For several nervous days, the flooding at Oroville Dam in California presented the prospect of a catastrophic disaster. Now, with increasing confidence that the dam will hold, the incident could point to something different: an opportunity.
Throughout his presidential campaign, Donald Trump branded himself as a builder and dealmaker set to revive a decaying America. At his inaugural address, he declared, “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.” It was the president’s most popular campaign pledge – one of the few his opponents viewed without open hostility, political analysts note.
Yet Mr. Trump’s first weeks in office have centered on a series of executive orders around polarizing social issues and controversial cabinet appointments. His national security adviser resigned this week as a crisis flared about the Trump campaign's contacts with Russia. His approval rates are historically low for a new president. Protests have erupted across the country.
Now, images of the craterlike hole in the Oroville Dam’s emergency spillway are resuscitating discussion of the nation’s aging roads, bridges, and waterways. Observers say it’s a chance for the Trump administration to form a coalition behind a single cause.
“A big bipartisan infrastructure deal right out of the gates … really could have shown he was a different kind of president,” says Gabe Horwitz, vice president for the economic program at Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington. “Instead, he’s running into massive issues in execution and support and it’s bogging down his entire agenda.
“It’s a hugely missed opportunity,” Mr. Horwitz says.
Constructing a legacy
Though a core function of government, infrastructure has also shaped the legacies of several presidents. Franklin Roosevelt’s massive public works program – meant to promote job growth during the Great Depression – led to bridges, dams, hospitals, schools, and airports that transformed America’s urban landscape. The nation’s interstate highway system remains among Dwight Eisenhower’s crowning achievements.
For his part, Barack Obama envisioned a high-speed rail network that would transform how Americans travel – a plan his critics derided as a costly fantasy of the liberal elite. It never came to pass.
“Every president is tempted to build a big infrastructure project and leave a name on it,” says Tracy Gordon, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center in Washington.
Trump, however, may have more incentive than most.
Drawing from his real estate background, he had founded his campaign on an ability to build everything from roads and railways to a border wall.
“Construction is what I know,” Trump said in a speech delivered over the summer from his hotel in New York City. “Nobody knows it better.” He has since put forward a $1 trillion infrastructure plan.
In broad terms, the pledge resonated. Democrats and Republicans may clash over approach, and engineers and economists disagree on the gravity of the situation, but few argue against the nation’s need for an infrastructure facelift.
The public agrees. A January Gallup poll found more support for Trump's promise to revitalize American infrastructure than any of his other campaign promises – by far. Some 69 percent of respondents said that a major spending program to strengthen infrastructure was “very important.” No. 2 was reducing taxes, at 54 percent. Repealing Obamacare was at 46 percent, and building a border wall at 26 percent.
“We tend to agree on it, because roads, schools, those are tangible outputs,” Ms. Gordon says. “You see a pothole on your street” – or hear about a massive dam on the brink of collapse – “and you say, ‘We need to spend more on infrastructure.’ ”
For Trump, taking advantage of public appetite for infrastructure reform could help turn around a tumultuous first month in office.
“Infrastructure is the one issue that the president has mentioned that seems to generate bipartisan interest and the potential for … federal, state, and local support,” says Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive officer of the Public Policy Institute of California. “It could have a great impact on at least there being one area where there’s a common understanding and goal at this time when there’s so much divisiveness.”
Building bridges needs political bridge-building
The trouble is, infrastructure reform requires exactly the kind of bipartisan, multiagency support that the Trump administration is struggling to develop. Though often viewed as a national issue, most of the building, maintaining, and repairing of infrastructure is coordinated at the state and local government levels, Gordon notes. Also involved are commercial and environmental interest groups, as well as local communities.
“What has to happen is we have to find a way to network them together,” says Robert Bea, professor emeritus of engineering and risk management at the University of California, Berkeley.
Eisenhower had to marshal multiple agencies and interest groups when he established the program to build and fund the interstate highway system. On a smaller scale, Pat Brown, the former governor of California, did the same with his own highway program and State Water Project in the 1960s.
With his background in business, Trump “does have the fundamental tools that can help see through this mess,” Professor Bea says. “But when you polarize, you can’t do it.”
A crisis like Oroville, where 188,000 people were evacuated from their homes this week when officials feared the nation's tallest dam would fail, might encourage political leaders to cross partisan divides. On Tuesday, Trump approved California Gov. Jerry Brown’s request for emergency aid for the counties surrounding the dam – easing for a moment corroding relations between the liberal state and conservative Washington.
Still, some are skeptical that the president has the pull to get an infrastructure package past lawmakers, even those from his own party. In early February, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin noted that health care comes first on the Republican agenda. Tax reform and infrastructure bills, he said, will have to wait until spring.
“We know through history that it’s hard to push through legislation after that honeymoon period,” says William Resh, an assistant professor of public policy and politics at the University of Southern California. “I have serious doubts about [Trump’s] ability to marshal this Congress right now.”
The president’s approach to infrastructure – spending big to build big, and focusing on private investment in public works – has also raised some concerns. Less sexy approaches – like freeing small towns from the blight of increasingly obsolete shopping malls or taking down dams that have outlived their usefulness – have more potential to both unite and benefit communities, says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia’s Department of Engineering and Society.
“I’m not at all confident that the administration will take advantage of the great opportunities that exist today [in infrastructure reform],” Professor Norton says. “But the opportunities are still there.”