CINCINNATI — President Barack Obama challenged Congressional Republicans on their own turf today, visiting a bridge here that connects the home states of the top two GOP leaders and name-checking them in front of a bustling home-town crowd.
The Brent Spence Bridge, which runs between Cincinnati and Covington, Ky., is “functionally obsolete,” the president said, adding that if Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are serious about fixing it and creating jobs, they should pass his jobs bill.
“Part of the reason I came here is because Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell, those are the two most powerful Republicans in government. They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can help pass it,” Obama told the crowd, which booed the Republican leaders. “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. Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge.”
In Washington, D.C., Republicans derided Obama’s speech as nothing more than a campaign stop.
Boehner told reporters before the speech that he has long supported replacing the bridge and that he is “pleased the president is bringing attention to this much-needed project.”
But the Speaker quickly added that “now is not the time for the president to go into campaign mode.” Boehner was born in Cincinnati and has long-standing ties there, but his district is north of the city, centered around Troy and West Chester.
On the Senate floor earlier today, McConnell said the speech amounted to “political theater.”
“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,” he said. “If you’re truly interested in helping our state — 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.”
Rep. Steve Chabot (R), who represents most of Cincinnati, echoed the leaders’ comments on a conference call with reporters before the speech.
The Obama administration “has made it clear that their recent interest in the Brent Spence Bridge project is nothing more than a political ploy to pressure Republicans into supporting yet another stimulus plan,” he said.
For their part, though, the Obama-sympathetic crowd of a few hundred people indicated that that is exactly what they want from the president.
Composed largely of union workers and people wearing Obama T-shirts, the crowd chanted “pass the bill” on cue and booed Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who flew with Obama on Air Force One to attend the speech.
“That’s OK that it was political, a campaign stop,” said Sonya Whaley, a self-described liberal from Cincinnati. “He needs to be campaigning now, not just putting people back to work.”
Ronn Rucker, a retired doctor and gay activist who lives in North Bend, Ohio, east of Cincinnati in Chabot’s district, agreed that the president should challenge his GOP counterparts.
“He sounded invigorated and ready to go,” he said. “McConnell and Boehner are just terrible representatives for the American public.”
But not everyone was as enthused by the president’s words.
Todd Singleton, who works at the concrete plant where Obama spoke underneath the bridge, drove in to watch the speech from his home in Amelia, Ohio, a town of roughly 3,000 people east of Cincinnati, in an area represented by Rep. Jean Schmidt (R).
Singleton, who said he votes for Republicans, said that plans to repair the bridge were under way before the president arrived and that the political tone of the speech made it difficult for him to trust the specifics.
The bridge “needed it long before this,” Singleton said. “But if it gets the ball rolling, I guess it’s a good thing.”