We are starting to see what a Joe Biden candidacy will look like. It’s a two-pronged approach, designed to (a) inoculate himself against charges of being an old white guy in a Democratic primary, while (b) simultaneously casting himself as the old white guy who’s Donald Trump’s most serious obstacle to winning states like Pennsylvania.
This was the backdrop when Joe Biden took the stage to Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” on Monday for his first campaign event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was there to give a speech about rebuilding the middle class and to receive the backing of the International Association of Fire Fighters labor union.
Biden described his priorities as a campaign to “restore the soul of the nation” and “to rebuild the backbone of this nation.” Last week’s video rollout was largely about checking the box on the former. Monday’s rally in Pittsburgh was about the latter. (Biden added a third prong—unifying America—but every candidate says that.)
But faced with a good economy (the unemployment rate in Pennsylvania is 4.3 percent) coupled with Trump’s penchant for at least sounding like a populist, this was a tougher-than-normal challenge.
As Trump tweeted on Monday: “Sleepy Joe Biden is having his first rally in the Great State of Pennsylvania. He obviously doesn’t know that Pennsylvania is having one of the best economic years in its history, with lowest unemployment EVER, a now thriving Steel Industry (that was dead) & great future!........”
The most straightforward way for Biden to defeat Trump is to win back states like Pennsylvania (the last Democrat to win the presidency without the keystone state of Pennsylvania was Harry Truman in 1948)—and the most straightforward way to do that would be to play the populist card.
Biden tried to get around this by talking about how “It’s not enough for the stock market to rise.” He noted that “Too many people are left out or left behind.” And he implied that Trump’s brand of populism is just for straight white men, insisting that “All America has to be included… as we rebuild.” He talked frequently about “dignity” and, specifically, the dignity of work.
“I believe that Pittsburgh represents the cities and towns that make up hard-working middle-class Americans who are the backbone of this nation,” he said.
“If I’m going to be able to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s gonna happen here,” he continued.
In hindsight, last week’s decision to focus his launch video on Charlottesville and the “battle for America’s soul” makes more sense when you think of it as a one-two punch.
It also proved profitable (on many levels) for Biden. For one thing, he raised $6.3 million in his first 24 hours after the announcement. It’s hard to argue with (that kind of) money. Equally important, the story ended up driving a week’s worth of news cycles.
This narrative was aided by Trump’s choosing to respond to the launch video (which Biden might have predicted) and another horrific attack on a synagogue in Poway, California (which Biden couldn’t have predicted).
Talk of racism and hate crimes dominated the news cycle for days, and by highlighting Charlottesville (where white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” in 2017) Biden positioned himself as the Democrat calling out Trump on these issues.
So, on one hand, Biden got a lot more mileage out of an announcement than most presidential candidates can sustain. On the other hand, the choice of focusing his first campaign video on Charlottesville demonstrates the surprising challenges Biden may face by trying to out-populist Donald Trump.
Biden’s trip to Pennsylvania, coming on the heels of the video announcement, was the perfect opportunity for Biden to discuss the lunch-pail issues that may resonate with Rust Belt voters, but it was also just miles away from Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue, where a white supremacist killed 11 worshippers last October (it should be noted that, in this instance, the shooter was no fan of Trump). Indeed, he opened his rally by referencing this tragic event.
Pittsburgh, it turns out, was the perfect place to combine his message about hate and racism with his message about working-class Americans.
One is largely about winning the primary. The other is largely about winning the Electoral College. Both are vital if Joe Biden is to succeed.