Well, that didn't take long at all: it looks like the honeymoon for President Obama's $50 billion infrastructure proposal is over already—after a whole two a half days or so.
Even as economists and wonks debate the merits of the proposal (Ben Adler breaks it down effectively here), which would focus on highways and rail projects, the political winds are already blowing it back out to sea. The Washington Post front page Thursday morning screams that Obama's plans are "getting a cool reception." The problem for Obama is that it just isn't clear what the constituency for a plan would be. It's no surprise that Republicans immediately lined up to bash the proposal. But Democrats are cool on it, too. It's hard to see why Blue Dog Democrats would back it, even though Obama's pledged that it will be "paid for" rather than adding to the deficit; the Blue Dogs, by posture some of the purest deficit hawks in Congress, would much rather see $50 billion slashed from the budget rather than shuffled around.
But more-liberal Dems are jumping ship, too. According to National Journal's 2009 rankings, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is near the middle of his caucus politically, but he's also in very serious danger in November's election. And, lo and behold, he quickly came out against the project: "Public-private partnerships that improve our infrastructure are a good idea, but must be paid for, should not add a dime to the deficit and should be covered by unused Recovery Act dollars," he said in a statement. "We must make hard choices to significantly reduce the deficit."
Bennet's quick and unequivocal statement will likely provide cover for other Democrats to demur as well. Add that to economists' concerns that the package isn't big enough, and it's hard to see who, exactly, backs the idea (except maybe Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, an esoteric though hardly liberal Republican).
So does that mean that, as Ezra Klein predicts, "Obama's barnstorming speeches will get lots of news coverage, but make no serious difference in the polls"? Not necessarily. Voters are fickle unto absurdity on issues like infrastructure. For example, as Obama entered office a poll showed strong support for further investment in infrastructure. Incidentally, the government allocated a chunk of change—$27.5 billion—to infrastructure projects in the February 2009 stimulus, and administration officials trumpeted the spending. But of course everyone hates the stimulus. So while John Q. Public might not mobilize to help push an infrastructure bill through, they won't penalize Obama if it doesn't pass, either.
Besides, Obama's string of speeches—in Milwaukee and Cleveland—serves a purpose. For two months, Democrats have effectively ceded the national debate to Republicans, occasionally responding but never controlling the conversation (in a reprise of a shiftless August 2009). It's wise for Obama to rediscover a pugilistic tone and get back in gear; there's certainly only gain to be found in capturing energy. But (and we know you're sick of hearing this by now), the one thing that matters is the economy. If Obama doesn't use his newfound momentum to pull something out of his sleeve—or if he doesn't get very lucky economic news—Democrats will be dead in the water anyway.