Award–winning journalist Andrea Bernstein is Senior Editor for Politics & Policy for WNYC News. She has previously served as Metro Editor, Political Director, Director of Transportation Nation, and Senior Reporter.
(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) Vice President Joe Biden heads to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia today, part of the second week of Obama Administration post state-of-the-union events about transportation and infrastructure. He holds a press conference with U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood amidst growing evidence that the White House really, truly does care about pushing a transportation and infrastructure agenda in the run-up to the 2012 re-election campaign.
In January, before the state of the Union, Director of Domestic Policy Melody Barnes gathered a small group of high-level advocates at the White House to talk about the upcoming transportation reauthorization bill, where, according to participants, the White House "strongly signalled its commitment to moving forward." By contrast, in early 2009, Lawrence Summers, then the Director of the National Economic Council, went so far as to squelch transit funding in the stimulus bill.
As Obama took control of Washington, transportation advocates had trouble figuring out who in the White House to call about their issues. One senior administration official told Transportation Nation about a year into the President's tenure there would be "no action" on transportation until after health care reform was passed.
To be sure, President Barack Obama did try to make transportation a theme in the 2010 elections. On Labor Day, he announced a $50-billion to support roads, bridges and airports. During the campaign, his DOT distributed some $2 billion in funds for high speed rail, most of that for California and Florida -- (his DOT said it was distributed according to a DOT schedule that was unrelated to the elections.) But there was serious push-back, even from his fellow Democrats, and the electorate had a decidedly mixed view about whether such an investment was a good idea.
Now, the Administration seems to be ready to roll up its sleeves. The most recent sign that the White House is intending to make a large push was a White House conference call organized Friday with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.
It's a relatively rare event for the White House to organize a press conference call with Secretary LaHood (there were some around the stimulus bill).
Deputy White House Press Secretary Jennifer Psaki kicked off the call, underlining what she called a "pivotal piece" of the President's agenda. Winning the future, she said, referring to the President's state of the union address, is all about growing the U.S. economy "In order to do that the President feels we must have a reliable way to move people goods and information."
LaHood then took his turn:
"I personally will be in Raleigh, Carolina," he told the conference call. "All of our administrators will be traveling, doing different events in Florida, Cleveland, Kansas, Ohio --we will highlight projects that have created the opportunity to build America."
And now, apparently, Philadelphia. As a press release issued Monday put it: to speak about "the Administration’s plan to build a 21st century infrastructure - from roads and bridges to high-speed rail. The Vice President and Secretary LaHood will discuss new initiatives to increase our nation’s competitiveness, export goods to new markets around the world, and put Americans back to work while growing the economy and helping America win the future."
So far, there have been no concrete plans on any of this -- including just how the administration plans to fund access to high speed rail for eighty percent of Americans. And there are still signs that Americans are wary about spending on big projects. Politically, pushing high speed rail may be a little far removed from the kitchen table issues that still occupy so much of the electorate's attention.
But still, the administration is consistently making the case.