When Failure is Not an Option

Host, Ken Harbaugh, interviews political leaders, influencers, and other history makers about the choices we confront when failure is not an option. Choices like Alexander the Great made when he landed his troops on the shores of Persia and ordered his men to burn their boats.

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Chris Meagher: The President’s Infrastructure Plan

| S:1 E:46
Chris Meagher: The President’s Infrastructure Plan

Originally a reporter for the Santa Barbara Independent, Chris Meagher has worked for a number of prominent democrats. Most notably, he served as a communications advisor to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and as the national press secretary during Mayor Pete Buttigeig’s Presidential Campaign.

Now as the White House Deputy Press Secretary, he is working to promote President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ Infrastructure Plan. Split amongst three bills, the plan invests money into traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as well as the development of electric vehicles and high speed internet across the country.

You can find Chris on twitter at @chrismeagher46

Ken Harbaugh:

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Chris Meagher:

We've been adding an average of half a million jobs a month. With the pandemic, we've gotten almost 70% of the population vaccinated and cases are going down. That doesn't just happen. That happens because the government went to work through a whole of government approach to attack this problem

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.


My guest today is Chris Meagher. He currently serves as Deputy White House Press Secretary, but began his career in local journalism. He’s worked on a number of democratic staffs and campaigns, including as national press secretary for Pete Buttigieg.

Chris, it’s great to have you on Burn The Boats. I always know when I’m interviewing a communications pro because they ask in advance for a preview of what we might be talking about, and more importantly, they- you, have key points you want to get across. So let’s start with that. The Biden infrastructure plan. Why is that right now the overriding priority of this administration?

Chris Meagher:

Yeah, that's a good question. We're having this conversation at a pretty interesting time. The Senate Democrats just announced the framework for the reconciliation track of the Build Back Better agenda, which is great news. But combined with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework that we came to an agreement with 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats a couple weeks ago, we're just in a place where we're going to be able to make a big step forward in getting this agenda passed.

We're talking about connecting every American to high speed internet. We're talking about getting rid of lead pipes that children and families drink out of. We're talking about making critical progress on the climate crisis, which includes making the largest investment in EV infrastructure in our nation's history, climate resilience, clean power infrastructure, and jobs. This is going to be a job creating package, the next step in terms of building our economy back. So we're excited about where we are, we have a lot of work left to do over the next few weeks. But we're headed in the right direction.

Ken Harbaugh:

How difficult has it been making the case to skeptics, especially, say those who are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but might raise an eyebrow when you include in an infrastructure package, things like internet or EV infrastructure or replacement of lead pipes? Have you been able to make the case?

Chris Meagher:

I think that we have. And I think when we're talking about these two dual track packages that are making their way through the process, through the legislative process, we're talking about things that are broadly popular with the American people. And I think that's something that people inside the Beltway forget sometimes. We're talking about home care for older Americans, we're talking about helping families afford child care. Especially during a pandemic, we had children who don't have access to high speed internet who are trying to learn.

The president went to Louisiana a couple months ago, and this has just always stuck with me from that visit: Over 60% of the population in Louisiana only has access to one internet service provider who offers minimum standard internet. So they just don't have an option. They have to drive somewhere to send an email. And that's just unacceptable. It's unacceptable for people trying to do their jobs, it's unacceptable for kids trying to learn in school. And so we're really connecting every American in broadband. So are we talking about more than just roads and bridges, which I don't think anybody would argue needs investment, but we're also talking beyond that, because it's an important part of our nation's infrastructure.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, there's a lot in it that is very popular with the public. But we both know that just because something is popular, does not mean it's going to pass. What are you coming up against in Congress with an evenly split Senate, that on one side does not seem to care a whit about what the majority of Americans want? They just want to score the right political points with an increasingly radicalized base.

Chris Meagher:

Yeah. The President's been traveling the country making the case for this bipartisan framework. It would be the biggest investment in our roads and bridges since the creation of the interstate highway system.

And we just need to continue to tout the agenda, to explain to families the benefits that they're going to see as a result of getting both these packages passed, and to continue to negotiate and have that conversation with Senators and members of Congress. But there's no question, this is a very complex process. There's going to be a lot of back and forth, there's going to be a lot of ups and downs. But the bottom line is, the President looks forward to continuing to make the case for each of these packages, and then signing both of them.

Ken Harbaugh:

It's one thing to have that back and forth, and those ups and downs, as you describe them. But it's another thing altogether to have an opposition that is not acting in good faith. And while the President and you are out there touting the merits of a piece of legislation like this, in the Senate, you have the Republican leader saying, and this is a direct quote, "A 100% of my focus is on stopping this new administration." How do you work with that?

Chris Meagher:

The president won election because people wanted more out of their elected officials, and he ran on uniting the country. And I think a big part of his argument is to show the American people that their government can work for them. And so that's what he's been focused on from day one. And we've had a fair amount of bipartisan success over the first six months, obviously, not as much as maybe we would have wanted, but that doesn't mean that the president is going to stop trying. And he's working through the Build Back Better agenda now with members on the hill.

And we have been able to come to an agreement on the infrastructure package with a group of senators. There's still details to be worked out, but that conversation is ongoing. Senator Portman, one of the Republican leaders, who's been negotiating on this bill, said last week that people want to see their infrastructure improve. He knows it's very popular because it's something people know is needed. And so we just need to be having that conversation with members on the hill, we need to be having that conversation with American people, we need to be hearing from our local and state elected officials. A group of 370 bipartisan mayors signed on to a letter yesterday, announcing their support.

They understand what this means in their communities on the ground, and their elected officials here in Washington need to hear from them. And that's exactly what they're doing. So it's a coalition of labor groups, it's a coalition of business groups, the Chamber of Commerce, generally a more conservative group, the Business Roundtable, AFL-CIO, they've all announced their backing of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan. And we just need to continue to press forward, and make sure that people understand that this can be a bipartisan win that helps the American people. So it's messy, and it can be slow, and it can be frustrating, and there can be a lot of ups and downs, but we're committed to seeing this through.

Ken Harbaugh:

I love how you talk about a conversation with the American people, because I would argue that even more significant than the policy shifts that we have seen with the new administration is the tonal shift. And just the change in attitude and outlook, and the way the media engages with the American public, conversations like the one we're having right now. Is that palpable from where you sit? Are people aware of how much repairing has needed to happen after the last four years?

Chris Meagher:

Yeah. Like I mentioned earlier, the president wants to show the American people that their government can work for them, and that their government can come together, can do hard things and can get stuff done for the benefit of the American people. And we obviously came into office at a very tough time, both economically, and in dealing with the pandemic. And I think that we've shown, since day one, that we're taking both of those crises seriously, and that we've had a lot of tremendous success since then in turning both around.

We've been adding an average of half a million jobs a month, since Joe Biden took office. With the pandemic, we've gotten almost 70% of the population vaccinated. And cases are going down, hospitalizations are down 90%, deaths are down 90%. That doesn't just happen. That happens because the government went to work through a whole of government approach to attack this problem to go after it. And I think, bit by bit, you build that trust with the American people, and you show the American people that, yes, your government can be doing good things on your behalf. And the blood pressure starts to drop a little bit. They're not waking up in the middle of the night wondering if they need to check Twitter. There's been a little bit more structure and stability brought back, and I think that was important to demonstrate right out of the gate.

Ken Harbaugh:

I don't know whose idea it was, but there is a Share Your Story button on the Build Back Better website. I think that's fantastic. I imagine you're getting a lot out of that.

Chris Meagher:

I don't know if it's the same thing, but our digital team has traveled the country to tell some of the stories about how people could potentially be impacted by the infrastructure deal. One of the stories that really stuck out to me was a woman in Kentucky, who pays $100 a month for "high speed internet" but it doesn't work multiple days a week, and so she has to drive 45 minutes to a spot where she can get reception on her phone. She pulls over to the side of the highway, and depending on which way the winds blowing, she might be able to send her email. Or she'll continue on to her friend's house to be able to do the work that she's doing, then she turns around and drives home.

And that's two hours, or an hour and a half of time to send one or two emails. And that's lost productivity time, that's lost work time, that's lost time with the family. And it's just something that a huge swath of the country has to worry about every single day, that people here in Washington just take for granted. So it really does affect people in a different way, when you see and hear these personal stories that people tell.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm making a few assumptions with this framing, but I have to imagine that a lot of the beneficiaries, perhaps I'm going to just say a majority of the beneficiaries of things like investment in high speed access and other basic infrastructure, are not in deep blue areas. We're talking more rural America, places that have been under-invested in. Does that ever factor in to your messaging and how you try to sell, if you will, what you're trying to achieve?

Chris Meagher:

Well, honestly, one of the things that the president came into office working to do was to bring equity into everything, that every decision that's made, every executive order that's signed, every policy that's considered. That means racial equity, that means gender equity, that means equity based on where you live. And there's no reason why an American living in rural Montana shouldn't have the same access and opportunity via the internet as somebody in a more urban area. There's no reason why kids who live in a large Metropolis with an old pipe system should have to drink poisoned water that can impact them for life.

I was at the Department of Transportation for only a month, but one of the things that struck me was just the way that we design our highways, a lot of times, can completely cut people off from opportunity if they don't have a car. Because the bus can't access certain neighborhoods. Or bus routes, or a highway being built through a neighborhood, or whatever the case may be, just thinking about the impact, holistically, on people. And thinking about that access to opportunity and building equity into everything that we're doing, has been a priority of this administration and will continue to be. And it impacts rural people just as much as urban people in a variety of ways.

Ken Harbaugh:

When it comes to that hard infrastructure, Secretary Buttigieg made some attempts to address the historical legacies. He got into a bit of trouble, but he was right for talking about the way racism factored into how our highway system was built, intentionally dividing communities, and things like that. I would imagine you were part of that early messaging.

Chris Meagher:

Like I was saying, I think it was something that I had never really considered or understood before I worked at the Department of Transportation. But the design of our highway system, in some cases completely destroyed neighborhoods, and in other cases, maybe not destroy neighborhoods, but completely cut them off from access and opportunity and isolated them. And I think the Secretary has been intentional about identifying those places and seeing what can be done to reverse course, or at the very least make sure that that doesn't happen in the future. So it was great to be a part of his team and be part of kicking off that equity tentpole that is woven throughout everything that they do.

Ken Harbaugh:

What was it like, because you were on Team Pete for quite a while, one of the first, what was it like crafting communications for arguably one of the best political communicators that has ever taken the stage? I imagined you learned as much from him as you gave.

Chris Meagher:

Yeah, and that's certainly the case. He makes us comms folks look good, for sure. He's obviously very smart and very talented and very good at what he does. You don't always see it, because he's so skilled, but he really does care and has a passion for wanting to make people's lives better. And a true public servant. And it was a lot of fun working on his campaign, we had a good run. And there's a reason why he went from the mayor of the fourth largest city in Indiana, to the Transportation Secretary. And that's because he's not only very smart and intelligent, but he's a good communicator, and he can relay ideas very effectively. And he cares, he cares, like I said, about improving people's lives. And you put that all together, and DOT is a pretty good fit for somebody who likes to dig into the details and try to find solutions. And then also find a way to make that accessible to the American people in a way that they understand, that really hits home for them. So I think he's found a pretty good spot here in the administration.

Ken Harbaugh:

One of the things that distinguished him as a candidate, and continues to distinguish him as a cabinet secretary is his willingness to meet those constituents where they are. And Pete doesn't shy away from going on Fox, from going into what others might consider enemy territory, and making the case. Has that sensibility caught on at all? Are there others in the administration who are looking at that and saying, "You know what? We actually can make a play for these viewers, we can win some hearts and minds that others might have written off?"

Chris Meagher:

Yeah, I think that you have to understand that you can always just talk with people who agree with you on something, even if you don't agree on some things, you have to seek out that common bond and that common solution, right? And I think that's something that this president understands, from his time in the Senate, and just his commitment to helping unite the country after the last four years. It starts with leadership, compassion, and empathy. I think one good example of just the way that you're communicating and the audience's that you're reaching, and thinking beyond just talking to people who agree with you or who you understand in this continued effort to get people vaccinated. Like I said earlier, we've reached about 70% across the country, in terms of people vaccinated, but there's still many people out there who have not.

And sometimes, I think, this White House understands that it's not always going to be an elected official who's the best messenger for why getting a vaccination is important. People might not want to listen to me or to President Biden or to Buttigieg, to other members of the administration who talked about the importance of getting vaccinated. And so it's identifying those messengers to carry that message. For some people might be their doctor. I think there's studies out there that show that people trust their doctor more than anyone, almost. It might be your local pharmacist.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you're painting an optimistic picture of White House comms and how to get your message across. But isn't it fair to say that something has fundamentally shifted, even since your days as a local reporter, with just how stove piped media has become? I mean, you're talking about vaccinations, and I'll come back at you with the stat that Dems are roughly twice as likely to get vaccinated than Republicans. I mean, basic questions of science are now breaking down along partisan lines because of where people get their news. How do you think about that?

Chris Meagher:

Yeah, and that's why it's important to recognize that, right? It's important to recognize that no matter how hard you try, no matter how big an effort you make, people just might not want to listen to you. To continue on with the vaccination side of things, that's why we're engaging pastors, that's why we're engaging doctors and pharmacists, and people on TikTok, and performers, and whatever the case may be. They're going to be people who just fundamentally are opposed to it, and it's not going to happen. And there's been a lot of news about the slowdown in vaccinations. But the fact is, we vaccinated three and a half million people across the country last week. That's three and a half million more people who are protected and are protecting others, because they got vaccinated. So it's a grind, but we're still going at it.

I think in terms of where people get their news, yeah, that has changed and developed. And that's why it's incumbent on us to think creatively about how we can reach different audiences. I think it's important for us to have a message of truth and transparency. That's not to say that overnight somebody is going to flip a switch and decide that they agree with everything that they say, but I think it begins with at least bringing trust and honesty and decency to a place where people expect out of their leaders. There's not a simple answer, but I think it starts with at least setting that example and recognizing it.

Ken Harbaugh:

That example is certainly important to set at the top. But I want to ask you, given your roots in local journalism, you were a reporter for six years in Santa Barbara, at Santa Barbara Independent, I want to get your take on what a recent guest of ours, Anne Nelson, called the colony collapse of local journalism. Where, frankly, most of the policies that impact people's daily lives are talked about and implemented. And just the evisceration of local newspapers, reporting staffs, and state houses and city council's has... I mean, it's just been dramatic, I think. Anne Nelson was talking about a decrease of one to two thirds in the span of a decade. What impact is that having on democratic accountability?

Chris Meagher:

Just as a former journalist, it's hard to watch. Even some of the newspapers that I worked for are just shells of what they used to be. There's a lot of good reporters out there doing a lot of good work, but they're facing cuts and having to do more with less. Instead of just having one beat, they might have several beats. And not only are you writing the story, but you're taking video and you're taking photos, and you got to tweet it. so the local newspaper environment is tough, as people try to figure out how to monetize the work that they do, and help people understand the value of the work that they do, and that costs money. But w e understand its importance, and the need to invest in it. And so we're still having those conversations at a local level.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, you have come an extraordinary long way from the Santa Barbara Independent's newsroom to the White House, as Deputy White House Press Secretary. Y ou're fairly new to the job. It's still drinking from the firehose, but what have some of the biggest surprises been?

Chris Meagher:

It's never a dull moment around here. There's really no days off in terms of news being made and stories being told, and things going on. We're keeping really busy. But there's a lot of just moments where it hits you. The gravity of the work that you're doing, and the highly intelligent and qualified and experienced people that you're surrounded by, and the brilliant minds that are taking on some of the biggest challenges. And just looking out the window and seeing the White House every day. It definitely instills in you this pride that you're working on really important policy issues, with the goal of making this country a better place for everybody, and making our communities more equitable for everyone and helping the country move on from this pandemic, and build back our economy.

And just so many issues that people are facing, and you get to be a part of trying to help make lives better. So it's a lot of work, don't get me wrong. But it's a lot of fun, it's challenging, it's interesting. And there's a lot of really good people inside this building, trying to make a difference. And it's just really cool to be a part of it.

Ken Harbaugh:

I heard you slipping ‘build back’ into that answer.

Chris Meagher:

I got to always try to stay on message.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I wanted to ask you about that, because you do the job really well. Does it ever frustrate you? I know you're not going to share an actual moment, or with any specificity, but have you ever encountered a conflict between what you thought the priority should be or what your personal feelings were and the larger mission? There've got to be days where you're like, "Man, I want to talk about baseball or something besides infrastructure." Is staying on message ever a grind?

Chris Meagher:

The fun and interesting, but also the most challenging part of the job is you never know what's going to pop up. You could have the best laid intentions for the day, and some crisis will pop up, and you just have to deal with it. And that's part of the job. I feel really lucky and blessed to work for an administration and a president who really just cares about people. and is here to do the right things and to get things done, and to help improve people's lives. I would say, I've worked for several principles, President Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Lois Capps, Jon Tester, no two people are going to see everything the exact same way all the time.

But I think that shared values and our shared mission to do the right thing and to make a difference in people's lives, and to be doing it for the right reason, that's what's most important to me. And we can have disagreements, and we can have conversations, and we can work through complicated policies, and people are here to do the right thing. And I feel really lucky that I've gotten to work for people who I really do see the world similarly to, and we're all here to work together for a common reason to move our country in the right direction. And you never have to question a person's motive here, and you know that they're here for the right reason. So it's a cool place to be a part of, for sure.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, Chris, it's been great having you on Burn the Boats. We end every show with the same question, what is the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?

Chris Meagher:

Well, that's a good question. One that always stands out is, when I worked for Senator Tester on his campaign. He had a really tough reelection. President Trump visited Montana four or five times to try to take him out, and endlessly gave him a hard time in an effort to defeat him, in a state that Donald Trump won two years prior by over 20 points. And so we just had a real battle during that campaign. On more than one occasion, I remember sitting with Senator Tester, just talking through certain decisions that were being made and the ramifications of those decisions. He voted at one point to shut down the government, because there wasn't enough funding for Montana's hospitals. He voted against Brett Kavanaugh, even though we saw a change of eight points in our polling, basically, overnight when he took that vote.

And during those discussions, where you're contemplating the politics behind some of the decisions that he has to make, he always just ended at, "I got to do the right thing here. And if it ends up costing my job, so be it, I'll go back to being a farmer full-time. But the people sent me here to make these tough decisions and to do the right thing, and that's what I'm going to do." And you sit there, on one side, you're a staffer and you're like, "Okay, well, this is going to make life a little rough. And we're gonna have to buckle down and get to work." But on the other side of things, you just sit there relieved in all that. At the end of the day, doing the right thing was what mattered to this guy in not getting reelected, and not the power, or the position, or the politics, it was doing the right thing.

And I always just felt a tremendous sense of pride, A, that I got to sit in on those conversations in the first place, but then, B, just to see in action him weigh these tough decisions and leave them doing the right thing, because it was the right thing to do, not because politics told him it was the right thing to do. So it's not a personal brave decision, but a brave decision, I guess, that I was a part of and got to see firsthand, for sure.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, it's an increasingly rare quality, unfortunately. Chris, it's been awesome having you.

Chris Meagher:

Agreed.

Ken Harbaugh:

We'll have you back. Get back to work.

Chris Meagher:

All right, that sounds good. Thanks again.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Chris for joining me.

You can find Chris on twitter at @chrismeagher46

Next time on Burn the Boats, I’ll be joined by Army Vet Kris Goldsmith, who recieved a less-than-honorable discharge after a suicide attempt brought on by severe untreated PTSD.

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.

I’m Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.



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