Matthew Dallek teaches at the University of California Washington Center and writes a monthly column about history and politics for Politico.
Since November, the news media has made countless comparisons between Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal and Barack Obama's plans to invest in the nation's infrastructure. Amid all of the commentary about the New Deal, however, we've lost sight of another landmark reform enacted by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956—the interstate highway system.
The Eisenhower-era debate about improving the nation's transit system remains a highly relevant one in light of the fight over the stimulus package that's wending its way through the Congress. Ike's experience in the mid-1950s sheds light on Obama's ambitious investment agenda designed to improve America's roads, bridges and tunnels, revamp America's healthcare infrastructure, and build an energy grid.
Ike's vision of building thousands of miles of highways snaking from one corner of the continental United States to the other is a standing argument in favor of federal infrastructure investments. More than 50 years after his legislation was enacted, it's clear that Ike's program helped to ease the flow of commerce across the United States, enabled Americans to commute to and from work, and provided a link between city and suburb that remains an essential characteristic of American life in 2009. The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act, as it was called, was also enacted to give Americans the ability to evacuate in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack on U.S. cities; thus, it had a little-remembered homeland security function as well. During hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of Americans fled the Gulf Coast using Ike's interstate highway system. Ike's highways remain a lynchpin in any plans to evacuate major metropolitan areas during natural or man-made disasters.
Ike's endorsement of the highway program also serves to refute a conservative article of faith that federal infrastructure investments merely waste taxpayer money—and that tax cuts are the only acceptable policy if the nation wants to unleash America's economic potential. The experience with Ike's program just doesn't support such a narrow and limited view of the efficacy of federal power.
Eisenhower himself understood this more subtle view of what government can do and what it can and cannot achieve. In his 1956 State of the Union Address, for example, he argued that a federally-supported "road construction" program would strengthen Americans' "personal safety" and "general prosperity," and further "the national security of the American people." He explained that "if we are ever to solve our mounting traffic problem, the whole interstate system must be authorized as one project.... Only in this way can the required planning and engineering be accomplished without the confusion and waste unavoidable [in] a piecemeal approach."
When House Republicans failed to muster a single vote in favor of Obama's stimulus plan, they kissed Eisenhower's more moderate view of government goodbye. The party had been trending in this direction since at least the 1960s; yet, in offering a stimulus alternative based solely on cutting taxes, Republicans signaled a more complete rupture than they had before with Eisenhower's moderate GOP heritage, in spite of the fact that those same members and their constituents have all probably benefited in one way or another from Eisenhower's highway-building infrastructure program.
Obama and his Democratic colleagues can learn from Eisenhower's experience, as well. Ike's legislation succeeded partly because it was a single federal investment that was divorced from other major new spending initiatives. Thus, Eisenhower was able to sell it to the American people as a vital investment in the nation's long-term economic prosperity and its national security needs. Its purpose was clear; its concept—simple and elegant.
Contrast that simplicity to the stimulus bill today; Democrats have had to defend a package that includes not only infrastructure investments but also federal aid to cities and states, money for education, unemployment relief, and a host of other worthy items that nevertheless amount to something of a grab bag. Today's stimulus bill lacks the clarity of purpose that defined Eisenhower's highway-investment program—a point worth keeping in mind as the Obama administration attempts to enact other infrastructure improvements in the months ahead.