How to Avoid the Infrastructure Blind Side

By / 1.31.2011

In listening to President Obama talk about infrastructure in his State of the Union Message, I couldn’t stop thinking about last year’s great movie “The Blind Side.” A young, talented, left-handed quarterback fades back to pass, surveys the field, has three receivers open and…bam, once again he’s crushed by a bull-rushing defensive end, who once again rolls over his right guard.

President Obama may have greatness in him, and he may become great, but where infrastructure is concerned every time he steps up to the lectern I have to shut my eyes – it’s that scary.

First, President Obama doesn’t have the personnel in place for a successful – let alone ‘we do big things’ – infrastructure initiative. Think about it: who in the White House is in charge of infrastructure? And when has a signal initiative ever been successful without someone in charge?

Whether this is our Sputnik Moment or not, infrastructure is rocket science. If the U.S. Is to double our spending on infrastructure (moving from $150 billion year to $300 billion), someone in the White House needs to provide clear signals and hefty shoves to the Department of Transportation and the Department of Energy, as well as to the responsible officials (governors and secretaries) in the fifty states. Currently there is no one…bam.

Second, there is no overall infrastructure plan. A sustained increase in U.S. competitiveness does not require magical investments, whether in high-speed rail, the smart grid, electric cars and renewable energy – truly wide-open receivers downfield. It requires a clear consensus vision of the global challenge, and of which projects are strategic to responding to that challenge, and its opportunities.

The President not only needs to build a team, he needs to create a vision for that team – it is what great presidents do. Infrastructure built now provides value for 20-30 years, so where does the U.S. want to be in 20-30 years, and how – specifically – are we going to get there? Otherwise we will continue to spend incredibly scarce political, financial, and managerial resources on projects that are immaterial to our success. Unless the President’s team – and right now we are all on his team – is driven and directed by a vision of national competitiveness and renewal…bam.

Third, from the business point of view, the first two issues – not much of a team, and not much of a plan – are ‘walk away now’ fatal flaws – but there is another issue that needs to be addressed, perhaps the biggest blind side issue of all: how is a sustained infrastructure initiative to be financed in an environment of severe federal and state austerity?

The only serious answer is a National Infrastructure Bank, something that both Democrats and Republicans agree upon – and an idea strongly favored by incoming House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica.

All of our competitors –China, India, Russia, Brazil, the European Union – have national infrastructure banks. It is a source of strategic advantage in the globalized economy, and needs to be a fully-functioning part of our infrastructure renewal. Without a significant funding source, in the range of $250 billion-$300 billion over ten years, I simply have to shut my eyes in horror…bam, bam, bam.

In watching President Obama step up to the lectern on infrastructure – now for the third or fourth time in his young presidency – I am both fearful and perplexed. The President needs to step back from the field – up to the balcony, as Harvard’s leadership guru Ronnie Heifetz would say – and reflect on what actually needs to be done. To recognize that he needs to be more coach than quarterback, and take the time to find the players (a Team of Rivals he does not have), build the team around a compelling vision (the real job of a President) and finance the effort (you can ‘dream of things that never were, and ask why’ – but if you want to see those things you will have to find a practical, sustained, politically acceptable way to pay for them).

I have to get the nightmare out of my mind of a young, supremely talented quarterback, dropping back to pass – once again – and then…bam. I want my talented President to step up to the lectern and this time, get the who, what, and how of his infrastructure initiative right.