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Does President Obama Have the Power to Influence Transportation Policy?

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy called for a federal transit funding plan. Two years later, President Lyndon B. Johnson took baby steps toward starting that program, but Johnson’s true transportation legacy was signing the bill that created the Department of Transportation, bringing all modes under one roof.

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Nixon oversaw the creation of Amtrak. Ford had a strong, personal role in rail restructuring when all the railroads were going bankrupt. Carter did deregulation and the first multi-modal surface transportation act. Reagan passed a gas tax increase. George H.W. Bush helped get IS-TEA passed and Clinton signed SAFETEA-LU, the biggest transportation bill in history (even adjusted for inflation).

What about George W. Bush? What about Obama? Presidents haven’t been as active in setting and guiding transportation policy in recent years. Neither our current president nor our most recent ex-president really made his mark on transportation at all. The University of Virginia’s Miller Center set out yesterday to figure out whether presidents still wield any power whatsoever in transportation policy discussions. To do so, the Center held a series of panel discussions of its own.

Obama has gone out on a limb in promoting several big transportation ideas, from high-speed rail to an infrastructure bank to a $50 billion job-creating infrastructure program -- but none have come to fruition. Why is that?

There’s been a disconnect lately between Congress and the White House, said Emil Frankel of the Bipartisan Policy Center, a high-ranking DOT official under George W. Bush. President Obama has broken with tradition by refusing to submit a draft transportation bill to Congress. He just lays out his ideas and says, “There you are; go write a bill.”

Maybe that’s for the best, though. “If Obama were to lay something out, there’s a certain segment of the House that would just be against it,” said Marcia Hale, the president of Building America’s Future and a veteran of Democratic Party politics. Other agreed: Putting Obama’s name on an initiative is the best way to kill it.

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