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Biden offers midterm preview in Ohio campaign-style visit

The president came to Cleveland to tout his administration’s work to protect pensions, but the message of the midterms was never far from view

President Biden speaks at Max S. Hayes High School in Cleveland on July 6. (Daniel Lozada/Bloomberg News)

CLEVELAND — President Biden, struggling to confront high inflation that has dimmed the outlook for his party’s chances in the midterm elections, came to this swing-state Wednesday and ratcheted up his rhetoric in what was a more partisan, campaign-style event that provided a preview for how Biden will cast the upcoming election.

Speaking before an audience of union workers, where he touted the benefits that his policies will have on pension plans, Biden offered a sharper distillation of how he views the Republican Party and called out several Republican senators by name for voting against some of his policies not out of principle but out of fear.

“They’re afraid to … afraid to ― because the Trumpers would literally take them out,” Biden said. “Not a joke. That’s how bad it’s gotten.”

He ridiculed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for threatening to scuttle legislation designed to boost semiconductor manufacturing. He called a plan from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) “shameful.” And he triggered boos from the crowd at the mention of the name of Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

“Unfortunately, that’s probably Trump calling me,” Biden said of former president Donald Trump when a cellphone rang in the audience.

Biden came to a high school in Cleveland to announce new protections that could help some 3 million Americans whose retirement benefits have faced potential insolvency amid the financial fallout of the pandemic. Aid for the multi-employer pension plans was included in the coronavirus relief package Biden signed into law last year.

But he often deviated from the prepared text, injecting “not a joke” nine times, recounting expressions from his father and wandering around the stage as he mounted a defense of his stewardship of the economy.

“You all remember what the economy was like when I was elected — a country in a pandemic with no real plans how to get out of it. Millions of people out of their jobs, families and cars, remember, backed up for literally miles,” he said.

“The previous administration lost more jobs in his watch than any administration since Herbert Hoover ― that’s a fact,” Biden added. “All based on failed trickle-down economics to benefit the wealthiest Americans.”

He lingered in the room long after his speech was over, spending 45 minutes mingling with attendees, taking selfies and shaking hands.

But Biden’s appearance was also a reminder of some of the political challenges he is facing. A politician who has long prided himself on being a sought-after surrogate — and one with blue-collar appeal in states like Ohio — is a less desirable commodity at the moment for some within his party.

The state’s two highest profile Democratic candidates — U.S. Senate nominee Tim Ryan and gubernatorial nominee Nan Whaley — both cited scheduling conflicts for not being in attendance Wednesday.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, asked by reporters on Air Force One on the way to Cleveland, said that they were in close contact with the candidates, and said they were supportive of some of the administration’s actions that were announced during the trip.

“I just listed out a long list of other elected officials who will be with him on this trip,” she said, which included Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and several members of Congress. “I think that counts for something as well.”

Asked why Biden has continued coming to the state — it was his sixth trip to Ohio as president — when his approval ratings are low and the state has been trending toward Republicans, Jean-Pierre responded, “He will go wherever he needs to go to talk directly to the American people. … I think it makes a difference for them to hear from their president directly.”

The state highlights many issues that will be a factor in the upcoming elections.

Biden has touted an Ohio-based Intel semiconductor factory — saying in his State of the Union address that it is “the ground on which America’s future will be built” — but the $20 billion plant is on hold, a July 22 groundbreaking ceremony canceled as it awaits clarity on congressional legislation.

The killing of Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old Black man who was shot by police in Akron, Ohio, has also brought protests and fresh attention to Biden’s inability to do more to address police reform and systemic inequalities. And after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the state now has a ban on abortion after six weeks.

While Biden never mentioned abortion rights, he did address the semiconductor plant — and alluded to McConnell’s threat to thwart bipartisan legislation that would boost such manufacturing if Democrats revive a separate effort to pass legislation on the energy and economy.

“He’s going to block the passage of the legislation that will provide for another $100 billion invested in this state,” Biden said. “Folks, this is not right. This is not right. And that’s why this election is going to be so darn important.”

Biden also opened his remarks with a comment about Walker’s death, saying that the FBI and others are investigating.

“If the evidence reveals potential violations of federal criminal statutes, the Justice Department will take the appropriate action,” he said.

Much of his remarks, though, centered on labor unions, long a mainstay of Biden’s political base.

“There was only one word you heard most often in my family. Not a joke,” Biden said. “Most important word wasn’t unions. It was dignity, dignity. Everyone’s entitled to be treated with dignity.”

Frank Grace, a local official with Teamsters Local 473, said he was grateful for Biden’s swift action to help union pensions. Some of his union’s members vote Republican and blame Biden — “mostly for gas prices” — but he views some of those issues as out of the president’s control.

“Yes, the economy is a mess,” Grace said. “But that’s true for the whole world, coming out of the pandemic.”

Many in the crowd agreed. They’re struggling with gas prices, they’re worried about retirement. But they don’t cast blame on Biden.

“Can I retire? When? And how will I do when I retire?” said Tracy Radich, an elementary school teacher active in the teachers union.

“‘The price of gas, the price of everything, it’s hard on everybody,” she said. “But I don’t know how much of this you can lay at the feet of the president.”

Over 200 multiemployer plans were on pace to become insolvent in the near term because their investments struggled during economic crises, according to the White House, which would impact nearly 3 million workers who had paid into pension plans.

The funding from the American Rescue Plan means that those pension plans that faced near-term insolvency, with potential benefit cuts for workers, will now remain solvent through 2051. In addition to preventing future cuts to pension plans, those who had previous cuts to their pensions will have those reversed, according to the White House.

“When unions do well, everybody does well,” Biden said. “Everybody does well. Not a joke. Not a joke.”

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