Sep 27, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's reengineer-America moment

Illustration of a U.S. flag with a construction sign over one of the stripes
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Senate's bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and President Biden's $3.5 trillion spending package could live or die this week — and take Democrats' fortunes with them. But all the minute-by-minute political drama obscures how much America could change if even a fraction of it passes.

The big picture: Anything short of total failure could have a transformative impact on day-to-day life — from how we move around to our access to the internet, paid family leave and child care, health care and college.

  • To be sure, the massive price tag that comes with these programs would shift America toward more social welfare spending.
  • While Democrats insist it can be covered mostly by the wealthy and corporations, those sums have stirred fears of inflation, taxes and impeding economic growth.
  • Whether you like these proposals or hate them, even a slimmed-down package would likely be the most significant domestic legislation to pass Congress since the Affordable Care Act. And you know what Biden said about that.

Here's how your life could change if even some of the measures get to Biden's desk.

Transportation: More people would be driving electric cars, and lower-income people would have better access to public transit, Axios' Joann Muller reports. Cleaner hydrogen trucks could also get a boost from more R&D funding.

  • High-speed trains, rather than flying, could well become the preferred way to travel between certain metro areas. Rail is seen as a more efficient and sustainable mode of transportation.
  • The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes $66 billion for Amtrak and other rail projects. House Democrats want to add $10 billion more for high-speed rail that would connect to local and regional transportation networks.
  • House Democrats have also proposed linking public transit and affordable housing to give lower-income people better access to jobs, health care and education. A joint program between the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development would provide $10 billion in grants to support struggling communities.

Electric vehicles: People who have been on the fence about purchasing an electric vehicle could be persuaded to buy one for two reasons, Joann reports:

  • Bigger tax credits — up to $12,500 per vehicle — would be more widely available, making EVs more affordable.
  • Range anxiety — the fear of being stranded with a dead battery — would be less of a worry because the federal government would spend $13.5 billion for EV infrastructure, including more public charging stations.
  • More broadly, the bill has hundreds of billions of dollars in energy and climate provisions that together would help hasten movement away from fossil fuels, which also improves air quality, Axios' Ben Geman reports.
  • Yes, but: The bill also contains pieces that business and oil-and-gas industry groups argue would raise energy consumer costs. They include a new fee imposed on methane emissions from the oil-and-gas industry, and financial carrots and sticks to speed deployment of zero-carbon power.

Health care: Democrats are seeking to expand health coverage for millions of Americans while reducing prescription drug prices, Axios' Caitlin Owens reports.

  • Seniors’ traditional Medicare would expand to cover dental, vision and hearing benefits (currently only available to seniors with private coverage).
  • The overall price of many drugs — including insulin — would be substantially cut, and a new cap would be placed on how much seniors pay out-of-pocket for prescription drugs.
  • Millions of low-income people in states that haven't expanded Medicaid — including a disproportionate share of people of color in the South — would gain access to free health coverage.
  • Aspects of Democrats’ plans dealing with Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act could reduce the number of uninsured Americans by 7 million in 2022 alone, according to one estimate.
  • The plans wouldn’t directly address the enormous costs of other health care services in America, like hospital and doctors visits, although coverage expansions could make them more affordable to patients.

Yes, but: The drug industry argues that forcing lower drug prices would curb innovation for new medicines for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer's.

  • Experts disagree on the extent to which profits and research and innovation are linked.

Child care and education: At their core, Biden’s programs seek to make it easier for women to stay in the workforce throughout life’s stages and struggles, Axios' Hans Nichols reports.

  • Day care would be free for lower income families. For middle class households, subsidies could save the average family $14,800 per year, according to the White House, because families wouldn’t pay more than 7% of their income for care of children under 5.
  • Biden wants to provide two years of free preschool before kindergarten — and two free years of community college.
  • Also in Biden's plans: 12 week of paid family leave to tend to a sick family member — a responsibility that disproportionately falls on women — and an additional $400 billion to expand comfort and care for elderly Americans.

Cities: The nation's mayors are emphatic that the proposals — even if ultimately watered down — represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make cities more livable, modern and socially equitable, Axios' Jennifer Kingson reports.

  • Besides the transportation, housing and social spending already detailed, the goodies in the bill include expansions of broadband access that could enable people of all means to work and study from anywhere.
  • Over time, mayors say, that can lead to lasting and permanent societal uplift. "This kind of bill does have the potential to improve the lives of Americans for generations," Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan, a Democrat, tells Axios.
  • "Even though I know that my successors will probably be cutting the ribbons, I know that it's my responsibility to plant trees now so that my children will have shade," Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt, a Republican, tells Axios.

The bottom line: If the effort collapses under its own weight — or because Democrats have forgotten how to negotiate — the cost of the missed opportunities will shape America's future, too.

Go deeper:

What could be next in transportation

Health policies at stake in Democrats' infrastructure bet

This week is crunch time for Biden's climate agenda

Mayors see "once in a lifetime" hope for transformation

Biden's big bet backfires

Go deeper