MIAMI — President Obama on Friday visited a tunnel project at the major port here to promote a new plan to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and points of commerce — a series of measures that White House officials argue could appeal to business-minded Republicans.
In a brief visit, Obama said hiring construction workers for “infrastructure” projects would help lower the nation’s high unemployment rate — no industry has been harder hit than construction — and make the country more competitive in the long run. The proposals range from $4 billion to invest in rebuilding roads and bridges to tax breaks designed to attract investors, at home and abroad, to construction projects.
“There are few more important things we can do to create jobs right now and strengthen our economy over the long haul by rebuilding our infrastructure that powers our businesses and our economy,” Obama said, surrounded by blue shipping containers. “This should not be a partisan idea.”
Obama’s trip was designed to show that he is fighting to accomplish second-term priorities despite significant barriers and a polarized political climate that makes the passage of ideas with bipartisan support difficult.
While members of both parties have historically backed proposals to increase spending on roads and bridges, Republicans are raising objections to the tax increases that would probably be necessary to help pay for fresh spending.
The White House says the proposals would require $21 billion in taxpayer dollars, money it has to offset to meet its promise that they won’t add to the deficit. Obama has also proposed $40 billion in immediate federal spending on thousands of projects that are in need of prompt repairs — a proposal called “Fix It First.”
Specific details will be laid out in Obama’s 2014 budget that will be released April 10.
“Last time, I think he wanted to tax the same people that were supposed to create the job,” Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Friday.
Writing in the Miami Herald, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Obama needs to listen to people in Florida “to get a true sense of the effect more tax increases and spending hikes will have on our nation’s middle class.”
Because of the political paralysis, the opposite of what Obama is advocating is happening now. Deep cuts to federal spending known as sequestration are slicing $4 billion out of federal construction projects this year, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.
In his remarks, Obama expressed frustration that his ideas generate political division. “I know Washington people just like to argue. I guess it gets them on TV,” he said. “We can’t afford Washington politics to stand in the way of America’s progress.”
His proposals had three major parts. He would spend $4 billion on local and state infrastructure projects. He would invest $10 billion in an “infrastructure bank” that would make loans to private companies. And he would back new tax subsidies worth $7 billion that make it easier for states and localities to raise money and for foreign and domestic investors to start construction projects.
Obama pointed to the tunnel here as an example of the best approach. The $1 billion construction project, the result of a collaboration between government and private investors, is designed to create a direct line between the highway and the port, relieving congestion. “That’s how we’ll encourage more businesses to start here and grow here,” the president said.
He also connected the construction proposal to a more sweeping vision of an economy that generates middle-class jobs and rising wages, something it has struggled to do for more than a decade.
“There’s work to be done. There’s workers ready to do it,” he said. “Let’s prove to the world there’s no better place to do business than right here in the United States of America.”
Alan Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, warned that the country had spent less on infrastructure compared with global competitors. But he could not predict how many jobs the proposal would create.
“I don’t have a job number for you because it depends on how much it’s leveraged,” Krueger said. “I can tell you when economists have looked at infrastructure investment in the past, they find it has a very high rate of return for the economy.”
Despite the long odds, not all hope for bipartisan compromise is lost. Last month, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) agreed the nation needs to spend more on infrastructure.
“The president talked about infrastructure, but he didn’t talk about how to pay for it,” he said. “And it’s easy to go out there and be Santa Claus and talk about all the things you want to give away. But at some point, somebody has to pay the bill.”
But, he added, “I’m committed to working to find a funding source so that we can begin to repair America’s aging infrastructure.”