From Depression to Public Inspiration

Gingerly driving home from northern New Jersey to Boston in a last minute rented car, on a snowy day when the airlines were unreliable and Amtrak was vulnerable to freezing brakes, I crossed over the George Washington Bridge (completed 1931). It was the longest suspension bridge in the world until the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge (1937), which was opened for traffic just after the Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge (1936). I also crossed the Triborough Bridge (completed 1936) and drove through the blizzard along a chain of the Northeast's loveliest highways, the Hutchinson River (1937), Merritt (1940), and Wilbur Cross parkways (1949).

Oddly enough, these and other very large scale pioneering public works were launched or completed during the Great Depression, despite a crisis of public finance and a call in some quarters for belt-tightening. Indeed, the Triborough Bridge, now renamed for Robert F. Kennedy, was literally begun on October 29, 1929, the day of the stock market crash; work was suspended until financing was rescued by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal.

Did you ever wonder why some of America's greatest public works projects were accomplished during its worst depression? Because that generation of leaders, at every level of government, did not see a depression as a moment for further belt-tightening, but as a time for expansive public activity.

While some of these bridges, dams, tunnels, highways, reclamation and conservation projects were initiated at the state level, most eventually relied on federal help. These and thousands of other New Deal projects employed millions of people, helped the American economy become more efficient and productive, led to breakthroughs in design and engineering, and paid for themselves many times over. When pre-1929 funding dried up, Roosevelt used public funds from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and other public agencies to make sure that projects were expanded, not deferred.

President Obama has the right idea when he calls for major investment in 21st Century infrastructure. But he sends a mixed message when he also calls for a freeze on other domestic spending and cuts in public employment, undercutting the theme of the necessity of government during an economic emergency. The Republicans, meanwhile, are divided between fiscal conservatives who would slash public outlay and tea-party militants who would gut it even further.

The Republican triumph of November 2010 could be short lived. The public is starting to notice just how divided the party is, how destructive and unhelpful is its economic program, and how easily its already far-right "mainstream" increasingly gives into the GOP's lunatic fringe.

Obama, with his characteristic tone of bridge-building and moderation, may hope the gods will smile on him and the Republican Party will self-destruct while he holds the reasonable high ground. But that won't just happen. And he could be helping it along. He should be calling out the GOP's economic crazies, not just appealing to the better angels of the US Chamber of Commerce.

The fact that a majority of the voters who turned out in November 2010 voted Republican should not deter him. Many did not quite appreciate what they were getting. Many more might have turned out, and might do so in 2012, to vote for a Democrat with a better and more compelling story.

We need actual bridge building, as we had during the last great depression, not just metaphoric bridge building.

I started to compose a sentence that referred to the "third-world" condition of America's infrastructure. But that gets it backwards, for the third world today is where a lot of pioneering infrastructure is underway. China has something like one-sixth our per capita GDP. But somehow China can afford high speed rail at more than token levels; as well as large scale conversion to a green economy. As a far richer society, we could be doing even better.

President Obama spoke brave words about a high speed rail system within the reach of 80 percent of Americans within 25 years. This would be an achievement comparable to the great public works of the New Deal. It would revive major industries and supply chains, jump start transportation engineering, increase the efficiency of our economy, and create millions of jobs. But first, we need a politics to support it. That will take more than rhetoric -- it will take real leadership.

I have worked for a number of organizations in my career, as a journalist, activist, and teacher. In every case, the presence or absence of leadership has made an immense difference in an enterprise's success or failure.

This is also the case when it comes to nations. Imagine the world if Gandhi, or Mandela, or Havel had never lived. Or if Lincoln or Rabin or Sadat or King or the Kennedys had not been murdered just when their leadership was most needed. We will soon see whether the skill of Egypt's leaders is equal to the bravery of its people.

Barack Obama could yet prove to be an inspirational leader. The Republicans are setting the table for a real Democratic resurgence. But this will require a far more assertive leader, painting a picture of a very different economy -- a leader not meeting Republicans halfway, but greeting their insane vision of America with the jaunty scorn that it invites.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.