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Obama’s strained symbolism at an Ohio River bridge

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

“There are private construction companies all across America just waiting to get to work. There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America.”

— President Obama, speech to a joint session of Congress, Sept. 8

“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. Help us rebuild America. Help us put construction workers back to work. Pass this bill.”

— President Obama, speech in Cincinnati, Sept. 22

“There are just numerous, numerous projects. This one is symbolic. The fact is that if the American Jobs Act were passed, we could speed up the process of environmental and other approvals on this specific bridge.”

— White House spokesman Jay Carney, news briefing, Sept. 22

Symbolism is a key part of any president’s political arsenal. He visits a school, a factory, a national park or even a bridge to make a larger point about an important issue.

And certainly a trip to the aging Brent Spence Bridge on the Ohio River must have been irresistible to Obama’s political advisers, because not only does it symbolize the nation’s infrastructure crisis but it connects Kentucky and Ohio, where his two main nemeses reside — House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

But is there a point at which the symbolism becomes strained? President George H.W. Bush, for instance, was embarrassed in 1989 when it turned out that the bag of crack cocaine he held up in a televised address — “This is crack cocaine, seized a few days ago in a park across the street from the White House” — was the result of a drug buy specifically set up to match the words in the president’s speech. “Where the [expletive] is the White House?” asked the drug dealer when he was told the location for the drug sale.

In this case, what is the connection between this bridge and the jobs bill Obama is promoting?

The Facts

The Fact Checker grew up in Cincinnati and knows the terror that motorists feel as they drive across this bridge coming from the airport, which is on the Kentucky side of the river.

The bridge was built in 1963 to accommodate 80,000 vehicles per day, but daily traffic is approaching 200,000 vehicles, as the traffic of I-75 and I-71 must cross it. The bridge is also a vital part of the U.S. economy, where the value of the freight that passes over it each year is equal to about 3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

The president, in his speech to Congress and in Cincinnati last week, certainly made it sound like passage of his jobs bill would mean construction workers would show up soon to begin fixing this urgent problem. The two ideas were directly linked in his speech to Congress:

“There are private construction companies all across America just waiting to get to work. There’s a bridge that needs repair between Ohio and Kentucky that’s on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America.”

And then, in a campaign-style rally last week in Cincinnati, he upped the ante, suggesting that Boehner and McConnell, by opposing his bill, were preventing the bridge from being rebuilt. “Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge,” he shouted. “Help us rebuild America. Help us put construction workers back to work. Pass this bill.”

So Carney’s comment — “could speed up the process” — amounted to a very large asterisk on the president’s words.

We dug a little deeper, and no money in the jobs bill is intended for the bridge. But administration officials argue that the act would provide additional funding for the Federal Highway Administration, and some of that money could be used to speed up environmental and other approvals.

“This means that the environmental work could finish by February ’12. A contract could be awarded late in ’12, and the workers could begin construction on the approaches to the bridge, which is a big part of the project, in ’13,” one administration official said. Another official said the money could speed up other required steps.

We get a little wary when we hear “could” in every sentence of administration talking points. Indeed, congressional aides find this timeline highly dubious.

The public schedule for the bridge, which can be found here, has the environmental approval scheduled for July 2012, just four months later than the administration’s “could” time frame. Construction is not slated to start until 2015, while the president’s jobs bill would spend most of its money in its first year.

But even if we grant the administration this tenuous connection between the bridge and the jobs bill, the larger issue is that Obama pointed to this bridge and suggested that Republicans are blocking its reconstruction with their opposition to his legislation. (“Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge. . . . Pass this bill.”)

Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a long history of bipartisan support for action to fix this bridge, such as this 2009 study announced by Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) and then-Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) to highlight the benefits of the bridge project.

Indeed, the biggest issue in starting the bridge reconstruction is not various approvals, but obtaining the nearly $3 billion needed to complete the reconstruction. There is not enough money under current highway formulas for the two states to do this by themselves. Davis, whose district contains the bridge, testified before Congress earlier this year about the need to solve the funding problem. “The Brent Spence Bridge is one example of a transportation mega-project that is critical infrastructure to the American economy,” he said.

The Pinocchio Test

This is symbolism run amok. The president certainly could have used the bridge to highlight the infrastructure crisis facing the United States. But he went a bridge too far by repeatedly suggesting that his jobs bill would immediately bring construction crews to this particular project — and that Republican lawmakers who long have pleaded for federal help on the bridge are now callously thwarting its repair.

Three Pinocchios

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Watch Obama’s Cincinnati speech

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