WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is marketing his massive jobs proposal from an outdated bridge that links the home states of his two chief congressional Republican rivals, a symbolic and cheeky maneuver designed to apply pressure on the GOP and convey resolve in the face of a sputtering economy.
Obama was making his pitch Thursday for $447 billion in tax cuts, jobless aid and public works projects at the Brent Spence Bridge south of Cincinnati, an aging span that connects House Speaker John Boehner's state of Ohio with Kentucky, home of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell. The politics are clear.
"The point here is that it's not an accident that we're headed to that area," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer.
Strategically, the visit serves Obama's legislative and political goals. The president is making his jobs bill the focus of his fall agenda amid broad public disapproval over his handling of the economy. The trip also raises Obama's profile in Ohio, a state that he won in 2008 but that George W. Bush also won twice.
McConnell and Boehner, both of whom have supported the bridge project, dismissed the visit as a 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."
Added Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck, "We want to work with the president to support job creation, but political stunts and empty promises bring us no closer to finding common ground."
Public opinion polls show only about 1 in 4 people approves of Obama's economic performance. The president is seeking to put his differences with Republicans into sharper focus and to shift to his political rivals some of the responsibility for the nation's high unemployment and feeble growth rate.
"All across those states there are roads, bridges, schools that unemployed construction workers could be building right now if the Republican leaders in Congress were willing to work with the president and the Democrats to do something that would create jobs in the economy," Pfeiffer said.
The bridge itself, deemed "functionally obsolete" by the federal government, is already scheduled to be replaced. It is part of a major north-south artery that officials estimate carries 4 percent of the nation's gross domestic product annually.
Pending environmental analyses and acquisition of rights of way, construction won't begin until 2015.
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.
Obama's visit comes a day after the House rejected a measure providing $3.7 billion for disaster relief as part of a bill to keep the government running through mid-November, raising the possibility of another confrontation over a government shutdown.
The 230-195 defeat came at the hands of Democrats and tea party Republicans. The White House sided with Democrats and welcomed the outcome of the vote.
The president's defiant approach to Boehner and McConnell represents a shift from his 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.
Obama on Monday announced a $3 trillion deficit-reduction package, half of which consists of tax increases. It was a direct challenge to Republicans and Boehner in particular, who last week flatly ruled out tax increases as way to lower long-term deficits.
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"The speaker says we can't have it 'my way or the highway,'" Obama said Monday. "And then basically says, my way — or the highway. That's not smart. It's not right. "
Obama's visit will be his second to Ohio in two weeks. Vice President Joe Biden has already been to the state twice this month.
It's not the first time the president has taken on Boehner in his home state. A year ago, Obama went to Parma, Ohio, just days after Boehner had delivered an economic speech to the City Club of Cleveland. Obama criticized the speaker by name for his policy proposals.