SCRANTON — Joe Biden stepped to a lectern in front of a large American flag and gave a humble introduction. “I’m Jill’s husband and Jean Finnegan’s son," he said. "I’m from 2446 N. Washington Ave., and I’m happy to be home.”
As Biden’s campaign for president enters its sixth month, with the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses in the distant-but-near future, he returned to Scranton on Wednesday for his first public appearance in his hometown since declaring his run. On the same day that President Donald Trump was visiting Pittsburgh, the former vice president got a warm reception from about 400 people in this Rust Belt city and university town.
While Biden’s Scranton audience sang his praises, many also shared a hope that he’ll show more fight.
“It’s been a little lackluster,” said Dave Brunis, 65, a longtime supporter. “I think he’s just starting to pick up speed now, which he needs.”
“He was a little laid back in the beginning, but I think once he gets that fire beneath him, he’ll go full force,” said Tina Jackowitz, 73. “He’s someone who — I believe what he says. I really do. I think he just needs to say it louder.”
In fact, two of Biden’s biggest cheers came in moments when he talked about persistence. He recalled how his dad would tell him, “The measure of success is not whether you get knocked down but whether you get back up. So get the hell up, man."
“Come on, Joe!” someone yelled, sparking cheers.
At the end of his 45-minute speech, Biden raised his voice. “I’m tired of Democrats, independents, Republicans walking around with their heads down,” he said. He leaned in and pointed at the audience: “This is the United States of America. Take it back. Stand up!”
“I especially liked his last statement," said Deborah Bonn, a registered nurse. “This country’s lost. It’s hate. It’s violence. And we need to take it back. Some of them talk pie in the sky, and realistically you know those things are unattainable. What he says, those things are attainable.”
Biden has remained the front-runner in the race even as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has continued to climb and to pass him in some state and national polls. In the last two weeks, Biden’s campaign has defended a fundraising quarter that trailed four of his opponents’ and a debate in which he faded into the background. (On Tuesday night, Biden attended a fundraiser at a country club in Exeter, near Scranton.)
So the Scranton rally — days after Vice President Mike Pence visited the area — was seen by some in the audience as a reset. In a sign of the political divide, several Trump supporters parked a truck outside and heckled Biden supporters lining up to enter the event.
Biden’s campaign touted the appearance as a speech on rebuilding the middle class. It was more of a love letter to his middle-class hometown.
Biden was born in Scranton and spent the first 10 years of his life in its Green Ridge neighborhood before moving to Wilmington, where he eventually became a senator.
He has touted himself as someone who, with a moderate approach and ties to this key part of the state, can win back Pennsylvania and Rust Belt areas like Scranton. In Northeastern Pennsylvania three years ago, Trump flipped two counties, Luzerne and one in the Lehigh Valley, that Barack Obama carried in 2012. Trump also closed the margin in Scranton’s Lackawanna County. The first Republican presidential nominee to win Pennsylvania since 1988, he has returned to the area several times during his first term.
Sen. Bob Casey, who is also from Scranton and backs Biden, said polling shows Biden beating Trump in Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties and running neck and neck with him in areas where Democrats usually get wiped out. “He’s got strength in Northeast Pennsylvania that very few presidential candidates have had in many, many years," Casey said.
Several Republicans came to see Biden’s speech, including Jim Hawley, who lives two blocks from Biden’s old home. Hawley, 68, said he’s likely to support Trump again, but if he were to vote for a Democrat, it would be Biden.
Biden leaned heavily into his “nothing but great memories” of a Scranton childhood on Tuesday. He waxed poetic about climbing the flagpole at Maloney Field, buying penny candy after a movie matinee, and walking the pipes across “the Lackee” (Lackawanna River) “because that’s what heroes did.”
He reminded the crowd of how Obama often teased him about his roots. “You listen to Barack, you think I’d climbed out of a coal mine with a lunch bucket," he said.
And the crowd seemed to love it, even when the statements became a bit hyperbolic.
“Every single person, my dad used to say, is entitled to be treated with dignity," Biden said. "Dignity — a word I think is used more here in Scranton, at least in my experience, than anywhere.”
Jackowitz likes how fully Biden has embraced his ties here. “You have to always remember where you came from,” she said. She thinks her community sees Biden as “the great white hope” to win back Pennsylvania and the White House. It’s happening in her own family. “I have a few who voted for Trump, and they’re now for Biden,” she said.
Autumn Chmil, 35, who grew up in Scranton, supports Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and took a different view. “He’s kind of from everywhere, right?" she said of Biden.
A high school English teacher, she believes Scranton is “very mixed” in its political allegiances and doubted whether Scranton is all-in for him, especially considering the older, whiter makeup of the crowd Tuesday.
Yet Chmil did say Scrantonians have a no-nonsense attitude that allows them to easily shrug off some of Biden’s supposed gaffes.
“The thing with the hugs,” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s an old Irishman. I’m not saying that’s an excuse, but if you go down to Main Avenue on the west side, you’re going to get that from every old man who walks by.”