President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion, decadelong infrastructure plan has been likened to the massive spending programs of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But in selling the idea, Biden has taken a page from a less flamboyant predecessor—and a Republican, at that—Dwight Eisenhower.
Although widely (and, for the most part, correctly) considered a tightwad when it came to spending taxpayers’ dollars, Eisenhower put forth two major initiatives—to spur science education and to build the interstate highway system.
The highway program, passed in 1956, was particularly massive, the largest public works project up to that point in U.S. history, totaling $27 billion (the equivalent of $260 billion today) to cover the initial construction. (The year before, the entire federal budget totaled just $56 billion.)
Eisenhower’s pitch for these ambitious plans was the key to his success in getting them approved. He called the bills the National Defense Education Act and the National Defense Highway Act (italics added). The education act, passed in 1958, soon after the Soviets launched Sputnik—the first Earth-orbiting satellite, at a time when our own space program was faltering—was necessary, in the words of the bill, to “insure trained manpower of sufficient quality and quantity to meet the national defense needs of the United States.” Some of the money went to boost the humanities as well, in response to the Soviets’ image as a cultural superpower. (As a high school student in the early 1970s, I took a course on the modern novel, which had originally been funded by the NDEA.)
The 40,000 miles of new highways were said to allow military vehicles to mobilize across the nation, and for citizens to evacuate their cities in the event of war, which would likely escalate to nuclear war.
At the time, defense spending amounted to 80 percent of the federal budget. Without this rhetorical emphasis on national security, the education and highway acts—which dramatically changed American life—might not have passed.
Biden is doing something similar with his infrastructure program. In his speech on Wednesday outlining the program’s goals, Biden referred five times to America’s main rival today: China.
He said that the bill, “the largest American jobs investment since World War II,” would “grow the economy, make us more competitive around the world, promote our national security interests, and put us in a position to win the global competition with China in the upcoming years.”
Later: “It’s going to boost America’s innovative edge in markets where global leadership is up for grabs—markets like battery technology, biotechnology, computer chips, clean energy, the competition with China in particular.”
And: “I don’t think you’ll find a Republican today in the House or Senate … who doesn’t think we have to improve our infrastructure. They know China and other countries are eating our lunch.”
He also mentioned the two-hour phone conversation he had a few months ago with Chinese President Xi Jinping, in which they discussed their mutual competition and Biden’s one-word definition of America: “possibilities.”
Finally: “That’s what competition between America and China and the rest of the world is all about. It’s a basic question: Can democracies still deliver for their people? Can they get a majority?”
This was a major theme in Biden’s first press conference as president on March 25, and it’s been a major theme in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s speeches: global politics, especially when it comes to relations with China, as a competition between democracy and autocracy—and as a test of whether democracy can survive and thrive.
Both sets of programs, Biden’s and Eisenhower’s, share an urgency that goes way beyond a national security rationale. In the 1950s, American roads were primitive; an interstate network of highways was nonexistent. Science was taught poorly, if at all, at a time when enrollment in high schools and colleges was soaring. In our own time, the disrepair of bridges and roads is legion; railway networks are sparse away from the coasts (ditto for Wi-Fi connections away from cities); and the dangers of climate change are cataclysmic.
But there is—and back in Ike’s day, there was—resistance to paying for monumental projects, except for one area of the budget: national defense. The Pentagon proposes and gets annual budgets of $700-plus billion with scant debate or scrutiny.
Biden’s emphasis on China in selling his infrastructure package isn’t entirely PR. (Nor was Eisenhower’s emphasis in selling his education and highway bills.) He has said many times that American leadership in the world will depend not only on “the example of its power but the power of its example.” But in selling a program that costs much more than many in Congress can stomach, a national security pitch helps.