President Obama, who extolled the value of middle-class construction jobs during nearly five years of recession and recovery, has changed his tune to borderline contempt for the blue-collar jobs needed to build the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
In a speech in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Tuesday, Mr. Obama chuckled derisively when he mentioned that Republican lawmakers are promoting the pipeline project for the thousands of jobs it would create over two years.
“They keep on talking about this — an oil pipeline coming down from Canada that’s estimated to create about 50 permanent jobs,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s not a jobs plan.”
In an interview last week, the president gave a lowball estimate of “maybe 2,000” construction jobs that would be created by the pipeline project. He called those jobs “a blip” of what the nation needs.
The comments contrast starkly with Mr. Obama’s attitude during his first term, when he expressed enthusiasm for construction jobs of all kinds. As part of his “We Can’t Wait” campaign in November 2011, Mr. Obama held an event at the Key Bridge in Georgetown to call on Congress to approve more temporary stimulus spending on infrastructure projects to help unemployed construction workers.
“Of all the industries hammered by the economic downturn, construction has been among the hardest hit,” Mr. Obama said at the time. “I’m joining many of these workers to say that it makes absolutely no sense when there’s so much work to be done that they’re not doing the work.”
He chided House Republicans at the time for considering legislation to reaffirm “In God We Trust” as the national motto rather than devoting time and effort to helping construction workers.
“That’s not putting people back to work,” Mr. Obama said. “I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.”
In February 2009, as he urged Congress to approve an $800 billion-plus economic stimulus package, Mr. Obama cited the need for construction jobs.
The stimulus legislation, he said at the time, “has the right priorities to create 3 [million] to 4 million jobs and to do it in a way that lays the groundwork for long-term growth by fixing our schools; modernizing health care to lower costs; repairing our roads, bridges, levees and other vital infrastructure; and moving us toward energy independence. It is what America needs right now.”
Even before he took the oath of office in January 2009, Mr. Obama was promoting government-funded infrastructure projects that he said were “shovel-ready all across the country.” Many of them also would have been temporary jobs, given the act’s proposed life of two or three years.
Two years later, amid criticism that the stimulus law hadn’t produced the promised number of construction jobs, Mr. Obama wisecracked, “Shovel-ready was not as shovel-ready as we expected.”
The president’s top aides said Mr. Obama wasn’t disparaging the value of construction jobs in his most recent comments, but was trying to make a point that House Republicans lack a comprehensive strategy for creating jobs.
Dan Pfeiffer, senior adviser to Mr. Obama, told The Washington Times on Wednesday that the president’s latest comments are “not inconsistent” with previous statements about construction jobs.
“One infrastructure project is not a jobs strategy,” Mr. Pfeiffer said at a breakfast meeting with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. “That would be like saying our jobs strategy is to repair the Key Bridge. We’re talking about one thing, and it would have some temporary jobs which would be significant. But in the overall scale of the employment situation in this country, as the president said, it’s a blip. And when that’s done, contrary to … the rhetoric you hear, it’s 50 to 100 permanent jobs.”
Mr. Pfeiffer suggested that the president’s comments about Keystone are aimed at September confrontations with Republicans over spending and borrowing.
“He’s put his jobs ideas on the table, he’s calling on Republicans to do the same,” Mr. Pfeiffer said. “To date, the core of the Republican jobs package … is vote to repeal Obamacare for the 40th time and build the Keystone pipeline. There’s a legitimate debate over whether you should build that pipeline or not. The president’s point is that’s not a jobs strategy.”
Republican lawmakers also suspect that the president is signaling his disapproval of the project, which environmentalists vehemently oppose. Last month, Mr. Obama said his administration would approve the pipeline only if it would not contribute to carbon pollution.
Canadian government and private officials have said repeatedly that they will mine the oil and sell it in the U.S. or somewhere else to burn and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, regardless of whether the pipeline is built.
Republicans said that whether Mr. Obama is trying to kill the pipeline or is posturing for September, he is way off base in the jobs numbers for the project.
“The president famously pledged to ‘do whatever it takes’ to create jobs — but this is a new low,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, Michigan Republican. “Attacking new job opportunities is not a jobs plan. Unions and manufacturers are desperate for the president to say yes to the Keystone pipeline because it will get thousands of workers off of unemployment and back on the job. The president should listen to these American workers looking for a job and embrace the opportunity to realize the benefits of $7 billion in private investments.”
The State Department has estimated that the pipeline project would create 5,000 to 6,000 construction jobs per year. TransCanada Corp., which would build the pipeline, has said it would generate about 13,000 jobs over two years.
The State Department also said the project could support another 42,000 jobs per year for two years across the U.S. in related industries.
Mr. Upton and two other Republicans on his committee wrote a letter Wednesday asking Mr. Obama to explain his comments that downplayed the economic benefits of the pipeline. They said the administration’s nearly 1,800-day approval process for the pipeline “has now become an embarrassment.”
“Your recent comments have only added to the immense amount of uncertainty that surrounds the Keystone XL approval process,” they wrote.