Obama challenges Boehner, McConnell on home turf

Posted Sept. 22, 2011, at 9:35 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 23, 2011, at 9:27 a.m.

CINCINNATI — Needling his top Republican adversaries on their own turf, President Barack Obama stood in the shadow of an outdated and heavily used Ohio River bridge Thursday and called his rivals out by name to demand action on his $447 billion jobs bill.

Making a point to choose a bridge linking House Speaker John Boehner’s home state of Ohio with Kentucky, the home of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, Obama struck a cheeky tone that underscored the politics of the moment.

“Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge,” he declared. “Help us rebuild America. Help us put construction workers back to work. Pass this bill.”

The president’s incursion into northern Kentucky and southern Ohio is one of his most direct and defiant challenges to leaders of the opposition party. And it illustrated 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.

Rejected as pure politics by Boehner and McConnell, the president’s in-your-face approach showed no sign of changing any minds in Congress.

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 — those are the two most powerful Republicans in government,” Obama said. “They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can help pass this jobs bills.”

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 readily conceded that the choice of the aging span south of Cincinnati was symbolic. The bridge is scheduled to be repaired anyway starting in 2015.

“We have never suggested that ground would be broken on this project immediately,” press secretary Jay Carney said on Air Force One en route to Ohio, though he said the president’s job bill could speed up that timeline.

By selecting Ohio, Obama also raised his profile in politically important Ohio, a state that he won in 2008 but that George W. Bush also won twice. The Cincinnati Enquirer, however, greeted his visit with a downbeat banner front page headline: “Obama visit won’t build new bridge.”

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.

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