Gird your loins, folks, because it’s infrastructure week again. White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told the media that this, the first week in June, was “incredibly critical” to getting an infrastructure package together. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, meanwhile, indicated the administration would have a “clear direction” on the presumptive bill’s presumptive passage—either a watered-down version that can get 10 GOP votes or a big one passed via the budget reconciliation process. Naturally, you could argue that it’s been infrastructure week in the Biden White House for weeks now. The administration recently moved a deadline for a deal from May 31 to the end of this week in the ever-eternal hopes of securing enough of those legendary Republican votes for a bipartisan deal.
After the feverish activity of the first 100 days, in which the administration rushed to pass Covid-19 relief legislation and distribute vaccines—spurning Republican attempts to pass neutered but bipartisan bills—the infrastructure bill’s journey more closely resembles what people expected from the Biden administration: careful outreach to the handful of GOP moderates left in Congress (if not the universe), coupled with a serving of the Beltway media’s favorite catnip, bipartisanship theater. Biden’s Wednesday meeting with West Virginia Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito is the latest plot twist. The two are far apart on both the size of the bill and how to pay for it—Capito wants to repurpose Covid relief funds, while the White House wants a modest hike in the corporate tax rate—yet the wooing continues.
There is a sense, however, that these paeans to ideological comity are reaching an end. The Biden White House, Buttigieg said on CNN on Sunday, is “getting pretty close to a fish or cut bait moment. We believe in this process but also very much agree that this can’t go on forever.”
Another thing that really cannot go on much longer is the entire concept of infrastructure week, a metaphor that has only grown larger and more all-encompassing over the past five years. For Trump, “infrastructure week” was a long-running joke, a symbol of the administration’s larger failure to accomplish anything—the infrastructure breakthrough was forever coming but never arriving, a state of mind that endured even as the administrative state fell into disrepair.
Yes, the Trump administration did have a modest, cocktail napkin–ish plan, mostly built around public-private partnerships that amounted to a giant handout to large corporations. But Trump himself, despite his theoretical background in real estate, showed little to no interest in any of it; when the administration first released a plan in June 2017, the president spent most of the week feuding with James Comey. If you were looking for a grand metaphor for Trump’s myriad failings, infrastructure week was a good summation: You had his short attention span, his lack of interest in materially helping people, and his administration’s general incompetence.
For Biden, the approach to infrastructure is similarly symbolic, representing the president’s willingness to privilege bipartisanship over everything else. Provided they could keep their thin majorities in line, Democrats could go it alone and get better results, either through the reconciliation process or by disposing of the filibuster. But Biden has instead signaled a desire to work with Republican “moderates” on the deal, so many weeks have been spent trying to find some common ground.
Biden has undoubtedly moved well beyond his earlier view—that the GOP would have an awakening upon his arrival in the White House and cast off its obstructionist, minoritarian, anti-democratic ways—but has not fundamentally changed his stripes. The goal remains the same: Make the case that Biden is the one political figure in the country who can get Democrats and Republicans talking again. The approach on infrastructure is, broadly speaking, an evocation of Biden’s political philosophy: He can bring enough Republicans along and is willing to make the compromises necessary to do so.
The symbolic effort is unlikely to come to fruition; even if it does, the American people will pay the price for Biden’s success: The resulting package will certainly be worse than one achieved without the input or the shenanigans of the GOP. The most important bridge being funded here is an imaginary one that might traverse the ideological divide, which is still seen as being a greater achievement than a deal that might bring a greater share of nonsymbolic benefits to more people.
What then, if Biden can secure neither the metaphoric nor the real-world victory? Here, the best possible consolation prize for the president is a shift in the way the media talks about the president. Should these well-hyped talks with Republicans fail, occluding a high-profile bipartisan achievement early in his term, it’s possible that—as my colleague Osita Nwanevu wrote last month—the media narrative might shift, rewarding Biden for his noble commitment to unity and civility, and holding a wayward GOP accountable for spurning his genuine advances. It’s a tough ask of a Beltway media that thrives on conflict and failure, and which often acribes the failure to bridge the intractable divide to the president’s inability to lead. It may be that infrastructure week is destined to remain a sort of cynical joke, only reinvented as a symbol of Biden’s failure to deliver the bipartisan promise his 2020 campaign sold to voters.