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President Biden pitches Build Back Better plan in Livingston County

President Joe Biden in Howell, MI on Tuesday, October 5, 2021.
Rick Pluta/MPRN
President Joe Biden in Howell, MI on Tuesday, October 5, 2021.

President Joe Biden traveled to Michigan Tuesday to pitch his Build Back Better and infrastructure plans to swing-state voters in a politically critical region. His destination was a union hall in Howell.

Presidential visits are not random choices. And President Joe Biden’s stop by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 324 was no exception.

“Hello Michigan,” he told the assembled group. “It’s good to be back. It really is.” The small crowd included Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, union leaders and members of Michigan’s congressional delegation. The Biden speech was heavy on policy – he wants to spend several trillion dollars on roads and bridges, job training, early childhood development, clean energy and the list goes on. He said other nations, China, in particular, are leading the U.S. in critical areas.

“We are at an inflection point,” he said. “Anywhere from 40 to 80 years in America, there is an inflection point. We have to choose what direction we’re going to go. Not Democrat or Republican, but who we’re going to be.”

Which is what brought the President to Howell. Howell is in the heart of Republican-red Livingston County, which then-President Donald Trump took last year with 60% of the votes. That’s compared to Biden’s 38% in the county. But that did not stop Biden from winning the state of Michigan, with 50.6% of the vote – a decisive but narrow victory. Howell, and places like it, are where Biden has to sell his plan.

“Folks, here in Michigan, you all know the cost of extreme weather,” he said. “All of you remember the flooding this summer that shut down parts of I-96, the power outages and the tornado warnings. They’re costing your state billions of dollars.”

But it’s really not possible to disentangle policy from politics, especially with the Democrats holding a slim eight-vote U.S. House majority. The 8th Congressional District here is represented by Democrat Elissa Slotkin, who’s won two elections with just a fraction more than 50% of the vote. She’s one of Congress’s centrist Democrats who will have to be reeled in by Biden if his plan is to pass. Slotkin says she’s on board with infrastructure spending, but needs to hear more about the rest.

“You know, everyone wants to know that we’re investing in our country, but everyone wants to know that it’s not going to be on the backs of working people,” she said. “And I think we’re just at a moment in time where people are like, actions speak louder than words. They want to hear it but they want to see the fine print, and I’m with ‘em.”

Slotkin says she’s adamant that the spending is focused on education, energy and jobs plans and not parsed out in ways that won’t be transformational.

Protesters gather in Howell.
Collin Jackson
Michigan Public Radio Network
Several hundred protested Biden's visit in Howell. A few outnumbered Biden supporters are seen in the distance.

But to Livingston County Republican Chair Meghan Reckling, Biden’s Build Back Better plan is just too much spending.

“It’s still a lot of money,” she said. “3.5 trillion dollars is still a lot of money. My kids, my grandkids are still going to have to pay off that debt, and it is going to impact everyday Americans, contrary to what the President says.”

Reckling was among the Biden protesters who lined the street on the President’s route. Many waved Trump signs and banners. Some cursed as the motorcade passed. Biden supporters also showed up. There was a lot of shouting, a lot of swearing from both sides. Biden said his plan would create “a rising America.” He defended it in a town that represents a divided America.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.