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In Pittsburgh visit, First Lady says White House kept promises on infrastructure, equity

First Lady Jill Biden with Biden Administration Cabinet members Pete Buttigieg and Julie Su.
Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
First Lady Jill Biden hears about local job-training efforts with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su

On a visit to Pittsburgh Tuesday, First Lady Jill Biden touted the investments her husband’s administration had made across the country — including at the airport where she’d landed a short time before.

But she and other members of his administration argued that what made such projects important wasn’t just where they would take travelers — but where they would lead the people who helped build them.

“When we invest in America, we bring people together and fundamentally transform what it means to make a living and make a life here in the United States of America,” Biden told a small crowd not long after landing.

Biden’s speech, which lasted slightly more than seven minutes, took place at the Pittsburgh International Airport, against the backdrop of a new $1.4 billion air terminal still under construction. Officials expect to complete the project in 2025.

Biden reminded the crowd that, two years before, the president had appeared at a Carpenters union training hall just down the road along the Parkway West “and announced that he planned to make the largest investment in infrastructure since the interstate highway and that union workers would be at the heart of this effort, that he would revitalize roads and bridges and schools."

“And yes, this very airport,” she said. “And he's kept his promise.

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Joined by two of her husband’s cabinet advisors, the First Lady recited a list of economic statistics to quantify that assertion: nationwide unemployment rates below 4 percent, 13 million jobs created, and some $9 billion in investment.

Her visit to the area — part of a broader national effort that included a stop in Georgia earlier in the day — came as Americans’ economic outlook remains dour, even while other economic metrics improve. And with a potentially bruising re-election effort coming next year, the event had some political resonance.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, for one, said in a thinly veiled shot at former President Donald Trump that Biden’s emphasis was “about investments and policies that improve people's lives, not empty promises of an infrastructure week that came and went.”

But more broadly, the event argued that the president’s economic agenda — which the White House has recently begun calling “Bidenomics” — is focused not just on delivering prosperity but on making sure people share in it.

It's the future of our workforce and how we build our economy from the bottom up and the middle out,” Jill Biden said. “A job is so much more than a paycheck. It's a path, a way to build the lives we want. And everyone, no matter where they live, deserves the chance to do just that.”

Julie Su, the president's acting secretary of labor, defined the goal of Bidenomics as the creation of “an economy that puts workers first, and here opportunity is available to everyone.”

She touted job-training efforts that were “intentional about recruiting folks from traditionally marginalized communities,” by offering not just opportunities but help in taking advantage of them. The airport, for example, is developing “wraparound services” for its workers, providing them with transportation and child care at work — an approach Jill Biden called “revolutionary” on Tuesday.

To accomplish those goals, the White House touts the use of such tools as Project Labor Agreements, which are established at the outset of a construction job. Such agreements typically include a mutual pledge not to disrupt work through strikes or lock-outs, but they also can set targets for goals such as minority hiring.

The administration hopes Pittsburgh will be a laboratory for such efforts. The White House named the area as one of five “workforce hubs” nationwide this past spring. The hubs are meant to establish partnerships between officials at each level of government and schools, employers, and unions — all seeking to ensure a supply of skilled labor that administration officials hope Biden’s other federal investments will require.

With the First Lady's itinerary kept under wraps, local critics of the administration’s record had to find ways to make themselves heard.

About 20 people joined a morning rally organized by the libertarian/conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity. In a parking lot near the Parkway West and just outside the county Republican Party’s offices, demonstrators urged passing motorists with signs that read “End Biden’s Borrowing Binge,” and “No Bidenomic, no inflation.”

Emily Greene, AFP’s deputy state director for Pennsylvania, said numbers showing a strong economy were at best “short-term Band-Aids on a much larger issue.” Federal spending might have juiced jobs numbers in the short run, she said, but “We want to see long-term, sustainable solutions.”

But supporters of the Biden agenda said its emphasis on equity is precisely what will ensure current growth is sustainable because job skills will be distributed more equitably. Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey told the audience that the city’s strength lies in its ability to “bring people together to create jobs, particularly jobs [that] remove the barriers for the next generation to have opportunities that they haven't seen before.”

After the First Lady’s formal remarks, she joined local officials to speak with two young women who’d joined a Carpenters apprenticeship program on the site.

“It’s a big honor to be able to pave the way for women after me to get into the trades,” said Samantha Ervin-Upsher, a Black woman and apprentice in Local 432. “There’s not that many of us out there, but the ones that are out there … work hard every day to make sure that we know and they know that they can do it, too.”

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.