© 2023 Cincinnati Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7 WVXU Connecting you to a world of ideas with NPR news, local news from our award-winning team & music/entertainment programs heard only on public radio.

Analysis: Biden Takes On Everything From COVID To Brent Spence Bridge During Cincinnati Town Hall

joe biden cincinnati
Andrew Harnik
President Joe Biden appears at CNN town hall at Mount St. Joseph University in Cincinnati, Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

A feisty and proud president came to Cincinnati Wednesday to mark the six-month anniversary of his taking office with a  frank talk on a myriad of difficult issues that face him.

Early on, it was all about the coronavirus and how to deal with the rapidly spreading delta variant among the million of Americans who have yet to be vaccinated.

For the first 20 minutes of the CNN town hall session, Biden – after questions from CNN host Don Lemon and several members of the audience – hammered away at his contention that the threat of the new coronavirus variant only has the potential to be a new pandemic if people refuse to get vaccinated.

"It's real simple," Biden said to a roomful of Democrats and some Republicans chosen by CNN, which broadcast the session live. "We're having a pandemic for those who have not been vaccinated."

The vaccinated, the president said, having nothing to fear.

"If you are vaccinated, you are not going to be in a hospital, you are not going to be in an ICU unit; you're not going to die," Biden said, walking up to the front of the stage and looking directly into the eyes of the people in the auditorium. "What I say to people worried about a new pandemic – get vaccinated."

One questioner asked about the relatively low rate of Black Americans who have been vaccinated.

Biden said one thing his administration has been doing has been working with Black churches to increase the vaccination numbers, because people are more likely to believe the vaccines are good if it comes from a pastor rather than politicians.

"The one thing we have to do also is restore people's trust in government," the president said.

Cincinnati's Role In Biden's Town Hall

One question has been asked of the Biden visit all week – why Cincinnati?

The answer is simple – why not?

This is a city stuck in the middle of a three-state region where the issues President Biden wants to talk about are front and center.

His issues include a $600 billion plan to fix the nation's crumbling infrastructure, job creation, violence in the streets and the phenomenon of open jobs begging for someone to fill them in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cincinnati is in a part of the world where the delta variant of COVID-19 is spiking, mostly among people who have, thus far, refused to be vaccinated; and a part of the country where there is no shortage of families who were ecstatic to wake up one day last week to find a child tax credit in their checking accounts.

Just before the CNN town hall began, Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party, tweeted out a message calling the Biden appearance a "fake town hall to which no Republicans were invited." His assertion about no Republicans was not at all accurate  – there were several people who identified themselves as Republicans who asked questions of the president, including a local pediatrician, a woman who was a student at Mount St. Joseph University and a man who owns 39 restaurants around the country.

Cincinnati, a heavily Democratic city, is like a four-seam fastball: right in Biden's wheelhouse.

'Fix That Damn Bridge'

Infrastructure was the topic discussed after the vaccination situation. By choosing Mount Saint Joseph University, Biden and his carefully chosen audience were only a few miles downstream from the Brent Spence Bridge, the third most heavily traveled bridge in the country and a structure that is overworked and far past its prime.

Perhaps the biggest cheer from the audience came when Biden first mentioned the Brent Spence Bridge. He said his bipartisan plan for infrastructure needs to be passed immediately by Congress "so can we fix that damn bridge between here and Kentucky."

brent spence bridge
Credit Al Behrman / AP

In fact, many people on both sides of the river believe the bridge is a disaster waiting to happen. It was opened three days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963; and, since the mid-1990s, has been on the federal government's list of "functionally obsolete" intrastructure.

Biden is the third president in a row to come to Cincinnati and talk about the Brent Spence Bridge, but, thus far, it has all been talk and no real action.

Right now, Biden is in the middle of negotiations with Senate Republicans on a "bipartisan infrastructure program" that would, if Biden and the Democrats get their way, cost in the neighborhood of $600 billion for infrastructure repair. Senate Republicans managed to block debate on the infrastructure plan Wednesday afternoon, as Biden was on his way to Cincinnati in Air Force One.

And who is the chief negotiator for the Senate Republicans? That would be Cincinnati's own Rob Portman, the junior senator from Ohio who will soon be retired from the Senate. Biden may well be sending Portman a subtle message asking him to hurry up and cut a deal – a deal that could include money to replace the Brent Spence Bridge.

Anyone who believes it is mere coincidence that President Biden came to Portman's home turf to talk infrastructure – well, we have a bridge we'd like to sell you. And it's not in Brooklyn. Nothing escapes controversy these days in this compost heap we call politics – even the choice of a venue by the Biden White House.

It took place at Mount St. Joseph University, a venerable Catholic institution overlooking the Ohio River in Delhi Township.

No less a personage than Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of the Cincinnati Archdiocese injected himself into the Biden event by saying earlier this week that he would not have permitted Biden – a Catholic, and a devout one – use the university as a venue. He did not explicity state why, but a safe bet would be because of Biden's beliefs on abortion rights.

But Mount St. Joseph is not run by the Archdiocese; it is and always has been operated by the Sisters of Charity, an order of nuns whose Motherhouse is directly across the road from the university campus. And the archbishop is smart enough to know that; he said that he has no control over who Mount St. Joseph invites to the campus.

It did stir up some anti-Biden protests out in Delhi Township by anti-abortion Catholics who follow the church's teachings on abortion.

What Schnurr and the anti-abortion protestors seem to forget is that Pope Francis warmly greeted Biden to the Vatican earlier this year.

There was some speculation that President Biden, once Air Force One landed at CVG, might meet with Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear for a  deep discussion about the Brent Spence Bridge. But apparently that didn't happen. Beshear and his family were waiting for Biden on the tarmac when the president disembarked from Air Force One.

Biden and Beshear, along with his wife Brittany, talked for a few minutes. Biden also spoke briefly with Beashear's children – 12-year-old Will and 11-year-old Lila, both of whom were wearing COVID masks – before he hopped into the limo for a 25-minute motorcade to the IBEW training center off Glenway Avenue in West Price Hill.

andy beshear joe biden
Credit Andrew Harnik / AP
President Joe Biden is greeted by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, second from left, his wife Britainy Beshear, center, and their children Lila Beshear, 11, left, and Will Beshear, 12, right, as he arrives at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Ky., Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

The president spent only 20 minutes at the union electricians training center. It was clearly a photo opportunity.

"Unions are the best," Biden said. "They built the whole middle class."

joe biden cincinnati
Credit Andrew Harnik / AP
President Joe Biden speaks while meeting with an instructor and an apprentice in a classroom at the IBEW / NECA Electrical Training Center in Cincinnati, Wednesday, July 21, 2021.

At 6 p.m., the motorcade pulled out of the IBEW training center and arrived at Mount St. Joseph nine minutes later – it's amazing how quickly a motorcade can move when all of the other traffic is stopped and the motorcade has the streets to itself.

By the time Biden arrived, it was one hour and 50 minutes before CNN would begin the live session.

The town hall actually ran over the 60 minutes allotted.

Near the end, Lemon asked how he responded to Republicans who say that the president is "anti-police."

Biden had a two-word response.

"They're lying,'' he said, to raucous applause.

In response to another question from Lemon, he talked about the moment, as a new president, he realized the power and possibilities of the office: when he first sat face-to-face with Vladimir Putin.

"He knew who I was and I knew him,'' Biden said. "and I realized the role our country has to play in the world. If we don’t do it, who will?"

politically speaking 2
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU


Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.