PITTSBURGH — President Joe Biden visited the collapsed bridge in Pittsburgh on Friday, striking evidence of a need for his $1 trillion infrastructure initiative. The bridge fell just hours before Biden’s previously scheduled trip to the city to showcase his program, temporarily stranding vehicles and people but causing no fatalities.
Biden spoke to first responders and surveyed the empty space the bridge spanned before falling to pieces.
Biden had spoken by phone with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey about the early morning bridge collapse before taking off for Pennsylvania and offered federal support for the cleanup efforts, White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters en route to Pittsburgh.
“Our team remains in touch with state and local officials on the ground on updates and any additional assistance we can provide,” she said.
The bridge collapse — which caused no fatalities but prompted rescuers to form a human chain to retrieve people from a precariously perched bus — offered Biden a striking example of what he has declared an urgent need for investments in the country’s infrastructure.
The steel span was built in 1970, and a 2019 inspection revealed the deck and superstructure to be in poor condition, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Bridge Inventory.
The infrastructure law signed by Biden has earmarked about $1.6 billion for Pennsylvania bridge maintenance, with tens of billions more for public transit, highway maintenance and broadband internet expansion in the state.
Friday’s trip was an opening step in a broader campaign to promote White House achievements in key states before the midterm elections. It brought Biden, a Pennsylvania native, home to one of the top-targeted states this cycle. The Pennsylvania battle to replace Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is not seeking reelection, is expected to be one of the most competitive Senate races this year.
But two of the three leading Democrats on Pennsylvania’s statewide ballot this spring who were invited to appear with Biden were not attending, their campaigns confirmed on the eve of the president’s visit.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a leading Senate candidate, and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the likely Democratic nominee in the race for governor, will be absent because of scheduling conflicts, according to their spokespeople. Another top Senate candidate, Rep. Conor Lamb, a longtime Biden supporter based in Pittsburgh, will attend, his office confirmed. All three had been invited to participate in a photo line with the president.
The high-profile absences come as Democrats in other states have begun taking modest steps to distance themselves from the first-term president, whose approval ratings have fallen sharply in recent months. And while Fetterman and Shapiro indicated that politics had no bearing on their schedules, their decisions to avoid Biden, particularly in his home state, could fuel further questions among anxious Democratic candidates elsewhere as they decide whether to embrace the struggling president.
Shapiro made three appearances with Biden last summer and fall when the president’s numbers were better. But the gubernatorial hopeful has a scheduling conflict this time, Simons said, without detailing the conflict.
“Like every American should, Josh wants our president to be successful and we’ll continue welcoming President Biden to his home state of Pennsylvania,” Simons said.
Fetterman, the outspoken lieutenant governor whose campaign headquarters is based in Pittsburgh, said he’ll miss Biden’s visit in that city to attend the Democratic state committee, which begins Friday evening 200 miles to the east in Harrisburg.
Leading Pennsylvania Democrats who are not on the ballot this year did not have the same scheduling conflicts. Those who will appear with Biden on Friday include Gov. Tom Wolf, who is term-limited, and Sen. Bob Casey, whose current term runs through 2024.
It’s been a different calculation for vulnerable Democrats who will face voters in 2022.
Earlier in the month, Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, a leading candidate for governor in another swing state, skipped a chance to appear with the president in the state, citing an unspecified scheduling conflict. And in the weeks since, several other notable Democrats have seemed to distance themselves from Biden as well.
Last week, Texas Democrat Beto O’Rourke said he didn’t need the Democratic president’s assistance in his campaign for governor.
And this week, Rep. Steny Hoyer, the No. 3 House Democrat, refused to say whether vulnerable Democrats on the ballot this fall should embrace the label “Biden Democrat.”
“I want every Democrat to run as Democrats who deliver,” Hoyer told Politico when asked directly about “Biden Democrats.”
The White House announced Biden’s trip on Monday after the president said last week he would look to get out of Washington more in the second year of his presidency.
Biden, who has seen his poll numbers sink in the midst of an unrelenting pandemic and high inflation, said it was important that he “go out and talk to the public” about what he’s accomplished and about why Congress needs to get behind the rest of his domestic agenda.
While in Pittsburgh, Biden will focus on the economy, according to White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
“He’ll be talking about how far we’ve come in getting our economy moving again, making more right here in America, and ensuring all workers benefit,” Psaki told reporters at the White House on Thursday.
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