At an outdoor town hall meeting Thursday night just outside his childhood hometown, Joe Biden railed against President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, framed the 2020 election as a choice between Main Street and Wall Street, and highlighted in stark terms the differences between his upbringing and Trump’s.
The former vice president, taking questions from voters in an open-air parking lot in Moosic, Pa., said Trump’s failure to be honest with Americans about the severity of the virus cost thousands of lives. Trump admitted to downplaying the threat in a recently released recorded interview from March with journalist Bob Woodward.
“He’s all about his reelection. It should be about the American people, and they’re in trouble,” Biden said during the town hall, televised on CNN. “You’ve got to level with the American people — shoot from the shoulder. There’s not been a time they’ve not been able to step up. The president should step down.”
Biden, saying the contest was between the ideals of working-class Scranton and upscale Park Avenue, said Trump “only cares about the stock market."
”The way we were raised up here in this area, an awful lot of hard-working people bust their neck," the Scranton native said. “All [Trump] thinks about is the stock market.... In my neighborhood in Scranton, not a whole lot of people own stock.” (Trump said Tuesday that “stocks are owned by everybody.” About 55% of Americans own stock.)
Later, asked whether he had benefited from white privilege, Biden said he had. Trump responded to a similar question from Woodward with derision, saying Woodward “really drank the Kool-Aid.”
“I’ve benefited just because I don’t have to go through what my Black brothers and sisters have had to go through,” Biden said Thursday. He then turned the focus, as he often does, to his own upbringing in Scranton and later Delaware, alluding to how journalists have noted that he would be the first president since Ronald Reagan without an Ivy League degree.
“Who the hell thinks you need an Ivy League degree to be president?” Biden said in one of the only lines that generated applause from the audience. “Guys like me, the first in my family to go to college ... we are as good as anybody else. And guys like Trump, who inherited everything and squandered what they inherited, are the people I’ve always had a problem with.”
The night featured mostly friendly questioning, largely from Democratic voters, a stark contrast to the pointed questions Trump faced at an ABC town hall event in Philadelphia on Tuesday. During that event, Trump gave no ground, rewriting the history of his response to the pandemic with assertions directly at odds with his own comments in public and on tape.
Biden said little that would seem to alienate moderate or undecided voters, sticking to his usual practice of empathizing with those in front of him, sharing long-winded personal stories — and decrying Trump as a president who has shredded American norms.
“I’ve been doing this a long time," Biden said at one point. “I never, ever thought I would see such a thoroughly, totally irresponsible, administration.”
Taken together, the Trump and Biden town halls served as something of a preview of the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, which may be one of Trump’s last high-profile chances to upend a race in which Biden has held a steady but not commanding lead in public polls nationally, and in critical battleground states like Pennsylvania.
Trump’s campaign blasted Biden’s evening on stage as more promotional than informational.
“Virtually every question for Joe Biden was an invitation for him to attack President Trump, while moderator Anderson Cooper offered almost no pushback, giving Biden a total pass on his lies and misrepresentations,” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said in a statement late Thursday.
Asked about the controversial drilling process known as fracking — which has lifted local economies in the parts of Northeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania that make up the core of Trump’s support in the state — Biden repeated his insistence that he won’t ban it, even as he promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Fracking has to continue, because we need a transition," he said. "There’s no rationale right now to eliminate fracking.”
Asked about the sweeping Green New Deal climate plan championed by liberals, Biden said: “I have my own deal.”
And asked by a local police chief about civil unrest in American cities and attitudes toward law enforcement, Biden said he condemns “every form of violence,” whereas Trump “has yet to condemn the far right and the white supremacists.”
“Protesting is one thing. A right to speak is one thing," he said. "Violence of any kind, no matter who it is coming from, is wrong and people should be held accountable.”
The Scranton area, and Northeastern Pennsylvania more broadly, have been a hotbed of political activity this election. Biden was last in the region in July. Vice President Mike Pence went to Luzerne County earlier this month for a “Workers for Trump” campaign rally.
In many ways, the shock of the 2016 election can be traced to places like Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties (Moosic is in Lackawanna). The traditionally Democratic region broke dramatically toward Trump, giving him a 55,000-vote swing compared the 2012 presidential race, in a state he ultimately won by about 44,000 votes, or 0.7%.