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Obama challenges GOP leaders on jobs on their home turf

President Barack Obama pushed his jobs proposal Thursday against the backdrop of an outdated bridge that links the home states of his two chief congressional Republican rivals.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

President Barack Obama pushed his jobs proposal Thursday against the backdrop of an outdated bridge that links the home states of his two chief congressional Republican rivals — a symbolic and cheeky maneuver designed to apply pressure on the GOP and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 pitched his new initiative combining $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 of the speech were clear, even as Obama name-checked both leaders in his remarks.

"Now, the bridge behind us just happens to connect the state that’s home to the Speaker of the House with the home state of the Republican leader in the Senate. Now, that's just a coincidence. Purely accidental that that happened," Obama said as the audience chuckled.

"But part of the reason I came here is because Mr. Boehner and Mr. McConnell — those are two of the most powerful Republicans in government. They can either kill this jobs bill, or they can help pass this jobs bill."

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.

It's part of a more aggressive political tack the president has employed since lawmakers returned from their summer break, and as Obama braces for a tough reelection battle over the course of the next year.

"Awhile back, Sen. McConnell said that his top priority, his number one priority, was to defeat the president. That was his top priority, not jobs, not putting people back to work, not rebuilding America. Beating me," Obama said, putting his pressure on the top Senate Republican.

"Well, I’ve got news for him, and every other member of Congress who feels the same way: the next election is 14 months away. And I'll be happy to tangle sometime down the road. But the American people right now don’t have the luxury of waiting to solve our problems for another 14 months."

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.

McConnell and Boehner, both of whom have supported the bridge project, dismissed the visit as a ploy.

"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 this morning on the Senate floor. "But I don't think he's fooling anybody."

And Boehner accused the president of engaging in campaign politics.

"Now is not the time for the president to go into campaign mode ... I think, for the sake of American families and small businesses who are struggling, I certainly hope this isn't so," Boehner said at his weekly press conference on Capitol Hill.

A number of Republicans have additionally charged the president with "class warfare" for proposing tax increases on wealthy Americans and corporations to finance his new proposals. Obama said, under the circumstances, he welcomes that label.

"The Republicans, when I talked about this earlier in the week, they said, 'Well, this is class warfare,'" he said. "You know what? If asking a billionaire to pay their fair share of taxes, to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or teacher is class warfare, then you know what? I'm a warrior for the middle class."

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.

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.

"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.