Joe Biden has made a heartfelt plea for Republicans to work with him on a $2tn infrastructure plan, casting it as essential to preserving America’s superpower status and warning: “Inaction simply is not an option.”
The US president signalled that he is open to negotiating his proposed corporate tax rate of 28% to fund the package. It represents a sharp increase from the 21% levy set by his predecessor Donald Trump’s tax bill in 2017, though is lower than the 35% rate under Barack Obama.
But Biden also became fiery as he sounded the alarm about a nation in decline, investing less in infrastructure now than it did 25 years ago and in danger of losing an existential struggle with China.
Biden’s promise as a candidate to seek bipartisanship has run into a wall of Republican opposition so far, first to his $1.9tn coronavirus relief package and now to his $2tn infrastructure investment – though opinion polls suggest both are popular with Republican voters.
On Wednesday, with Kamala Harris, the vice-president, at his side at the Eisenhower Office Building in Washington, he continued to walk the line of trying to appeal across the aisle while bluntly making clear that he will push ahead if necessary.
Promising that he and Harris will meet both Democrats and Republicans in the next few weeks, Biden said: “Debate is welcome. Compromise is inevitable. Changes are certain … We’ll be listening. We’ll be open to good ideas and good faith negotiations but here’s what we won’t be open to. We will not be open to doing nothing. Inaction simply is not an option.”
Republican opposition to the American Jobs Plan has focused on the tax hikes and what they contend is an overly broad definition of infrastructure. The president sought to neutralise that argument.
“Two hundred years ago, trains weren’t traditional infrastructure either, until America made a choice to lay down tracks across the country,” he said. “Highways weren’t traditional infrastructure until we allowed ourselves to imagine that roads could connect our nation across state lines.
“The idea of infrastructure has always evolved to meet the aspirations of the American people and their needs, and it’s evolving again today. We need to start seeing infrastructure through its effect on the lives of working people in America.”
High-speed internet, an electric grid that will not collapse in a winter storm, investing in “Made in America” goods from every community, pipes that provide clean drinking water, clean energy and facilities for military veterans are all part of the foundation of 21st-century living, Biden continued.
The job creation potential is immense, he said, including for a people without a college degree – a demographic that has backed Donald Trump in presidential elections. “This is a blue-collar blueprint for increasing opportunity for the American people.”
Biden attempted to draw a line from the personal – “How many of you know when you send your child to school the fountain they’re drinking out of is not fed by lead pipe?” – to the geopolitical, suggesting that in coming months much will be written about how China and the rest of the world is racing ahead of the US in investing in the future.
“It used to be we invested almost 2.7% of our GDP in infrastructure. Now it’s about 0.7%. When we were investing it, we were the leader in the world. I don’t know why we don’t get this. One of the few major economies in the world whose public investment in research and development has declined as a percentage of GDP over the last 25 years.”
These aren’t Republican bridges, Democratic airports, Republican hospitals or a Democratic power grid
Visibly angry, he boomed: “Declined! The United States of America, that led the world!”
As in previous speeches, Biden framed the imperative as in the context of competition with China and a fundamental battle for the future between democracies and autocracies.
Beijing is not waiting to invest in digital infrastructure, research and development, he said. “But they’re counting on American democracy to be too slow, too limited and too divided to keep pace.
“We have to show the world and, much more important, we have to show ourselves that democracy works, that we can come together on the big things. It’s the United States of America, for God’s sake.”
Partisan divisions should not stop America doing the right thing for the future, Biden added. “These aren’t Republican bridges, Democratic airports, Republican hospitals or a Democratic power grid … We’re at an inflection point in American democracy. This is a moment where we prove whether or not democracy can deliver.”
Biden insisted he is open to ideas on how to pay for the plan but again ruled out tax increases on people making less than $400,000 a year. The corporate tax rate used to be 35%, he noted, but Trump reduced it to 21%. “What I’m proposing is we meet in the middle: 28%.”
Later, questioned by reporters, he said he might accept a rate below 28% so long as the projects are financed. “I’m willing to listen to that. I’m wide open, but we gotta pay for this. We gotta pay for this.
“There’s many other ways we can do it. But I am willing to negotiate that. I’ve come forward with the best, most rational way, in my view the fairest way, to pay for it, but there are many other ways as well. And I’m open.”
But a Twitter exchange on Wednesday made clear the steep climb Biden faces to work with Republicans, many of whom remain in thrall to Trump.
Kristi Noem, the Republican governor of South Dakota, replied: “So what ISN’T infrastructure?”