I settled into my seat at the Carnegie Music Hall Monday night, surrounded by cheering audience members, whose exclamations of “Run, Joe, run!” rang throughout the hall. Former Vice President Joe Biden had arrived in Pittsburgh.
Biden’s 27th and final stop on his American Promise Tour took him to the Steel City Monday to talk about his new book, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose.” The book details the year his son, Beau, died of brain cancer — but much of the audience was there for a different reason: to encourage him to run for president in 2020.
Biden has the kind of empathy and understanding people want and need from a leader — but his speech also reminded the audience why he might not be the best candidate to represent his party. Biden is quick to tout his progressive platform, but his voting habits suggest a different story.
Biden’s had plenty of opportunity to explore this presidency possibility during his slew of public appearances scheduled for this year, along with the 27 stops on his book tour. His packed schedule has invited speculation about whether or not he is probing the possibility of a campaign.
And what better place to test his popularity than in Pennsylvania — Biden’s home state. He opened up his Pittsburgh event by talking about his many visits to steel plants over the years and his conversations with the men and women who work there. He expressed deep admiration for the work they do, energetically describing the amazing feat of welding beams together at great heights.
If the crowd at Carnegie Music Hall was any indication, a bid for 2020 from “Uncle Joe” might garner considerable support from Democrats. He inspired frequent applause, laughter and standing ovations during his Monday evening visit.
But more importantly, Biden’s speech — both the parts about his childhood and his interpretation of modern politics — spoke strongly to blue-collar workers. His peace offering between progressivism and the working class could potentially win over many of the voters who elected Trump in 2016.
Data from the 2016 election shows this to be a critical group to win over in the coming years. Trump gained the support of the majority of white, non-college-educated voters during the 2016 presidential election, which accounted for 44 percent of people who voted. Democrats need to tap into that demographic if they hope to make a convincing bid for the White House.
“I don’t have to choose between my heart and my soul,” he said, referencing what many voters perceive to be a conflict of interests between progressivism and the working class.
Few current Democrats have a strong relationship with the working class the way that Biden does. Born in Scranton and known for using public transportation to travel to work in Washington, D.C., he’s had plenty of time to earn a reputation as the voice of those struggling to make ends meet.
But Biden’s relationship with the working class could also be what hinders him from garnering support from more liberal Democrats in the part — his progressive platform is sometimes at odds with where his support actually lies.
Biden hasn’t always acted like the most progressive candidate — he supported increased incarceration with his 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, opposed “partial-birth” abortions and voted for the Iraq war.
While all of these issues might have the kind of conservative lean that blue-collar Americans would support in a general election, it might be cause for concern for the more liberal Democrats who carry the party.
And Biden’s wavering isn’t limited to his platform, either. He often strayed from talking about the book during Monday’s event, taking expected sidebars to talk about the current presidential administration.
It’s hard to pinpoint Biden’s true intentions for the tour — whether he does in fact have an eye on 2020, or whether his more than 40 years as an elected official naturally directed the conversation to what has been his lifeblood.
The question of a 2020 presidential run buzzed, almost tangibly, throughout the music hall that night. Biden himself even acknowledged it, albeit evasively, by laughing off serious inquiries of a 2020 campaign.
When the moderator asked Biden what his plans for the future include, Biden laughed and admitted to knowing what she meant — but he refused to give any answer regarding the possibility of announcing his candidacy.
Biden continued by reminding the audience of his positive stance toward women’s rights. He touted his introduction of the Violence Against Women Act to the Senate in 1990 and spoke about the importance of shattering the glass ceiling — and the privilege of being able to do so.
He recognizes that women who break through the glass ceiling, or break into careers or fields that have been male-dominated in the past, are generally professional, white women. Biden realizes that not all women want or are able to do something so drastic. He seemed to recognize the women of struggling households, acknowledging that a lot of Americans simply want politicians to see what they do and help them get by.
But again on this subject, his voting record might give pause to some progressive voters. He voted for the amendment in 1982 that would have overturned the Roe v. Wade decision. Meanwhile, he calls himself “pro-choice” and said he wouldn’t impose his religious beliefs on anyone else.
He may be able to tap into the wave of populism the United States is currently riding, but he has a long and twisted past as a public servant. It’s very possible voters will see his long history with the establishment in the same negative way they saw Hillary Clinton’s tenure during her 2016 presidential run.
But even knowing all of this and listening to him speak, I couldn’t help but think that for 2020, Democrats need to run someone with his level of empathy. Whether or not Biden himself is the right choice remains unknown.
Maggie primarily writes about social issues and economics for The Pitt News. Write to Maggie at firstname.lastname@example.org.