CINCINNATI (AP) — Employing in-your-face politics, President Barack Obama sold his jobs plan Thursday from the turf of the top Republicans on Capitol Hill, combatively calling them out by name to demand action.
Obama stood in front of an aging bridge that links House Speaker John Boehner’s home state of Ohio with Kentucky, home to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, to call for passage of his $447 billion package in tax cuts, jobless aid and public works projects.
“Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge,” Obama said. “Help us rebuild America. Help us put this country back to work. Pass this jobs bill right away.”
It amounted to one of Obama’s most direct and defiant challenges to leaders of the opposition party. And the incursion into the Republicans’ territory illustrated a new White House aggression and a desire by the president’s advisers to distinguish him from Republicans and to get them to share some of the blame for the struggling economy.
It also was a shift from the president’s outreach to Boehner this summer, when the two men tried to work out a deal that would extend the nation’s borrowing authority and cut long-term deficits as well.
Then, the president took Boehner golfing. Now, he’s taking him to task.
“Part of the reason I came here is because Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell are the two most powerful Republicans in government,” Obama said. “They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can help us pass it.”
Obama said his legislation would put construction workers back to work around the country on projects like the Brent Spence Bridge, but the White House gladly conceded that the choice of the aging span south of Cincinnati was symbolic. The bridge is scheduled to be repaired anyway starting in 2015, although White House press secretary Jay Carney said the president’s job bill could speed up that timeline.
The trip also raises Obama’s profile in politically important Ohio, a state that he won in 2008 but that George W. Bush also won twice. It was his second trip to the state in two weeks.
McConnell and Boehner, both of whom have supported the bridge project, dismissed the visit as a political ploy.
“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,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. “If you really want to help our state, then come back to Washington and work with Republicans on legislation that will actually do something to revive our economy and create jobs. And forget the political theater.”
Said Boehner: “I am pleased the president is bringing attention to this much-needed project. But you know now is not the time for the president to go into campaign mode.”
Both McConnell and Boehner oppose Obama’s plans to pay for his jobs measures with new taxes, and his jobs package faces a tough fight on Capitol Hill, despite the aggressive campaign he’s embarked on to sell it.
In the very short term, Obama’s visit was making traffic on the overloaded 1963 bridge worse, not better. Ohio and Kentucky transportation officials warned motorists to expect long delays around the time of the president’s appearance Thursday afternoon because of lane closures and a ramp shutdown. Boehner joked that stopping bridge traffic won’t win any votes.
The trip illustrated the various ways a president can use the power of his office and the megaphone it provides to push for his initiatives and score political points. Presidents often use their travel to get beyond the Washington debate and try to build support with the public. Though it’s not common for presidents to brazenly challenge opposition leaders in their backyards, Obama has shown no qualms about venturing into Republican territory. His first speech after announcing his jobs bill this month was in Richmond, in the congressional district of House Republican Leader Eric Cantor.
Last year, Obama traveled to Ohio just days after Boehner delivered a speech on the economy in Cleveland for his policy proposals.
Presidents also often take local politicians with them on Air Force One when they travel. In this case, both Boehner and McConnell declined a White House invitation to attend Thursday’s event, because Congress is in session. Obama did travel with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who is pushing an alternative proposal for bridge and road projects.
“I know these men care about their states. And I can’t imagine that the speaker wants to represent a state where nearly one in four bridges is classified as substandard. I know that when Sen. McConnell visited the closed bridge in Kentucky, he said that ‘roads and bridges are not partisan in Washington,'” Obama said.
“Well, if that’s the case, then there’s no reason for Republicans in Congress to stand in the way of more construction projects. There’s no reason to stand in the way of more jobs.”
Nowhere to be found in Obama’s speech was his admonition of late for members of Congress to put “country before party.” Instead, he went after the leaders of Congress by party. With public opinion polls show only about one person in four approves of Obama’s economic performance, he’s trying to put his differences with the GOP into sharper focus.
Associated Press writer Dan Sewell contributed to this report.