Obama addresses Milwaukee at Laborfest

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President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of about 10,000 at Laborfest on the Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds Monday. Photo by Brittany McGrail/brittany.mcgrail@marquette.edu

In his second Labor Day address in Milwaukee in the last three years, President Barack Obama sounded a lot like the candidate that was here in 2008.

Obama’s near 40-minute speech at Laborfest at the Henry W. Maier Festival Grounds largely focused on job growth, with the major selling point being a new plan to update, repair and fix the nation’s infrastructure. Laborfest, held each Labor Day, is organized by the Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO.

In a proposed $50 billion plan, Obama said he wants to rebuild or update 150,000 road miles, 4,000 miles of rail lines, and 150 miles of runways in the next six years.

“I want America to be the country with the best infrastructure in the world,” Obama said.

Locally, this would include high-speed rail, an issue clearly dividing the Wisconsin gubernatorial candidates. While Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett supports the idea, both GOP candidates Scott Walker and Mark Neumann oppose it.

“We’re talking high-speed rail lines here,” Obama said. “We have to make long overdue investments in our outdated infrastructure.”

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood reiterated the interest for high-speed rail in Wisconsin.

“Nobody can stop this train,” LaHood said. “I’m grateful for Mayor Barrett saying it’s so important.”

In January, Wisconsin was allocated $800 million in federal dollars for a high-speed rail line connecting Milwaukee and Madison.

Obama also spoke of how these plans would help the middle class by creating jobs. Only two weeks after he came in 2008, was when the “bottom fell out” of the economy, he said.

“That makes this cause more urgent than ever,” he said. “America cannot have a strong, growing economy without a strong, growing middle class.”

Toward the end of his speech, Obama morphed into attack mode. Although Obama did not refer to U.S. House minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) by name, instead calling him an “individual who wants to be the next Speaker of the House,” his words were pointed.

“Their slogan is ‘No, we can’t,’” Obama said, a spin on his 2008 campaign slogan of “Yes, we can.” “We already had what they’re peddling, with the worst economy since the Great Depression and record deficits to boot. I don’t want to relive the past.”

Following the speech, Wisconsin GOP chair Reince Preibus challenged the proposed plan. In a tweet, Preibus said, “President Obama does three things well: make speeches, spend taxpayer $, and blame everything on Republicans. We saw all 3 in WI today.”

Other dignitaries in attendance included two of Obama’s cabinet members, LaHood and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. Local politicians there included Barrett, U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, all Democrats.

Barrett said before Obama spoke that the president would not have come to Wisconsin again if the need for both more state jobs and American-made products were not here.

“He knows it, that’s why he’s here,” Barrett said.

Besides union workers who attended the event, a number of Marquette students also took advantage of the day off to see the president’s speech.

Bill Niedhardt, a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences, saw Obama for the third time today. He said this was a fired up, exuberant Obama with the midterm elections dawning.

“He’s more energized now,” Niedhardt said. “That speech had to be his highest energy level in years. The plan highlights a lot of what the middle class is made of.”

Austin Dunn, a senior in the College of Communication, said his first experience of seeing Obama was great, even if lot of the points had been made before.

“I thought he had to get people energized,” Dunn said.  “I think he did a good job and get people thinking of voting and I think he did that too.”

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