When President Obama visits areas in New York on Thursday that were ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, one can only hope that he will use the occasion to marshal his inner Eisenhower. The President should use this moment of crisis and destitution in and around the U.S. commercial and financial capital, argues Stephan Richter, to launch the United States on the path of infrastructure renewal.
President Obama's focus on rebuilding the country's aging and failing infrastructure would be a welcome break from the customary solution after a disaster like Hurricane Sandy — the quick fix, patch-up jobs.
If Mr. Obama were to seize the moment, he could make good on the unfulfilled promise of then-President George W. Bush, when he stood with a bullhorn on the ruins of the World Trade Center three days after the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, Mr. Bush exhorted the nation to avenge the attacks. But what about bouncing back economically?
He said nothing — and what he did say after his bullhorn moment amounted to little more than "go shopping."
If on the other hand Mr. Obama waits, as he is wont to do, until his inauguration speech in January 2013 to announce what could be called the Big American Infrastructure Rebuilding Initiative, or BAIRI, then the momentum will be lost.
Viewed in cold reality, what has happened in New York and New Jersey is not so much a natural catastrophe as a national moment of shame. The New York area, globally viewed as the pinnacle of wealth, had people getting electrocuted in their own homes when power was not shut off automatically in neighborhoods even though water levels were rising.
Even Wall Street, which prides itself on being able to move trillions of dollars around the globe in a matter of seconds, had to take time out, because the infrastructure was not fully secured against flooding. And this a decade after the great homeland security investment wave began?
When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1952, the former World War II hero, having seen the importance of autobahns, made the building of the National Highway System a top priority.
A successful military leader, he sold the $205 billion dollar project (in today's dollars) to the nation as a vital security initiative.
Mr. Obama should do no less for the devastated Washington-Boston corridor. The time has never been better for turning the nation's current predicament into an employment and economic stimulus program par excellence.
The effects of global warming are here to stay. The effects of more and more severe storms also tend to be especially pronounced in the United States. The bipartisan national proclivity to engage in soothsaying on the issue of climate change does not a defensive wall build.
Interest rates are still at, or near, historic lows. Unemployment is still high, with no immediate prospect of improving. Businesses relish their spirit of uncertainty, as if they are all just a bunch of tired insurance companies.
The old set of growth options — building more houses and cars, and consuming more by going deeper into debt — hardly seems a viable, never mind sustainable, way of getting the U.S. economy going again.
Meanwhile, American citizens have become inured to the extremely high levels of civilizational risk likely to be caused by climate change. Worse, these risks are largely avoidable. That we are not already prepared is a national travesty.
With 34% of U.S. households relying on cell phone service only, the resilience and redundancy of that system is crucial to carry on with daily life. Yet it was not just the outlying areas, but half of Manhattan that failed that test.
This was the consequence of the usual: phone companies fighting regulators who want them to invest more in a stable network — and their lobbyists, with the politicians in tow whose campaigns they finance, winning the battle.
Where, in light of such failures, is America's civic protest movement demanding more foresight, more build-out, better preparedness?
Yes, putting power lines and fiber optic cables underground would be a costly remedy (as much as $2.1 million a mile). And yes, that would lead to an increase in rates. But where is the leadership that will get Americans to face up to the inevitable?
Waiting forever to make necessary expenditures is not a viable national strategy. It is a path to heightening the already unpleasant financial consequences of having waited this long.
But waiting longer — and risking that interest rates will be higher, which will make the cost of fortifying the nation's infrastructure much more expensive over the long term — seems to be inevitable. That is, unless Barack Obama can seize the initiative right now.
He ought to know by now that many of the men laid off from manufacturing jobs, undereducated as they are, will never find jobs in that field again, no matter how much his Administration promotes exports and manufacturing.
But these men are employable — now and in large numbers — in fields such as home insulation and fortifying the aboveground, literally tree-hugging network of residential power lines and data cables.
In a nation so given to concerns about security and personal safety, infrastructure close to the home has become a safety and security issue.
That is something the President should also be able to sell to Republicans, lest they be content to live in a nation whose infrastructure has already sunk below developed-country standards. U.S. infrastructure is now not second to none, but to many — two dozen, to be precise.
Meanwhile, it is almost poignant to note that the U.S. State Department is busying itself with its "Connecting the Americas" initiative, which by 2022 is supposed to connect the electric power grid from the northern tip of Canada to Chile's southernmost point.
This is a laudable and long overdue goal. But Americans should insist that their government first address the fact that their own power grid is need of repair. In fact, it is not even a "national" system. Given this dispiriting reality, it is high time to put first things first.
Let me confess that I have a dream. My version of the 21st-century American Dream is simply this. As a citizen of Washington, D.C., I hope the day will arrive soon when our physical reality of repeated power outages inside the city limits in residential areas will no longer be such a bad joke, unbecoming of the mightiest country on earth.
For now, the citizens of many U.S. cities live in a rather precarious state when it comes to reliable power delivery to their homes. That situation will persist as long as the country shies away from steps such as burying power cables underground and weatherizing residences.
Until then, we who live in the United States will continue to be able regularly to practice our solidarity with, say, the people of Baghdad in their frequent blackouts. And until that changes, only the shares and business fortunes of companies that manufacture backup generators are bound to flourish.