Like so many presidents and candidates in the past century, Joe Biden and his strategists selected Pittsburgh to make a statement designed to appeal to America’s workers.
But did the White House choose that western Pennsylvania centre of manufacturing to announce its US$3-trillion infrastructure proposal Wednesday because of the region’s soot-belching, blue-collar, steel-producing heritage – or because of its more recent identity as a centre of medicine, universities, high tech and robotics?
“Both,” Allegheny County executive Rich Fitzgerald, the region’s top government official, said in an interview. “That manufacturing image is changing – we make plastics here more than steel – and though the building trades are still big here, there will be a lot of that new Pittsburgh along with the water projects, the bridges and the road construction in the proposals Biden announces here.”
The old image of Pittsburgh persists in national folklore, bolstered by the tendency of Pittsburgh Steelers football teams to be described as “gritty” battlers with a “blue-collar character,” by TV sportscasters week after week. That was the image that former president Donald Trump summoned when he explained his 2017 decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement.
“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” he said in the White House Rose Garden – a remark that was greeted with guffaws in Pittsburgh, where the mayor recoiled at the revival of the old pollution-clogged characterization of his city.
Three years later, Mr. Biden visited Pittsburgh on both the first and last days of his general-election campaign with the avowed rationale that he was the friend of the American worker – the engine of the city’s economy.
Indeed, the mix of manufacturing and technology that now is the heart of the Pittsburgh economy is at the heart of the plan that the President will lay out in a city whose 446 bridges – the most of any city in the world – are rusted and deteriorating.
Repairing the country’s bridges, restoring rail lines, improving ports and fortifying the electric grid are likely to account for as much as a third of the Biden initiative – and will be an important element for old industrial centres such as Pittsburgh.
Christopher Briem, a regional economist with University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Social & Urban Research, cites “the clearly immense need for infrastructure investment here, likely more acute than most other places because of underinvestment in roads and bridges, let alone tunnels and the rivers’ locks and dams.”
Both presidents Barack Obama and Mr. Trump hoped that an infrastructure offensive would win bipartisan support, but little came of their efforts. The Biden administration believes its infrastructure program will finally prove that both parties can work together, at least for something benefiting Americans in every congressional district.
“Roads, railways, rebuilding them – that’s not a partisan issue,” Ms. Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki said last week.
But already Republicans are expressing concern about what Mr. Biden will unveil in Pittsburgh, worrying that a broad definition of infrastructure is a Trojan horse for favoured Democratic issues such as climate change.
That is because beyond roads and bridges, it has become clear that much of the rest of the Biden proposal will emphasize clean energy and the modern building blocks of infrastructure: advanced materials, artificial technology, electric-vehicle charging stations and other elements of the new economy.
Many of those are being engineered and produced in Pittsburgh today and are rendering the old image of the steelworker obsolete.
“The Pittsburgh region continues to drive many of the sectors and technologies that are transforming our global economy, including artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced materials and manufacturing, and clean energy,” said Farnam Jahanian, the president of Carnegie Mellon University. “If you consider our role as the steel capital of the world during the 20th century, this is actually a modern retelling of a story we know quite well.”
But the coronavirus and aging infrastructure have hampered the Pittsburgh recovery, for there has been little rebound in regional manufacturing jobs since the spring. Business leaders in the city hope that a massive infrastructure investment program will help restore the narrative of a resurgent Pittsburgh that melds the old manufacturing economy with the new technology economy.
If, however, the Biden initiative fails, he might take a lesson from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign visit to Pittsburgh in October, 1932, where FDR called for a balanced budget. Later, when the 32nd president was issuing proposals that busted the federal government budget, he expressed worries that he was contradicting the “solid note of warning” he issued in the city.
An adviser gave him sound advice: “Mr. President,” said Samuel Rosenman, “the only solution I have is to deny you were ever in Pittsburgh.”
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