Sept. 22, 2011 -- Any doubt of a political motive behind President Obama's "official" jobs bill tour may be put to rest today as he rallies supporters at a politically symbolic landmark in a pivotal 2012 election state.
The president travels to Cincinnati this afternoon to promote more government infrastructure spending as part of the American Jobs Act -- a plan that has become the centerpiece of his reelection campaign -- with a speech at the Brent Spence Bridge.
The president's second visit to Ohio in as many weeks underscores the state's significance to his bid for another term and the challenges aides see in keeping it blue. Ohio went for Obama by 5 percentage points in 2008, but polls show enthusiasm for the president there has waned.
The bridge, which will be a backdrop for the speech, is also significant, not only as an example of a need for infrastructure funds but because it links Ohio, home state of House Speaker John Boehner, with Kentucky, the home state of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Both Republican leaders and their colleagues oppose Obama's plan.
"You think these things happen by accident?" Boehner said when asked about the selection of the bridge for Obama's event.
McConnell said he finds it hard to take Obama's message seriously given lackluster support from Democrats for Obama's plan.
"We'd be more inclined to look at this so-called jobs bill once the resident's own staff and the members of his own party in Congress start taking it a little more seriously themselves," he said.
Administration officials insist if there's any symbolism intended by the optics of the event it's that a pending $2.4 billion project to replace the Brent Spence Bridge has bipartisan support in the state, and would put thousands of construction workers back on the job. They say Obama's plan would give it a much-needed infusion of cash to move forward.
"If Congress passes the American Jobs Act, we can put more Americans back to work while getting repairs like this one done," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters last week.
"It's not a coincidence in that it's a bridge that is one we can get to and highlight from the White House on a day trip that absolutely illustrates the problem we have with the infrastructure in this country," he said.
The bridge is crossed by more than 170,000 vehicles a day – twice what the volume it was designed for – and funnels roughly 4 percent of the nation's GDP each year through truck traffic, according to government estimates. It has been deemed "functionally obsolete" by the Federal Highway Administration.
Federal and state officials have been moving ahead with a repair plan for the bridge. But despite the attention given by Obama, the timetable suggests it is not "shovel ready" and won't spur increased employment right away.
According to a project schedule posted online, construction work is scheduled to begin in January 2015. Prior to that date, officials will spend 18 months acquiring right of way for the new span.
Moreover, with nearly 70,000 U.S. bridges deemed "structurally deficient" by the Federal Highway Administration, Obama's choice of this one – and traveling 500 miles at taxpayer expense to get there – has drawn criticism for being about much more.
The District of Columbia, for example, has 30 structurally deficient bridges -- a greater percentage of its total than Ohio, according to government data. With more than 11 percent of its daily bridge traffic flowing over deficient bridges, the District also ranks among the top in the country for risk.
"President Obama may think the best way to distract people from the challenges we face is to 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," McConnell said Wednesday. "But I don't think he's fooling anyone."