Obama changes rhetoric to get $50B for transportation

by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper

President Obama is changing his rhetoric in trying to get Congress to approve $50 billion in new spending on roads, bridges and railways.

Out are the words “stimulus” and even “infrastructure,” a term seemingly tied to the $787 billion economic stimulus package approved in 2009.

In is the word “jobs,” which is what the president says will be created if Congress approves his $447 billion package.

That Obama would ditch the word “stimulus” is hardly a surprise considering the political bruises he’s taken from Republicans, who say the stimulus failed to create the millions of jobs promised by the administration.

It’s a little more surprising that the president would avoid the word “infrastructure,” especially since a key part of the president’s plan would be to spend $10 billion to create a national infrastructure bank.

Obama says the bank would leverage private and public capital and invest in a broad range of projects to improve the nation’s rapidly eroding transportation network.

Yet Obama didn’t use the word “infrastructure” once in a roughly 40-minute speech to a joint session of Congress on Thursday in which he laid out his proposals.

Whether the rhetorical flourishes will really help sell the plan with Republicans or the public is uncertain, though the House GOP has offered signs it is willing to work with Obama when it comes to tax and infrastructure issues.

Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons said casting aside terms closely related to the original stimulus might help Obama sell his jobs plan around the edges, but that the plan will end up being judged on its merits.

“I’m sure there’s some political benefit in not using the word infrastructure, but the question is whether people believe we’re in such a bad (economic) position that we need to fix some things,” said Simmons, who is a principal at the Washington-based consulting firm The Raben Group.

In his speech to Congress, Obama described the infrastructure bank proposal, which is sponsored in the Senate by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), as being the idea of a “Texas Republican and a Massachusetts Democrat.”

That was an effort to frame the proposal as middle ground, and not as part of a liberal spending spree.

He also said the bill would “create more jobs for construction workers,” a sector that has been devastated in a recession triggered by a collapse of the housing market.

Still, the parallels to the 2009 stimulus have hardly been lost on Republicans chomping at the bit to defeat Obama when he runs for re-election next year.

“President Obama’s call for nearly a half-trillion dollars in more government stimulus when America has more than $14 trillion in debt is guided by his mistaken belief that we can spend our way to prosperity,” GOP frontrunner Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement after the president’s speech. “Like the president’s earlier $800 billion stimulus program, this proposal offers little hope for millions of Americans who have lost jobs on his watch, and taxpayers who are rightly concerned that their children will inherit a mountain of debt.

One GOP strategist who has lobbied for high-speed rail projects, former Republican Party of Florida chairman Al Cardenas, said the GOP Congress is unlikely to go along with $50 billion in infrastructure spending.

“After President Bush’s initiative (to give rebate checks to citizens) and President Obama’s stimulus efforts, everyone in Congress on the R side is highly skeptical,” Cardenas said in an interview with The Hill.

However, Cardenas said individual pieces of Obama’s proposal, like an extension of payroll tax cuts, could garner some GOP support.

Caveats like that, also found in post-speech remarks from Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), give Transportation for America Communications Director David Goldberg reasons for guarded optimism about the jobs plan.

After Obama’s speech, Boehner said his proposal “merited consideration” and Mica said he preferred encouraging states to create their own infrastructure bank instead of a “National Infrastructure Bank run by Washington bureaucrats requiring Washington approval and Washington red tape.”

“So far, the reaction from key (Republicans) on the infrastructure side of things have been mildly supportive,” Goldberg said in an interview Friday with The Hill. “If the debate is on the best way to move forward versus whether to move forward at all, there is potential to get something done.”

While the GOP leaders’ remarks were hardly effusive, Goldberg said they were a far cry from the reaction that has been given to some of Obama’s other proposals to stimulate the economy with infrastructure spending.

“If the comments are ‘no way, no how,’ then we’re going to be stuck again,” he said.




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