Opinion: Where Biden’s infrastructure plan could score big points

These important but politically fickle precincts, once reliably Republican, have been swinging between the two parties since the 1992 election of President Bill Clinton.
But moderate suburban swing voters chose President Joe Biden last fall, and his eye-popping investments in these “purple” precincts — through immediate pandemic relief and promises of infrastructure spending — gives him a once-in-a-generation chance to solidify his party’s support with the people who hold the keys to the White House and the gavel in Congress.
Is it any wonder that Biden chose to kick off his American Rescue Act tour not in the media capital of New York or the political crossroads of Washington DC — but in a cluster of swing-state suburbs outside Philadelphia? And why Biden and the Democrats made sure that suburban communities received tens of billions of dollars in direct aid from the Covid relief bill — money that many Republicans don’t seem to understand is desperately wanted?
If Democrats don’t overplay their hands and seem unreasonably spendthrift (right now, to a solid majority of all voters, they don’t at all), their boldness can build a more durable bridge between the party’s loyal supporters in cities and new allies in the suburbs. And if they can avoid the sort of internecine cultural warfare that tore the party apart from the late 1960s to the early 1990s, the Democrats can maintain it for a long time.
It has happened before. After former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt responded to the magnitude of the Great Depression with the New Deal, a series of programs that led to unprecedented federal investments in public works and (literally) social security, Democrats occupied the White House for 28 of the next 36 years. (Former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a national icon who transcended party labels, was the lone Republican exception over the span.)
The Democrats’ congressional dominance was even greater: The party controlled the US House of Representatives for 58 of the next 62 years and the US Senate for 52 of them. Today the nation’s divided politics makes such near-complete dominance unlikely, but the Democrats are beginning to show they can get a lot done with the slimmest of majorities.
It is Biden, however, who is the key to continued success. He knows suburbanites better than any other US president — even better than Clinton, whose temperate policy approach first made the increasingly powerful suburbs competitive for Democrats in the 1990s.
But Biden’s knowledge goes beyond the relatively superficial acknowledgement that moderate suburban voters put him in the White House because they were comfortable with his pragmatism and demeanor, and were disgusted by former President Donald Trump’s tweets, fiery rhetoric and perceived lack of empathy and competence during a pandemic that devastated their communities.
No, Biden is the first recent president to have lived on the suburban “Crabgrass Frontier” for an extended stretch of time, an Amtrak commuter chitchatting with his suburban neighbors on their daily commute to and from Washington, DC, for decades. He understands their hopes, fears and struggles, because he has spent years asking about and listening to them.
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That’s why Biden knows intimately — almost instinctively — that these loose confederations of small communities may be politically and financially powerful, generating a significant portion of the presidential vote and often more economic activity than their central cities, but they face real problems beyond what they’re capable of confronting on their own.

And that was before the pandemic.

These counties — many more populous than their central cities — have been struggling for years with urban-like economic, health, infrastructure and other problems. According to a 2016 Hofstra University poll, 62% of suburban residents nationally have reported that they “live paycheck-to-paycheck at least sometimes.” They needed help before the Covid cave-in. They especially need help now.

Covid has been a killer in major US suburbs. The physical and economic toll has been so high that it explodes the myth of wealth and wellness that continue to skew understanding of suburban needs and attitudes.

Just consider Nassau and Suffolk counties, east of New York City, which have lost more than 6,000 residents to the coronavirus. At its peak in 2020, the region’s businesses shed 270,000 jobs, or 21.9% of its total workforce. That’s almost two points higher than the city, the early so-called epicenter of the pandemic, and more than seven points higher than the national average.
That’s a big reason why Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief plan to stimulate the economy and support schools and other critical public services appears so popular with suburban voters, including many Republicans. Nassau and Suffolk counties will receive nearly $1 billion for counties, towns, villages and school districts, averting what could have been disastrous cuts in essential services. And that figure doesn’t include the direct payments to many of the region’s more than 3 million residents.
Biden also can expect strong support for his more than $2 trillion infrastructure proposal that could create millions of new jobs, protect the air and water, and improve airports, roads, bridges, schools and broadband. Suburbanites, often bereft of public transit, use their highways as a lifeline to get everywhere. They strongly support environmental protection for clean air and water and almost any spending on schools, which they see as directly correlating to the value of their biggest investment, their home.

And Republicans? Their lockstep opposition puts them in danger of getting left behind the suburban curve. The cost to their party could be disastrous, perhaps for years to come.


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