaction to the speech, however, suggested that it’s an open question about whether America will.

Attendance at the speech itself was limited by COVID-19 protocols, with a comparatively modest crowd of state and local officials on hand, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto. Most local media was kept out of the event, and Biden only nodded briefly toward the by-now familiar story of Pittsburgh's own painful transition from heavy industry toward a more 21st Century economy. But none of that dimmed the enthusiasm of union leaders, some environmentalists, and other progressives.


Darrin Kelly, who heads southwestern Pennsylvania’s AFL-CIO umbrella group, said the plan was about “not just investing in infrastructure, but investing in the American people.” Among proposals to assure union organizing rights, Kelly cheered Biden’s pledge to invest in capping well sites. “These are our members working on these sites. They’re our members living there. … It will make a difference to clean up areas that the companies at that time may have taken advantage of.”


“To have this rolled out [in] our hometown, it's just an amazing day,” he said.


Environmental and progressive advocacy groups also hailed the plan. “He’s proposing the single greatest step we’ve seen this century towards reversing lead contamination in our drinking water,” said Zach Barber of the group Penn Environment. “This is especially a problem … throughout much of Pennsylvania, where we have aging infrastructure.” 


Rahna Epting, the executive director of left-leaning MoveOn, said in all the plan was “really quite a phenomenal package. …. This is a great first step.” But she said, if anything, “more needs to be done,” given the economic and climate challenges at stake. “This president in this country inherited crises of epic proportions,” she said. “They're all converging. They're all urgent. There is not one plan that will solve them all.”

Republicans, meanwhile, were quick to criticize the proposal, especially its costs and Biden’s plan for covering them.

In a statement, US Senator Pat Toomey called the plan a “massive spend and tax binge.” that would result in “undoing large portions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. That 2017 tax reform helped create the best American economy of my lifetime.”

Rob Mercuri, a state Representative from the North Hills, issued a statement arguing that “while infrastructure investment is a bipartisan issue,” Biden’s plan was a case of “disappointing political opportunism” that cost too much in taxes even as it “misappropriates resources to social welfare programs at the expense of hard-working families.”

Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who helps lead an advocacy group focused on infrastructure, said he supported much of Biden’s plan – but urged the White House to take GOP concerns seriously. 

“I’ve heard from a lot of Republican friends that they could support a standalone infrastructure bill, and I would urge the White House to do that,” he said.

Rendell said some of the investments Biden envisioned would have particular benefits in Pennsylvania. “Building out the electrical grid is so important,” he said, citing widespread outages in various parts of the state. “It’s tragedies waiting to happen.” And developing wind power requires a grid to “get the energy to where the people are." Broadband also remains an urgent priority, Rendell added, because "there are parts of Philadelphia where kids can’t get the internet.”

But Rendell expressed caution about proposals that went beyond physical infrastructure to include, say, expanding access to elder care. Such concerns, he said “should be a discussion with Congress, and Congress should have a meeting of the minds.”

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Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.