Biden’s big plans through the lens of history

Historian Walter Licht shares his thoughts on the American Jobs Plan and how it compares to national projects of the past.

Man in laborer clothes holds shovel, smokes a pipe and looks at his paycheck by a sign reading "USA Work Program WPA"
A Works Progress Administration worker receives his paycheck, 1939. (Image: Courtesy of the National Archives)

President Biden introduced a $2 trillion plan last month to rebuild America’s infrastructure and reshape the economy in the wake of the pandemic.

He called it a “once in a generation investment in America,” leading to comparisons with Franklin Roosevelt over the ambitious scale of Biden’s agenda.

As Biden marks his 100th day in office, Penn Today asked historian Walter Licht for his take on the sweeping American Jobs Plan, how it compares to infrastructure projects of the past, and the aptness of the comparison to the 32nd president.

Relief, recovery, or infrastructure?

Glancing at the measures put forth in FDR’s New Deal, many appear to be infrastructure measures but in fact they are relief and recovery projects, Licht says, and that’s an important distinction.

“When public works building projects were launched in the 1930s, the language of rationale was about putting unemployed people back to work, not primarily about payoffs in 20-30 years,” he says. “It is not that such relief and recovery measures did not have long-term impacts, but the goal of pure infrastructure projects aim at the far future; something Biden’s plan seems to do to a greater extent than in the case of FDR.”

The long view

Ever since the establishment of settled societies, going back 5,000 years, governments have been active in infrastructure development, he says. In ancient Mesopotamia, potentates applied tax revenue to create navigable riverways. From ancient canal systems to the Appian Way to the complicated water viaduct systems that were built during the Roman Empire, infrastructure creation was a large part of creating ancient societies, Licht says.

It is also important to distinguish three levels of governments involved in infrastructure development in the United States, he says, because municipal authorities in such emerging urban centers as Philadelphia were very active in infrastructure projects, even in colonial times. State governments were equally promotive throughout the 19th century.

Looking at Philadelphia in the 19th century, for example, there’s an incredible amount of activity not driven by relief or recovery concerns during periods of economic crisis but by creating infrastructure for future benefit, according to Licht.

Watercolor painting shows a river with canoes and Philadelphia's Fairmount Water Works in the background
Undated watercolor shows boaters on the Schuykill River in Philadelphia with Fairmount Water Works on the shoreline in the background. (Image: Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

The city used funds raised by taxation and bond issuance to dredge the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, allowing for increased commerce. The city government built wharf and warehouse facilities, drained wetlands and filled them in, and established a grid system of streets, using eminent domain, to allow for easy commerce back and forth through the expanding city boundaries.

“To me one of the first great infrastructure projects in the United States happened right here with the creation of Philadelphia’s public water system.” It was transformational because before people relied on private wells which were often right next to latrines and the waste seeped into the well water. As a follow-up to the public provision of water, the city created a citywide sewage system.

“You can take the public waterworks and sewage systems and trace the lessening of epidemic disease spread.”

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, for its part, chartered canal and railroad companies and established a state public school system, which expanded literacy, something Licht also views as a vital infrastructure project.

“The most innovative and impactful actions during the 19th century occurred at the city and state levels, and they did not represent immediate responses to economic downturns. They spurred long-term economic development and growth.”

Federal government infrastructure efforts

As for the federal government, Licht pinpoints the forced removal of the indigenous people of the land to allow for continental territorial expansion as one of the largest infrastructure projects in U.S history.

Members of the Shoshone tribe sit on the ground and stand as members of the US military stand behind them and sit on horseback
Members of the Shoshone tribe at the Ft. Washakie reservation in Wyoming, 1892. (Image: Courtesy of the National Archives)

“Nobody thinks of that as an infrastructure project, but there were dollars attached to the military conquest and containment of Native Americans in the opening frontiers of the American West,” he says. “You would not have had territorial expansion as quickly and thoroughly without the elimination of Indigenous peoples.”

This land grab in the name of territorial expansion decimated indigenous populations north of the Rio Grande, he says. In the late 1490s there were an estimated 2 million indigenous people; by the mid-19th century, those numbers hovered around 250,000, he says.

Initially, the western lands secured by the federal government through purchase, formal diplomatic treaty, and warfare came under federal government sovereignty. The federal government then dispensed the land, enormous square mile acreage, to the newly-formed western states, and private citizens and businesses through land grants and public auctions. A sizeable portion wound up in the hands of railroad corporations, mining companies, and large-scale real estate developers. The privatization of the land represented a major federal government infrastructure project.

“A land grant to a railroad company also represented a long-term investment in communications because the railroads served as conduits of information and the mail. The federal government, at the same time, directly or indirectly subsidized the extension of telegraphic communication across land and oceans,” he says. “That story can be extended into the 20th century with federal support for radio and television broadcasting and the internet.”

By the 20th century, the federal government assumed direction of the biggest infrastructure projects.

New Deal ‘hodgepodge’

“The New Deal is a hodgepodge of measures,” Licht says. “Roosevelt never held firm economic or ideological positions. He borrowed ideas from a disparate array of advisers and stapled them together in major pieces of legislation.”

Man in foreground looks at pad of paper, behind him groups of young men sit at picnic tables inside a wooden structure with two windows on the back wall
Civilian Conservation Corps members do spelling exercises at Yellowstone Park in Montana, 1938. (Image: Courtesy of the National Archives.)

What most people take to be infrastructure projects should really be thought of as either relief or recovery measures aimed at getting the nation out of the abyss of the Great Depression, he says.

“A slew of public works projects managed by such agencies as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration impacted on infrastructure, but, again, their primary function was to put the unemployed back to work and thus buoy up the economy,” Licht says.

One can point to some initiatives that meet the criteria of long-term infrastructure improvement, he notes, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which oversaw a range of joint public-private projects to redevelop one of the poorest regions in the country, and the Rural Electrification Administration, tasked with extending electrification to the nation’s countryside.

The largest infrastructure project in U.S. history

One instance of infrastructure development that had nothing to do with unemployment or relief and came at a prosperous time in America was the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, passed during the Eisenhower administration.

A bald man in glasses and a suit and tie sits at a table pointing to a piece of paper and smiles as he looks to his left, surrounded by six other men behind him
President Dwight D. Eisenhower receives members of the President’s Advisory Committee on a National Highway Program, January 11, 1955. (Image: National Parks Service, courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.)

“In absolute and relative terms, this is by far the largest single infrastructure project in U.S. history,” Licht says. “The act provided for the building of a 41,000-mile U.S. interstate highway system with an initial allocation of $26 billion dollars, that translates to about 10 times that amount in today’s dollars.”

The measure had almost unanimous support because it was rationalized as a military defense act in the face of the Cold War, he says.

The nation needed a system for the transport of supplies, munitions, and troops, and the highway system was envisioned to meet the need.

“An interesting side note from this is if you look at the U.S. highway system, there are always rings around cities. The Defense Department insisted on that because they did not want trucks bogged down in city traffic,” he says. “Every time you travel around a city, like on I-295, that derives from the Federal Highway Act.”

The legislation probably would not have passed but for the force of and amount of money spent on lobbying, which may, retrospectively, be the largest amount of lobbying dollars ever aimed at the enactment of a law, he says. The automobile, petroleum, and construction industries, along with involved labor unions, put all their resources into getting it passed.

Biden’s plan and the challenges ahead

The grand scope of the plan looks to fix highways, rebuild bridges, and upgrade ports, airports, and transit systems; deliver clean drinking water, a renewed electric grid, and high-speed broadband to all Americans; refit homes, commercial buildings, schools, child-care facilities, veterans’ hospitals, and federal buildings, with energy efficiency and sustainability a high priority; and increase research and development in technologies of the future.

A man in a grey suit, light blue tie and white shirt smiles at a podium with a microphone as a crowd  that is blurred by the camera smiles behind him, beneath a blue display
President Joseph R. Biden introduced a $2 trillion plan last month to rebuild America’s infrastructure and reshape the economy. (Image: Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Current/Creative Commons license)

“This is a major infrastructure undertaking, way above and beyond providing relief and employment for people displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Licht says.

There are issues ahead as the legislation passes through Congress. Obviously, getting Republicans on board is no easy task, especially as the cost of the plan and the means of funding will be attacked by conservatives, but also other aspects of the Biden agenda will spur opposition: the call throughout the plan to reduce racial inequities and improve conditions of employment and the bargaining power of workers through unionization, Licht says.

However, the dire economic conditions in states and cities around the country could help bolster conservative support for the plan, he says.

“There probably are Republican governors who are going to lean on Republican senators and say, ‘We need this money.’” Governors across the country are desperate for funds and have no financial resources now for badly needed infrastructure projects, like road and bridge repair.

It’s possible the kind of lobbying groups that supported the highway act could rally around Biden’s new plan, and that could also be a game changer, Licht says.

“They might be there pressing for the legislation as well,” he says. “As far as how much will get done, we shall see.”

Walter Licht is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.