He’s flown 330,000 miles since taking office, the equivalent of circling the globe 13 times, much of it campaigning for Democrats and telling anxious voters that the $814 billion stimulus measure is working. Vice President Joe Biden knows it’s a hard sell.
“Less bad is never good enough,” Biden said in an interview on board Air Force Two on Oct. 8, the same day that Labor Department figures showed the jobless rate held steady at 9.6 percent in September, the last yardstick before voters in the Nov. 2 elections determine which party controls Congress.
“Voters want to be told the truth,” Biden said on the way to Madison, Wisconsin, jacketless, kneeling against the back of an airplane seat and holding gold-trimmed aviator sunglasses. “They want to know, ‘Tell me, man, do I have a shot?’” he said, his enthusiasm undeterred by a cold.
With unemployment topping 9.5 percent for 14 straight months, Biden is having difficulty trumpeting the 3.3 million jobs created or saved by the White House’s economic stimulus.
“It’s just really hard to convince people that when there weren’t, up until the first of the year, when there weren’t net new jobs it’s awful hard to say, ‘It’s working,’” he said at the end of a three-state campaign swing Oct. 7-8 for four Democratic candidates in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Washington. “It’s counterintuitive.”
As President Barack Obama’s emissary to middle-class voters, Biden has visited 27 cities in 17 states, stumping for 24 Democratic candidates in just the last month.
Eleven of those stops were in middle-income areas of Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Obama was defeated in the 2008 primaries and Biden’s middle-class roots -- he grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania -- may be an asset.
When Biden meets people in a crowd he cups their faces, pinches their cheeks, and eagerly poses for pictures. At a recent rally he teased one woman: “Can I have my picture taken with you?”
“He’s certainly got much more of a common touch than Obama does, there’s no question about that,” said Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Still Biden, 67, has “a colossal selling job” to do, saidBaker. “You’re talking about mass merchandising at a time when the value of the product is uncertain.”
Biden draws on his own childhood, the son of a car salesman who was laid off, to tell voters he feels their pain.
“I am angry, I am angry because I see what happened to middle-class people,” Biden said at a fundraising dinner for Senate candidate Robin Carnahan in Springfield, Missouri.
“People like my parents, like my family, people I know, people I grew up with, who have just been battered by the greed, battered by the indifference,” he said, his voice reaching a crescendo.
Carnahan is running against Republican Representative Roy Blunt for Senator Kit Bond’s Senate seat. The contest is on the non-partisan Cook Political Report’s list of the 11 most competitive U.S. Senate races.
Biden sent Obama a 25-page report released Oct. 1 that said the stimulus has created or preserved 3.3 million jobs and is on pace to create the intended 3.5 million jobs. The money was obligated quickly and with little fraud, the report said.
In an Oct. 7-10 Bloomberg National Poll, 52 percent of likely voters said the stimulus package for state and local governments would weaken the economy or make no difference, compared with 44 percent who said it would make the economy stronger. Sixty percent said they disapprove of Obama’s handling of the budget deficit, which ballooned in part because of the stimulus. And 53 percent said they disapproved of Obama’s record of job creation. The poll of 721 likely voters has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.
“People aren’t blaming Obama for the fact there’s a recession; they’re blaming him for the fact that it’s going on so long,” said James Bennett, 39, an information technology worker in Tacoma, Washington.
Republicans, who need a net gain of 39 seats to gain a majority in the 435-member House and a 10-seat pickup to take over the Senate, are seizing on the administration’s communication challenge.
In Washington state, Republican challenger Dino Rossi is running television advertisements accusing Senator Patty Murray of being “in the other Washington” while “we face lost jobs, lost savings and falling home prices.”
“She says she works for Washington, the question is which one?” the ad says.
On a rainy day in Tacoma, Biden told a crowd of about 1,000 people at an outdoor rally for Murray that he welcomes the fight.
“These rich guys always underestimate us, that’s one thing that I kind of like about it, that’s one of the parts of my job I’ve enjoyed over the years, a little straight left and a right hook, it works,” Biden said, imitating a boxer’s jabs, wearing a purple raincoat and baseball cap with the University of Washington insignia. Later on as the sun broke through he took off his jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves.
Republicans say the stimulus didn’t live up to Obama’s billing.
“The massive growth of the federal government didn’t result in a similar growth of jobs,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement released Oct. 8.
Biden, in the interview, called Republican criticism “phony” and said the Labor Department report “shows how wrong they were” in limiting assistance for states. He said more jobs would have been created if Republicans had approved an additional $150 billion originally in the stimulus and the creation of an infrastructure bank.
Democrats aren’t running on the administration’s accomplishments like health-care and financial-regulatory overhaul and the stimulus because “it’s just too hard to explain,” Biden said. “It sort of a branding, I mean you know they kind of want the branding more at the front end.”
In contrast to Obama’s style, Biden speaks to voters like they are his neighbors and often has been accused of speaking too honestly and too much.
“You’re the dullest audience I’ve ever spoken to,” Biden chided 340 people paying more attention to their scrambled eggs and bacon than to him at an Oct. 7 fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Barrett in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It’s the message itself, not the messenger,” said Baker. “It’s certainly not the strength of his persuasive powers but rather the receptivity of people.”