Members of the media often accuse the president of lacking a clear and consistent economic message, an Obama Doctrine. Surprisingly, his $50 billion infrastructure plan, small bore and tardy as it may be, gives us a glimpse into something that very much resembles an overall economic worldview. It's as though somebody gleaned all of the motifs from the president's former economic policies, from the Recovery Act, to the national education reform sweepstakes Race to the Top, to the mostly failed Public Private Investment Partnership, and funneled them into an infrastructure plan. Consider:
1) Like the Recovery Act, the infrastructure plan is for both "shovel-ready" digs and more patient projects. Some up-front infrastructure spending would go to long-term projects like high-speed rail, but we'd spend much of it immediately to maintain and repair the roads and bridges we already have.
2) Like the Public-Private Investment Program, the administration wants to mix its own money with the private sector. This plan would build an infrastructure "bank" that would pool private money with public to fund water, clean-energy, rail and road projects.
3) Like the education sweepstakes Race to the Top asked states to compete for a pot of funds, Obama will expand the Recovery Act's TIGER program, a national competition among states for innovative infrastructure ideas. Brookings fellow Robert Puentes has made this comparison explicitly.
4) Like the Independent Medicare Board from the health care reform law, the infrastructure bank established in the law would perch above the construction industry to evaluate which infrastructure projects were the most financially prudent. Like the Medicare panel, which adds bird's-eye perspective to personal medical solutions, the infrastructure bank would reward projects of national importance rather than let politically important metro areas steal transportation funds. Finally, like the Medicare panel, it would move money and power out of the political system an assign it to expert, unelected experts.
The first two ideas are prudent reactions to the crisis. In a deep recession, it makes sense to divide your money between shovel-ready projects and long-term investments. In a deep recession with limited government funds, it makes even more sense to attract private sector dough by promising lucrative returns.
But the last two ideas are pure Obama-esque flourishes. The president has been called a socialist, a neocapitalist, a nudger, and girlfriend (by me). But he governs more like a judge. Look how he asks states to present competing cases for education and infrastructure and rewards the best argument. Look how he trusts the most important decisions, from Medicare to bridges, to apolitical commissions that operate outside the election cycle.
The Obama doctrine for recovering from the recession is conservative to an underrated degree. He is expanding the federal government to maintain the status quo ante recession. But the Obama doctrine for repairing the next economy is to let a thousand Supreme Courts bloom. A Medicare panel for health care. A deficit commission for the budget. A systemic regulator for big banks. And now an infrastructure bank for planes, trains and automobiles.
Obama trusts technocrats. He trusts capitalism. And he trusts the political process. But in that order.
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