03.16.12

Obama Campaign Unleashes Joe Biden in Battle for Blue-Collar Voters

Rick Santorum has spent much of his primary season playing to blue-collar voters. Now the Obama campaign is unleashing the vice president. Can ‘Just Call Me Joe’ bring them back?

Look out, Ricky from the ’hood. Lunch-Pail Joe is hot on your trail.

With Vice President Biden’s Thursday campaign speech at the United Auto Workers hall in Toledo, Ohio, the battle for blue-collar America has begun. As with all good street brawls, we can look forward to the action getting loud, personal, and brutal. This is, after all, a man who, in accepting the veep nod in ’08, cited his mom’s advice to him as a young lad: if you get knocked down, “‘bloody their nose,’ so you can walk down the street the next day.”

For a good while now, Rick Santorum has had this particular demographic corner all to himself. None of his primary opponents is much for economic populism, leaving Santorum to paint himself as the lone champion of the little guy: Screw free-trade! College is for snobs! Let’s bring back manufacturing!

Siding with the 99 percent is smart strategy in a tough economy. Smarter still when one is attempting to wrest the presidential nomination from a megarich frontrunner famous for his inability to relate to anyone who doesn’t control his own hedge fund or Nascar team. And, perhaps, smartest of all when the sitting president is frequently slammed as a chilly elitist with the EQ of Mr. Spock. 

With his up-from-nothing tales of Italian immigrant grandparents and his perpetual air of cheery (if occasionally whiny) indignation, Santorum succeeds in coming across as a more-or-less regular guy. And if his own millions prevent the former senator from technically qualifying as blue-collar, his irrepressible social conservatism helps him make common cause with a hoi polloi fed up with being both neglected and sneered at by the elite.

It was a nice solo run while it lasted.

But while Team Romney may be content to let Santorum claim the unwashed masses, Team Obama has no intention of giving ground. Thus, Biden has been sent out to reprise his 2008 role as, well, a regular Joe.

“Just call me Joe!” could be the man’s Twitter handle. And he has always gotten a kick out of his rep as the ungovernable—maybe even a bit unbalanced—member of Team Obama.

Aside from sharing the same broad target, the veep’s approach to this mission bears little resemblance to his former Senate colleague’s. Whereas Santorum is intense and tightly wound and seems forever slightly put out at the state of the world around him, Biden is loose, garrulous, and the definition of a happy warrior. I mean, did you see those pics of him from the Toledo event? The man positively glowed as he pounded away at the Republican field. “If you give any one of these guys the keys to the White House, they will bankrupt the middle class,” he warned the fired up crowd of 500 or so.

With the reelect now officially under way, Biden was free to name names, “Gingrich and Romney and Santorum, they don’t let the facts get in the way!” He not so gently reminded the crowd that Romney had opposed the auto bailout in favor of letting the private-sector deal with the troubled industry. “No one, including Bain Capital, was stepping up.”

And, dammit, he just generally had himself a good time. “Hey! I’m back! You’re back! And the industry is back!”

For better or worse, Biden’s regular-Joe outreach is much more blustery than Santorum’s, more hail-fellow-well-met, more back-slappy. Despite the nice suits and trappings of his office, the veep wallows in that whole one-of-the-guys shtick more than Santorum does. “Just call me Joe!” could be the man’s Twitter handle. And he has always gotten a kick out of his rep as the ungovernable—maybe even a bit unbalanced—member of Team Obama.

By contrast, while Santorum does not lack for passion, he often comes across as less a happy warrior than a dismayed one. And it’s mighty hard to picture Senator Sweatervest swapping off-color jokes with union types over a cold one—which is exactly the sort of thing you know Joe lives for when there are no media types around to spoil the party. This is, after all, a guy famous for making friends with anyone and everyone—fellow travelers, train conductors, red caps—he crossed paths with on his old Amtrak commute from Delaware.

It’s hard to say which pol’s shtick will play better in the days and weeks to come, or even how much longer Santorum’s still shoestring campaign will continue. But for now at least, blue-collar America can take satisfaction in watching two political heavies slug it out for their affections.