Mitch Landrieu is Biden's man to rebuild America and deliver broadband to millions
When President Biden delivered his State of the Union Address this past February, a big emotional thrust of the speech was a law he had signed more than a year earlier: the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
"Projects will put hundreds of thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, bridges, railroads, tunnels, ports, and airports," Biden touted. "Clean water, and high-speed internet across America."
The $1.2 trillion dollar law achieved two major promises of Biden's initial campaign for the White House: that he would put federal money into rebuilding the country, and that he could get Republicans and Democrats to actually work together and pass major legislation.
This is the year that a lot of the money starts flowing to states and local governments — $225 billion of it so far. And if Biden wants to use the legislation as a cornerstone of next year's reelection campaign, not only does that implementation need to go smoothly, but the administration needs to raise the public profile of the massive spending effort.
That's where Mitch Landrieu comes in.
The former New Orleans mayor is Biden's infrastructure point man. He heads a 15-person team charged with overseeing every complicated aspect of the law's rollout: coordinating among multiple federal agencies; working with state and local governments; sorting the complex bidding process for the ambitious projects; and on top of all of that, selling the whole thing as an era-defining effort by the federal government.
Landrieu has spent the past 19 months fielding thousands of phone calls, making constant trips across the U.S., and telling everyone he comes across how big of a deal the Infrastructure Act is. "It is arguably bigger than what happened in the New Deal, and I think it's bigger than what happened in the Eisenhower Administration when they built the highway system," he told a group of reporters this spring.
A political operator
Landrieu is something a bit rare these days: an unapologetic professional politician. Someone who will immediately try to charm every room he walks into — even a room of mildly cranky, mildly self-important political journalists. "What a handsome group," he declared to a group of reporters who had gathered to hear him give an infrastructure update.
Greeted by silence, he plowed forward with the charm, uninhibited. "Y'all can't talk? How's everybody doing? What's going on? This is my office, you like it?"
The mindset is in his blood. He's been in politics for decades, serving in the Louisiana statehouse and as lieutenant governor, before being elected mayor of New Orleans in 2010. His father, Moon Landrieu, held the same job. His sister, Mary, served as a U.S. senator from Louisiana.
As mayor, Landrieu helped rebuild after Katrina, and took a prominent role in the national debate over removing and recontextualizing monuments to Confederate leaders.
Flying from Washington to New York City with Biden this past winter, Landrieu said his new job "is to build the team, get the money out the door, and tell the story."
The event Landrieu was on his way to underscored both the political promise and perils of the Infrastructure Act. It was a ceremony marking the beginning of construction bolstering an existing rail tunnel under the Hudson River, and then eventually building a second. New York and New Jersey leaders have been pleading for federal funding for the effort for more than a decade. When it's complete, the new tunnel will have a major impact on the New York economy and potentially improve the quality of life of the millions of people who ride the train in and out of the city. But the project likely won't be finished for more than a decade.
Even on that timeline, Landrieu said he's operating with urgency. "We have intense focus every day," Landrieu told NPR on a recent trip on Air Force One. "All day. It's all about hurry the hell up and get it done, from the president's perspective. So that's just the way we roll."
"He's a get-it-done guy. He gets in the weeds. He travels and sees things on the ground," White House Communications Director Ben LaBolt told NPR. "It feels like sometimes he's in more than five states a week."
High-speed internet for all
In January, it was a rail yard deep under Manhattan's West Side. In June, Landrieu was at a library in Towson, Md., to talk up a $14 billion effort to fund internet access for people who can't afford it.
Taking the stage after a series of federal and local officials had touted the initiative, Landrieu insisted the Affordable Connectivity Program was his favorite part of the Infrastructure Act. "Knowledge is the great equalizer," he said. "If you don't have access to technology, in order to access that knowledge, then you get left behind."
About 19 million people have signed up for the plan so far. It provides $30 subsidies every month for lower-income people to buy internet plans. The administration has worked with many internet providers to offer tailored $30 plans to people who qualify, making access essentially free for many enrollees.
So many of the huge physical projects the Infrastructure Act will fund — like the massive $40 billion project expanding high-speed broadband access across the U.S. that the White House will highlight this week — will take years to put in place.
Free or cheap internet access, on the other hand, is immediate, understandable, and something voters may more quickly appreciate.
"There's nothing more important for the American people than delivering something that impacts their daily lives," LaBolt said.
But in the basement of the Maryland library, Landrieu told a room of librarians that the ACP is facing a challenge: too many people don't know it exists. The White House thinks as many as 30 million eligible Americans have not yet signed up for its benefits.
"You actually have money in the bank. These are jellybeans to be given out, in the bank, to individuals who, if they're eligible for it, can just sign up," he said. "But we have this thing going on where some people, despite our best efforts, say, 'Well I don't know. I'm so busy trying to get to work, I'm so busy trying to get by day by day' ... and so they're not paying attention."
The librarians were there to get training on how to guide people to the program, and help them sign up.
Kathryn de Wit, who heads the Pew Charitable Trust's Broadband Access Initiative, thinks that training will be critical. "The program is hard to sign up for. It's a multi-step verification process that can take several days. What folks on the ground have found is that it often takes someone sitting next to this person who is trying to sign up, really walking them through that process."
Still, de Wit says Landrieu is right to compare the Infrastructure Act's efforts to boost internet access and connection speeds to the New Deal's famed rural electrification program. "To be fair, maybe this is me drinking the Kool-Aid that I'm selling, but I do believe that."
The ACP spends $500 million a month. It's just a tiny cog of the much broader and complicated machine of ambitious new projects that Landrieu is overseeing.
Landrieu has his eye on the finish line, no matter how long it takes to get there.
"This is kind of like the tortoise and the hare story. And we're the tortoise in this story," he said.
Maybe so — just a very energetic tortoise.
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