NEW YORK — President Obama traveled up and down the East Coast on Thursday, combining an informal meet-and-greet, a policy speech and two fundraisers as he sought to muster public support for his economic agenda.
But even as the White House attempted to focus attention on domestic priorities, world events intervened. While aboard Air Force One during the trip, Obama placed separate calls to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib in the aftermath of Thursday’s crash of a Malaysian jetliner in eastern Ukraine, according to White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Obama said during a speech in Wilmington, Del., that the crash “looks like it may be a terrible tragedy.”
“The United States will offer any assistance we can to help determine what happened and why,” the president said. “And as a country, our thoughts and prayers are with all the families of the passengers, wherever they call home.”
The new strategy has given his recent trips the feel of a political campaign, complete with photo-ops and the exchange of barbs with Republican politicians.
Obama journeyed to the Port of Wilmington, where he was flanked by about two dozen construction workers and massive shipping containers, to talk about the need to upgrade some of the nation’s critical infrastructure. He spoke near a section of the Interstate 495 Bridge, which is temporarily closed for repairs.
“Once workers are done repairing it, this bridge will be safer, it will be more reliable for commuters and for commerce,” Obama said. “And that’s what I’m here to talk about today — and I’ve been talking about this all week — creating more good jobs rebuilding America, and the opportunity that we have to seize to rebuild the American middle class.”
Obama announced he was creating a center within the Department of Transportation that will connect state and local officials with private financing for infrastructure projects. He also criticized lawmakers for not providing long-term funding for the federal Highway Trust Fund, though he has pledged to sign a stopgap measure that the House passed this week.
“If Washington were working the way it was supposed to, Congress would be creating jobs right now,” Obama said, adding that the temporary measure will not provide enough certainty for long-term investments. “We don’t need unhelpful and unnecessary deadlines that crunch a few months from now.”
Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), criticized the president in an e-mail to reporters. “Earlier this week, the House passed an overwhelmingly bipartisan highway bill,” Steel wrote. “The roadblock now is the U.S. Senate, controlled by the President’s own political party. As a leader of that party, he could work to break the Senate gridlock. Instead, he is giving a petulantly irrelevant speech.”
Before heading to the port, the president stopped off at the Charcoal Pit, a restaurant just north of Wilmington that has been in operation for more than 50 years and is known for its burgers and sundaes. Obama shook hands and mingled with many of the diners, stopping at one point to pick up 7-month-old Jaidyn Oates and pose for a photo.
The president also invoked Vice President Biden’s name multiple times, telling diners, “Biden told me the burgers are pretty good.”
The president had lunch with Tanei Benjamin, a single mother who wrote to him in July 2013 about the challenge she faced working and also raising her daughter, who is now 6. After reading Benjamin’s letter, Obama sent it to his senior staff with a note at the bottom that read, “This is the person we are working for,” according to an account from the White House.
Obama finished his day by headlining two events with political donors in New York City: one for the Democratic National Committee and another for the House Majority PAC, a super PAC. The first event took place in Trump Place Apartments at the home of Monika and Deven Parekh, where 30 supporters contributed up to $32,400 to attend, according to a DNC official. The second, according to a House Majority PAC official, was a thank-you event for contributors at the home of Amy Goldman Fowler and Cary Fowler at Fifth Ave. and East 65th St.