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COMMENT: Obama must lead on infrastructure to move economy

Keywords: Tags  Comment, Intrastructure Spending,

When it comes to backing the notion of government intervention in the marketplace, business leaders in the metals industry have just three words for Washington: infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.

Throughout 2011, and especially this summer, calls have come from metals players for infrastructure investment to help lift the U.S. economy out of its continuing doldrums. What they want is a mixture of public investment, aggressive deregulation, generous tax policy and job creation.

That viewpoint hasn’t changed much since January 2009, when President Obama took office amid an optimistic clamor that he would usher in a series of programs that would revive demand for steel, aluminum and other metals as part of his overall plans for economic recovery—a sort of New Deal for the 21st Century.

What the nation needed, many economists and manufacturing sector analysts said at the time, was an aggressive plan to put people back to work rebuilding roads, bridges, schools, advanced manufacturing—just the sort of projects that require tons of metal.

What the nation got was a watered-downed, half-measure chimera called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. The Stimulus. But its spending levels weren’t nearly big enough to counter the losses created by the Great Recession at the end of the Bush presidency and years of reckless congressional fiscal policy. Furthermore, its focus was blurry, putting most of its efforts on tax cuts and entitlement program enhancements, leaving a shockingly little amount for actual construction and rebuilding.

Robert Weidner, president and chief executive officer of the Metals Service Center Institute, may well have been speaking for dozens of metals industry leaders in a variety of sectors (see story, page 26) when he said: "The reality is that the economic stimulus program has had a negligible impact on the service center industry."

The stimulus package may ultimately prove to be the Achilles’ heel of the Obama administration. The President has been assailed from right and left for his failure to gain lasting economic momentum. Yes, the stimulus spending probably kept things from getting much worse, but it didn’t do enough to make things much better, either.

And beyond the purely political realm, the business community hasn’t been silent, either. Manufacturers have been waiting for the economy to turn the corner and, in light of the failure to do so, the government to put the whip to the economic team of horses.

"There is no question that if the money spent on the economic stimulus program was invested instead in the nation’s infrastructure, it would have probably created more jobs and helped the country and the U.S. service center industry more," Weidner said.

Although there is still some stimulus money yet to be spent, no one seriously believes that it will be enough to fulfill the promises made two years ago when it was first passed and implemented. So if the stimulus is too little and, now, too late, what if anything can still get the job done?

There are two possibilities still on the table. One is the surface transportation reauthorization bill. Although it has yet to make its way through Congress, there is still a chance something could happen this year. Some form of such a bill would commit millions or perhaps billions of dollars toward construction projects, many of which would benefit metals industries.

The other possibility, perhaps more important, is something that the American Iron and Steel Institute and the Steel Manufacturers Association both support: the Infrastructure Jobs and Energy Independence Act (H.R.1863), which focuses on expanding access to America’s domestic oil and natural gas resources and on rebuilding the U.S. transportation system. It, too, is stalled in the gridlock of Washington.

That something must be done is hard to dispute. The economy remains fragile, and around every corner looms the potential of another downturn. The unemployment rate remains high. Foreign competition continues to erode domestic gains. The housing crisis is still draining resources and hopes.

We need renewed infrastructure, not just in the literal sense of buildings and roads but in the figurative sense of restoring faith in government, business and the ability of the U.S. economy to help create a better future for all citizens. The President must begin showing true leadership if that is to happen.

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