President Obama arrived in Cincinnati Thursday afternoon to tout his newest bill meant to stimulate the economy with billions of dollars in infrastructure investment for job creation. The Obama team chose the “functionally obsolete” Brent Spence Bridge connecting Kentucky and Ohio, and the still concrete trucks at the local Hilltop Concrete company for the event’s symbolic backdrop. The president arrived in Cincinnati for two reasons: one, to gain support in the backyards of two chief Republican critics—Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Speaker of the House John Boehner of Ohio, and two, he appeared on the northern banks of the river in swing state Ohio in an early quest for electoral votes in a key battleground.
The Brent Spence Bridge—named for career Kentucky congressman (1931-62)—became a political focus when the president mentioned it in his recent speech to Congress. The double-decker structure carries more than double the daily traffic and cargo it was built for in 1963. Cincinnati-area leaders have pushed for repair or replacement of the bridge for about as long as local Bengals fans have prayed for another Super Bowl appearance.
Area Congressmen Geoff Davis, R-Ky., and Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, have appeared before relevant committees on the issue earlier this year and have pushed the administration with little chance for dialogue. Chabot’s office asserts the White House never reached out to them and he knew not of the bridge in Obama’s speech until he heard it with the rest of the nation. Both he and Congressman Davis want the bridge replaced, but are not supportive of the overall borrow-and-spend package. They penned a joint letter sent to the president hours before his arrival that addressed a House bill to lift costly EPA regulations on cement producers.
Other skeptics point out that the estimated $2.4 billion needed to replace the I-75 and I-71 connector isn’t specifically mentioned in the bill, and the project is far from shovel-ready. The earliest estimates show work might begin in 2015 after completing environmental impact studies.
Such a tenuous project reveals the political nature of this event. The president’s political affairs office didn’t throw a dart at a map to determine which infrastructure project to promote. During last Thursday’s White House presser, three different reporters asked about the coincidence that this bridge connects Sen. McConnell’s state with battleground Ohio not far from Speaker John Boehner’s district. When pressed on the political motivation of traveling to the Buckeye State, press secretary Jay Carney sweated a response.
McConnell called the president out on the Senate floor Wednesday. “President Obama may…stand near a bridge in a swing state and pit one group of Americans against another, and hope his critics look bad if they don’t go along with him,” said McConnell. “It might energize his strongest supporters…it won’t create jobs.”
The minority leader couldn’t have described the audience any better if he had been standing on the river bank himself. The partisan crowd was assembled through the local Democratic organization, had a strong pro-labor presence, and delivered resounding “boos” at the mention of Boehner and McConnell. Even Kentucky’s junior senator who accompanied the president, Republican Rand Paul, was given a cold welcome that Obama had to quiet.
As for his chosen venue, “Now, that’s just a coincidence,” the president said with a cheeky grin to laughter from the audience. “Purely accidental that that happened.” Then he firmly put the ball in the opposition leaders’ court. “They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can help pass this jobs bill.” The crowd continued the refrain begun earlier in the speech, “Pass this bill! Pass this bill!”
The Buckeye State has consistently gone to the winning presidential candidate. Obama won Ohio’s electoral votes with 51.5 percent in 2008, but Republicans took state offices and most congressional seats in 2010. A Quinnipiac poll in Ohio earlier this summer revealed obvious disappointment with the president among independents—64 percent disapprove his handling of the economy and 51 percent say he does not deserve re-election. With an energetic tone and holding infants and toddlers as he exited, Obama hopes to not only press Congress for his jobs bill, but also to change those numbers.
It’s safe to say that any attempt by the White House to deny this as a campaign event is functionally obsolete.
David Wolfford teaches Government and Politics at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati.