Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge! President Obama… (Pablo Martinez Monsivais,…)
Reporting from Cincinnati — No fewer than 70,000 bridges across the country need repair, but the example President Obama highlighted Thursday stands out in one convenient political respect: It connects the states of the two Republican lawmakers who have the power to bottle up his jobs package.
Obama stood before the Brent Spence Bridge and issued a challenge to House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, prodding them to pass a jobs bill meant to create work for idle construction workers.
"Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge!" Obama shouted.
Having made the $447-billion jobs bill the centerpiece of his agenda, Obama is taking a more combative approach in trying to get Congress to approve it.
The visit to Boehner's and McConnell's home turf was driven by a White House realization that direct negotiations with Republican leaders often have been fruitless. Rather than hole up with GOP lawmakers in private meetings in Washington, Obama hopes to build a grass-roots following to press Republican lawmakers to support it.
"We know how the inside game works out," said David Axelrod, a former senior White House advisor. "We've seen that. The only thing that's going to bring about progress here is the determination of the American people to force action. And so he is traveling the country and enlisting people in that cause."
Democrats who've complained about Obama's past concessions to GOP lawmakers like the confrontational face the president is showing. Earlier this week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa met with senior White House aides and told them Obama would never pass the jobs package by giving speeches in the Rose Garden.
Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster, said in an interview: "There's no question this is exactly what lots of Democrats were waiting for. Not just because they see it as good politics, but because they see the country at this fork in the road. And they want the president to be the one who frames the choices for the country in pretty clear and stark terms."
The bridge spanning the Ohio River, built in 1963, has been deemed "functionally obsolete" by transportation officials. It was designed to carry 85,000 vehicles a day, but gets nearly twice that number. Federal officials said the plan is to replace it with a new bridge at a cost of $2.4 billion.
Replacing the bridge isn't a solution to the nation's jobs crisis, Republicans countered, pointing out that it is not a "shovel-ready" project. Construction would not begin until 2013 at the earliest, meaning that unemployed workers wouldn't be picking up paychecks soon, with or without the White House jobs plan.
McConnell, in a speech on the Senate floor hours before Obama's appearance, said: "So I would suggest, Mr. President, that you think about ways to actually help the people of Kentucky and Ohio, instead of how
you can use their roads and bridges as a backdrop for making a political point."
The White House said the bridge, apart from its political utility, is a symbol of a larger need. Obama's jobs bill sets aside $50 billion to update bridges, roads, airports and transit systems as a way to boost construction employment.
In his speech, Obama described Boehner and McConnell as "the two most powerful Republicans in government. They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can pass this jobs bill."
"I know these men care about their states. They care about businesses. They care about workers here. I can't imagine that the speaker wants to represent a state where nearly 1 in 4 bridges are classified as substandard. One in four," Obama said.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Boehner, said in a statement: "The speaker, like everyone in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, knows how important this bridge is. That's why a replacement project is already underway. But, due in part to bureaucratic and environmental requirements, it's at least four years away from being 'shovel-ready' — which begs the question: Why is the president suggesting it can create jobs now?"
Obama invited Boehner and McConnell to attend the event. Both chose to stay in Washington, where Congress was in session. They might not have felt welcome in a pro-Obama crowd.
At the point when Obama mentioned that the bridge was "functionally obsolete," someone in the crowd shouted: "Like Boehner."