SUPERIOR, Wis. — President Joe Biden made a decaying but vital connector between the port cities of Duluth and Superior a cornerstone of his speech in Superior on Wednesday — the first presidential visit to the city in nearly a century.
Biden, in his first public stop since Tuesday's State of the Union address, highlighted the $1 trillion infrastructure law he signed in November and how it will help the 60-year-old Blatnik Bridge, already operating with load restrictions and in need of truss repair. The law would send about $4.8 billion to Minnesota and an estimated $5.4 billion to Wisconsin for roads and bridges over the next five years.
The Blatnik Bridge, which the Democratic president visited before his arrival at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, is an important link for the region's economy, Biden said.
"When the Husky Oil Refinery exploded in 2018, this bridge was the one many people took to get your families to safety," he said.
Biden's visit marked a return to a Midwestern outpost that proved crucial to his electoral victory in 2020 when his strong showing among voters in northwestern Wisconsin helped him defeat former President Donald Trump. In 2016, Trump won in Democrats' historic base, narrowly winning Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. In the coming midterms, the Midwestern battleground is shaping up to be no less crucial, and both parties are renewing their campaigns to win over working-class voters intensely focused on jobs and the economy.
The region knows the importance of good bridges, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who appeared with Biden along with fellow Democratic Sens. Tina Smith of Minnesota and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin.
"We will never forget when the 35W bridge fell down on a beautiful summer day in the middle of the Mississippi River, and 13 people died," Klobuchar said. "I said that day a bridge should never fall down in the middle of America."
Speaking to a small but lively crowd that included dozens of students inside the university's student union, Biden touted the jobs, use of American steel, St. Louis River restoration and local port improvements that will come from what he called the most sweeping infrastructure investment in history.
"I am truly more optimistic about America today than I've ever been," he said.
The two Republicans representing the Twin Ports in Congress, Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber and Wisconsin Rep. Tom Tiffany, used Biden's visit to criticize the president on energy and mineral issues. In a zoom call with reporters before the stop, Stauber denounced the administration's cancellation in January of two federal minerals leases and said Biden's policies "have been very harsh on the middle class and the blue collar worker in Minnesota's Eighth Congressional District."
Stauber voted with his fellow Minnesota Republicans in Congress against the bipartisan infrastructure law last year, raising questions about why they opposed bringing back money to their communities to mend bridges and roadways.
"Obviously, I've been supportive of the infrastructure projects in our Eighth Congressional District," Stauber said. "And right now, I am fighting to have those projects completed."
Cold temps, warm reception from Democrats
Biden greeted the crowd with "I love Wisconsin and Minnesota!" He wondered aloud if Packers fans and Vikings fans can talk to each other. He described getting off the airplane earlier Wednesday and asked if Duluth Mayor Emily Larson had even been wearing a coat.
"You're a tough kid," he said to her from the stage.
Biden had ashes on his forehead, the mark of Ash Wednesday, when he landed at the Duluth International Airport a little after noon. He and First Lady Jill Biden were greeted on the tarmac by biting winds and 22-degree temperatures. They spent a few minutes dishing hugs and handshakes with a crowd that included Larson, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers and Superior Mayor Jim Paine before leaving in a motorcade of more than 25 vehicles.
The Twin Ports visit followed Biden's first State of the Union address Tuesday, an hour-long speech that expressed support for Ukraine and a promise to hold Russian President Vladimir Putin accountable for his actions against his Eastern European neighbor.
Addressing the Russian invasion of Ukraine again Wednesday, Biden said Putin has rejected repeated efforts of diplomacy, thinking the "wWest and NATO wouldn't respond."
"We were ready, and we countered Russia's lies with truth," he said. "We will continue to aid the Ukrainian people."
Biden's most recent trip to Minnesota was last November when he visited the heavy machine shop at Rosemount's Dakota County Technical College. He has visited Duluth and surrounding communities in recent years, but it has been a decade since he stopped in Superior.
Calvin Coolidge, looking for respite from the heat, was the last sitting president to visit Superior nearly a century ago. In 1928, he turned Superior Central Middle School into a summer White House.
Now, the mayor of Superior described his city of nearly 27,000 as "the future of the United States of America."
Thanks to the new federal funding, Paine said, "After decades of decline, we're rebuilding this city."
Staff writer Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.