Former US vice president Joe Biden made clear at his first event as a US presidential elections candidate on Monday that he would be standing ready to battle incumbent President Donald Trump for the support of the blue-collar workers who were key to Trump’s election victory in 2016.
Speaking before a welcoming crowd of union workers in Pittsburgh, Biden seemed at times to look past a Democratic Party nomination process that promises to be arduous and towards a direct confrontation with Trump in the November 2020 elections.
“I make no apologies. I am a union man,” Biden told a crowd that included members of the Teamsters, steelworkers, firefighters and teachers unions. “The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs and hedge fund managers. It was built by you,” he said.
Biden, 76, who served two terms as vice president to former president Barack Obama, echoed other Democrats who have criticised the US economy for benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the middle classes and working poor.
“Everybody knows it. The middle class is hurting,” Biden said. “The stock market is roaring, but you don’t feel it.”
Earlier in the day, Biden, who is counting on support from organised labour as a key component of his presidential bid, received an endorsement from the International Association of Firefighters, which boasts a membership of 300,000.
That prompted a Twitter outburst from Trump, who in 2016 demonstrated strong appeal to union workers dissatisfied with Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. In a series of tweets, Trump said that while the leaders of the firefighters and other unions would endorse the Democrats in the 2020 race, “the members love Trump.”
Biden soon fired back on Twitter that “I’m sick of this president badmouthing unions.”
Pennsylvania was a critical battleground for both parties in 2016, and Trump’s narrow win in the state edged him towards his surprise victory.
Western Pennsylvania, a union stronghold, is filled with the kind of white, blue-collar voters who once voted Democratic but supported Trump in 2016.
Biden said that was the reason he was kicking off his campaign in Pittsburgh, the one-time US steel capital. “Quite frankly folks, if I am going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here,” he told the crowd at the union hall.
Before Biden can face off with the Republican Party president, he must outlast a Democratic field that includes 19 other candidates, no sure thing in a party that has moved away from Biden’s centrism and towards a more liberal and progressive agenda.
Biden left Pittsburgh after his speech to begin a campaign swing through Iowa and South Carolina, key early states in the presidential nomination contest.
Union support is crucial to Biden’s chances, but it is by no means automatic. “I’m keeping my mind open. It’s very early, and there are a lot of players in the game,” said Colleen Wooten, 54, of Wall, Pennsylvania, who works for the United Steelworkers.
“Everybody in the union is tired of hearing promises about bringing work back,” she said. “We need to start seeing action.”
While organised labour has lost political clout with the decline of industrial jobs in the United States, it remains a key Democratic constituency valued for its capacity to mobilise voters.
Labour unions have indicated that given the sprawling Democratic field, they have the luxury to choose candidates who tailor their policies to their specific goals.
“This may be the most pro-union group of candidates we’ve seen in decades, making it tougher for any one candidate to line up significant union support,” said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO labour federation, who is advising unions on their 2020 strategies.
At this juncture, Biden may have to worry most about US senator Bernie Sanders, who, along with Biden, sits atop the 2020 Democratic field in opinion polls.
Sanders, a progressive who has consistently railed against free-trade agreements, showed surprising strength among rank-and-file union members during his 2016 presidential primary challenge to Clinton even though she received the formal endorsement of most national unions.
Biden’s record as a US senator and former vice president could complicate his efforts to draw union voters. As a senator from Delaware, Biden supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has become a sore point with unions that blame it for jobs leaving the country.
As Obama’s vice president, he was part of an administration that promulgated labour-friendly regulatory policies but also pushed through trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea over the objections of several unions and many other Democrats.
A 12-nation trade deal backed by Obama and Biden, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, was opposed by labour and became an issue in the 2016 presidential race when Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, used it to criticise Democratic policies. As president, Trump pulled the United States out of the Partnership.
Besides challenges from the crowded Democratic presidential hopefuls, Biden also struggled with questions about his unwanted touching of women, making for a rocky moment in the early stages of his candidacy.
In his first interview as a Democratic presidential candidate, Biden insisted on Friday that he did not treat law professor Anita Hill badly during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas held almost 30 years ago.
At times, Biden seemed to oscillate between defending his behaviour and saying he did nothing wrong and apologising and trying to make amends. He often seemed stranded in-between.
Biden’s conduct during the hearings in 1991 when he was chairman of the US Senate Judiciary Committee became a renewed subject of controversy after the New York Times reported that Biden had called Hill earlier this month in the run-up to his presidential bid and that Hill was dissatisfied with Biden’s expression of regret. She said she could not support his presidential bid.
Appearing on US network ABC’s “The View,” Biden, then a senator from Delaware, largely justified his actions at the time, saying he believed Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment levied at Thomas and tried to derail his confirmation.
Activists have long been unhappy that Hill was questioned in graphic detail by the all-white, all-male committee chaired by Biden.
“I’m sorry she was treated the way she was treated,” Biden said, but later he asserted that “I don’t think I treated her badly... How do you stop people from asking inflammatory questions?”
“There were a lot of mistakes made across the board and for those I apologise,” he said. Biden praised Hill as “remarkable” and said she was “one of the reasons we have the #MeToo movement.”
Asked why he had not reached out to Hill earlier, Biden said he had previously publicly stated he had regrets about her experience and that he “didn’t want to invade her space.”
That seemed to be a reference to another controversy that looms over Biden’s presidential run: allegations by several women that he made them uncomfortable by touching them at political events.
Biden addressed that criticism, saying he was now more “cognisant” of a woman’s “private space.” But he maintained that he had been “trying to bring solace.” He suggested he was still trying to sort out the guidelines for his conduct going forward. “I should be able to read better,” he said. “I have to be more careful.”
Pressed by the show’s panel for an apology to his accusers, Biden would not entirely capitulate.
“Sorry I invaded your space,” he replied. “I mean, I’m sorry this happened. But I’m not sorry in a sense that I think I did anything that was intentionally designed to do anything wrong or be inappropriate.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Biden vs Trump