WOODSTOCK, N.H. — Standing before an aging, rusty steel bridge, President Biden on Tuesday declared that his newly signed $1.2 trillion infrastructure package would help expand New Hampshire’s high-speed Internet access, clean up its water supply, and repair its roads and bridges — such as the decrepit one serving as his backdrop.
“Folks, every mile counts, every minute counts in an emergency,” he told an audience of several dozen people in this secluded forest town, pointing to the 82-year-old bridge over the Pemigewasset River behind him and saying its deteriorating condition could slow down firefighters and emergency responders.
The state was the first stop in a series of nationwide events by Biden and top administration officials to promote the bipartisan infrastructure law — and in the process try to rebuild the popularity of his presidency and his party after a rough few months that have seen his approval rating plummet and the Democrats lose a governor’s seat in Virginia.
On Tuesday, he shifted between underscoring the merits of the new infrastructure funding and his familiar appeals to Americans to back another major piece of legislation, a $1.75 trillion bill to expand the social safety net and tackle climate change, financed by taxes on the wealthy.
Biden also took care of political business in a battleground state, praising the four members of New Hampshire’s congressional delegation — all Democrats who were present — for serving as key negotiators on the infrastructure package that he called “the most significant investment to modernize our roads and our bridges in 70 years.”
“This isn’t esoteric, this isn’t some gigantic bill — it is — but it’s about what happens to ordinary people,” Biden told the audience as a light snow fell.
The president signed the infrastructure legislation on Monday in a flashy Washington ceremony attended by lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle, saying “America is moving again.” The visit to Woodstock — where he repeated those words — was a triumphant return to the state. Biden was last in New Hampshire in February 2020, on the day of the Democratic primary, but left instead of attending his own election watch party as he headed for a disappointing fifth-place finish.
Then, like now, his poll numbers were lagging and he was pleading with the public — and the press — not to underestimate him. Biden recovered to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, carrying New Hampshire by 7.3 percentage points in the general election.
Now he again is looking for another comeback. In recent months, Biden’s popularity has tumbled with Americans troubled by another surge in the pandemic and rising inflation, while his administration grapples with a narrow majority in Congress and an energized far right wing of the Republican Party that still refuses to accept his presidency.
Biden’s approval rating in New Hampshire was 44 percent in a poll released in late October by the Saint Anselm College Survey Center, roughly what it has averaged in recent national polls. More than two-thirds of voters in that poll — 68 percent — said the country is on the wrong track.
On Tuesday, Biden opponents, including supporters of former president Donald Trump, gathered with hand-written placards and American flags near a closed roadway leading to the bridge. They chanted conservative rallying cries in the distance, their voices faint in the cold wind as he spoke.
Whether he heard them or not, Biden pressed on in his speech, growing more emotional as he described what he called the inflection point at which the nation finds itself. He recalled a three-hour virtual meeting Monday night with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who asked him if he could define America in one word.
“Possibilities,” Biden said he told him.
”In America, we’ve always believed anything is possible,” Biden said, as some in the audience nodded in agreement. “We’ve got to reestablish that spirit. We got to reestablish that sense of who we are.”
The infrastructure package is key to that, passed with something rare in Washington these days — bipartisan support. Biden said it showed that, “despite the cynics, Democrats and Republicans, we can work together. We can deliver real results.”
The White House said the effort was desperately needed, with an estimated 173,000 total miles of highways and major roads and 45,000 bridges in poor condition. The law includes $40 billion to upgrade bridges, the single largest such investment since the country constructed its federal highway system, according to the Biden administration.
Massachusetts is slated to receive more than $9 billion from the legislation — with billions more in additional grant funding available — to fix roads and bridges, upgrade public transportation, address climate change, as well as to make other investments, according to the White House and members of the state’s congressional delegation.
Victoria Sheehan, commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation, said her state would receive funding for its federal highways, airports, and public transit, and the creation of an infrastructure program to charge electric vehicles. There also is $225 million specifically allotted to address more than 100 structurally deficient bridges in the state.
In another sign of bipartisanship, Biden was greeted at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport by the state’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, before he made his way to the Pemigewasset River bridge. He arrived with Sheehan and members of the New Hampshire delegation and walked across the bridge’s rickety deck, which Biden said is expected to be closed soon so steel plates could be placed over weakened sections.
“That steel plate is basically like putting a Band-Aid on a major wound,” Biden said. “This is going to make it bumpy for drivers, difficult for snowplows, and it’s still dangerous for bikers. And when that’s done, the bridge may need even more weight restrictions.”
The steel bridge was built in 1939 and has been so worn down that it can no longer hold 40-ton trucks. The state has red-listed it as “structurally deficient” for years. Some residents say they can hear the bridge creak.
Biden told the audience that businesses, such as local propane and sand and gravel companies, rely on it, and that school buses and wastewater trucks use it every day.
“It’s essential to Woodstock’s fire station about a quarter-mile away,” he said. “This may not seem like a big bridge, but it saves lives and solves problems.”
The infrastructure law will speed up the replacement of deteriorating bridges by at least a year, he said.
“Folks, when you see these projects starting in your hometowns, I want you to feel what I feel: pride — pride in what we can do together as the United States of America,” Biden said.