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President Obama headed to the Port of New Orleans on Friday to call on Congress to get behind his plan to pour tens of billions of dollars into the nation's infrastructure, action that he says is crucial to bolster U.S. exports.
The visit to New Orleans, an effort to remind Americans that bolstering the economy is still Obama's top priority, comes as his administration has struggled to right the ship after a bungled rollout of the federal health exchange.
Obama wants Congress to spend $50 billion for roads, bridges and ports, and establish a National Infrastructure Bank. He says such steps would help attract more private-sector investment to repair the nation's infrastructure and create American jobs.
The National Infrastructure Bank is an idea Obama floated during his first term. He wants to capitalize the bank with a $10 billion investment.
In New Orleans, Obama argued it was essential to modernize the Port of New Orleans, while underscoring that the United States was falling behind competitors in making investment in infrastructure. The U.S. spends about 2% of its GDP on infrastructure, a 50% decline from 1960 and far less than countries such as China, according to the White House.
"In today's global economy, businesses are going to take root and grow wherever there is the fastest and most reliable transportation and communications networks," Obama said. "They can go anywhere. So China is investing a whole lot in infrastructure. Europe is investing a whole lot in infrastructure. Brazil is investing a whole lot in infrastructure. What are we doing?"
The Port of New Orleans offered the Obama administration a particularly powerful backdrop to make his point — about 60% of grain exports from the United States are shipped through the Mississippi River
"America is a maritime nation," said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. "These ports are keeping America's economy moving."
Obama noted that exports are one of the brightest spots of the U.S. economy, pointing to some high-profile trade pacts signed during his administration. The president had set a goal in 2010 of doubling exports by 2015. At this point, the U.S. is far off pace from reaching that goal.
Obama also touched briefly on the troubled health care rollout, reiterating his frustration with the federal government's website but expressing confidence that his administration will be able to quickly fix the problems with the federal exchange that serves 36 states.
Without naming him, Obama also criticized Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and other Republican governors who have refused to expand the state's Medicaid program through the Affordable Care Act. Jindal was among those who greeted Obama when he arrived in New Orleans on Friday and accompanied him as he took a tour of the port ahead of his speech.
Jindal and others have continued to resist the expansion, because they fear it will cost their states more than they can afford in the long run. He noted that some states with Republican governors who don't support the health care law, including Ohio and Michigan, have nevertheless agreed to accept federal funding to expanding Medicaid in their state.
"We want to work with everybody — mayor, governor, whoever it is that wants to work with us here in Louisiana," Obama said. "Even if you don't support the overall plan, let's at least go ahead and make sure the folks that don't have health care insurance right now can get it though an expanded Medicaid."