With President Barack Obama and other members of his administration taking a summer break, one senior official stayed behind to pick up the slack.
Vice President Joe Biden has been crossing the country over the past seven days on official visits and political events, staying in front of voters as the White House spokesman on the economy and chief Democratic campaigner.
Biden’s events give a preview of the role he’s likely to play for Democrats leading up to the congressional elections. He’s heading the president’s middle-class task force and is the headline player at events designed to showcase the impact of the economic stimulus passed last year to the voters Democrats are counting on in November to keep control of Congress.
Biden “has a well-earned reputation for being more of a lunch-bucket Democrat than the president,” said Bill Galston, a scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who was President Bill Clinton’s domestic-policy adviser.
The vice president today released a report showing some of the scientific and technological advances as a result of the $814 billion stimulus. According to the analysis, a $100 billion investment from the Recovery Act has cut costs in areas including new battery technologies, solar power, renewable energy, and human DNA sequencing.
Biden yesterday talked to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Indianapolis and autoworkers in Toledo, Ohio. Later this week, he’s scheduled to hold a meeting of the middle-class task force in Washington, and on Aug. 26 he’ll talk about the stimulus in New Hampshire.
In Toledo, where the unemployment rate is 11.6 percent, higher than the state average of 10.3 percent, Biden toured the Chrysler Toledo Assembly Complex and said the government’s bailout of Chrysler and General Motors was justified by the number of jobs saved and by signs of an industry revival.
“The American automobile industry is rebuilding itself,” Biden, 67, said. “And I believe it will dominate in the 21st century, like it did in the 20th.”
Chrysler reported a first-half net loss of $369 million while posting operating profit of $326 million. The results exceeded the automaker’s guidance that operating results would be between break-even and a $200 million profit for the entire year.
Many of Biden’s talking points echo the message heard repeatedly from Obama before he left on his holiday on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts: Administration policies are helping revive the economy, even if the recovery is slow and uneven.
With the national unemployment rate at 9.5 percent and polls showing that a majority of Americans disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy, Democrats are increasingly relying on Biden, who has dubbed himself “Joe from Scranton,” to highlight his Irish-Catholic roots and working class background in Pennsylvania.
“My dad was an automobile man, he said ‘Joey, there is good paying jobs there,’” Biden told the autoworkers in Toledo. “I went and applied for a job on the third shift. Had they hired me, I’d be a proud UAW member and you would be in real good luck -- I wouldn’t be vice president.”
Biden is “closer to blue-collar working class groups and able to communicate freely and genially on that basis,” Galston said.
He’s also mixing politics with policy. He used part of his event today to respond to remarks by House Republican leader John Boehner. In a speech to the City Club of Cleveland in his home state, Boehner called on Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and the rest of his economic team.
Boehner said the administration’s stimulus plan has failed to create jobs and said Obama should drop plans to allow Bush-era tax cuts for households earning more than $250,000 annually to expire.
Said Biden: “After months of promising a look at his party’s agenda and their plans for America, he made what was billed as a major economic address. And his chief proposal apparently was that the president should fire his economic team. Very constructive advice. Thanks.”
Boehner delivered his attack on the administration with little more than two months remaining before the midterm elections, in which Republicans are expected to pick up seats in both chambers of Congress.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington rates eight Democratic-held Senate seats as “tossups,” and another three in even more danger. Democrats currently have 59 seats in the 100-member chamber, including two independents. Report editor Charlie Cook said Republicans are likely to gain a net 35 to 45 seats in the House. They need 39 to take control.
Speaking at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in St. Louis on Aug. 20, Biden told Democrats he’s confident the party will retain control of Congress.
“There will be in Washington, D.C., a Democratic majority in the House and a Democratic majority in the Senate,” Biden said. “That will be the case. And were it not illegal, I’d make book on it.”
The vice president’s more folksy language contrasts with Obama’s approach and is part of his appeal, Galston said.
“Biden’s somewhat unbuttoned approach may have given the White House heartburn from time to time,” Galston said. “At the same time, I think Americans by and large relate to that kind of informality.”