Biden rips 'phony populism,' without naming Trump, as he rallies midterm voters in New Jersey

Key Points
  • Joe Biden focuses on rhetoric related to economic policy and the middle class as he campaigns for Democratic House candidate Mikie Sherrill. 
  • Biden is stumping for a variety of candidates this year as Democrats try to take a House majority and defend Senate seats. 
  • The former vice president has avoided intrigue about challenging President Donald Trump in 2020, though his remarks Wednesday offered a rebuttal to the president's vision for the country. 
Former Vice President Joe Biden
Jessica Rinaldi | Boston Globe | Getty Images

President Donald Trump towers over this year's midterm elections. But Joe Biden barely mentioned the president by name Wednesday as he pressed New Jersey voters to help Democrats flip the House.

At a rally supporting Democratic House candidate Mikie Sherrill, the former vice president took veiled shots at Trump when he criticized a "raw, naked nationalism" and "phony populism" that he contended is ripping the country's moral fabric and eroding its middle class. He warned Sherrill's backers in the Republican-held 11th District of possible moves by a GOP-controlled Congress to trim social safety net programs or roll back Obamacare.

Biden's speech to a packed room of mostly students and retirees at Montclair State University embodies the middle class-focused message he will take around the country as he tries to boost House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates in tight midterm races this year. It also previews the ways in which Biden could rebut Trump if he chooses to challenge the president in 2020.

President Trump and ex-veep Joe Biden threaten to fight each other

A speech peppered with Biden's folksy asides — assurances that "I'm not kidding" and odes to the shoe shiners and sandwich makers of America — ended with a plea for young people to care about politics even if the state of the country has disheartened them.

"So don't tell me you got a hard time. Don't tell me you can't get involved because you are so demoralized. Get off your rear end and get out and vote! Get other people to vote!" Biden said, raising his voice to a shout.

Biden, 75, aims to boost numerous Democratic candidates locked in competitive races between now and the Nov. 6 elections. He started his push for the midterms' final stretch at Labor Day events in Pittsburgh on Monday. Biden campaigned for Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, who faces Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus in Pennsylvania's 17th District in a rare contest featuring two incumbents as a result of redistricting.

Sherrill, a former Navy helicopter pilot and prosecutor, aims to replace longtime GOP Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen in a district that Trump only narrowly won in 2016. Her goals as a candidate in part show why the former vice president chose to endorse her.

"We have nine weeks. We've got a lot to do," Sherrill said Wednesday before Biden spoke. "Because we're fighting to ensure the economic future of New Jersey. That our federal tax system doesn't punish our state. That we drive innovation and create good-paying jobs so that all of you can stay right here in New Jersey."

Biden's recent campaign activity has stretched beyond helping fresh faces in House races. He recently backed two well-known members of his party — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Tom Carper, his former Senate colleague from Delaware — as they try to defend their seats amid primary challenges from upstarts running to their left.

He could also hit the trail for Senate Democrats defending their seats in red states, according to NBC News. A spokesman for Biden did not immediately respond to a request to comment on where else the former vice president plans to campaign this year or how he decides where to stump for candidates.

In his campaign stops so far, Biden has touted the type of working-class focused policy that Democrats hope will help them flip the 23 GOP-held seats they need to take the House. On Wednesday, he stressed the importance of protecting health-care coverage expansion under the Affordable Care Act and upholding labor rights, among other economic issues he highlighted.

"Our single greatest objective … is to re-establish and broaden the middle class," Biden said.

Biden contended that Republicans are looking out for wealthy Americans and corporations more than working families. He targeted the GOP tax law passed in December, warning about potential Republican moves to restructure Social Security or Medicare to offset the more than $1 trillion the GOP tax cuts are projected to add to budget deficits over a decade.

Biden avoids 2020 intrigue

The ex-vice president mentioned Trump's name only once during his speech: when he knocked Sherrill's opponent, state assemblyman Jay Webber, as a "Trump acolyte." He also contended that, if Democrats win a House majority, more Republicans could feel compelled to stand up to the president.

Some Democrats see Biden's strategy as one that could help the party to win back states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2020 as it tries to prevent Trump from winning a second term. Biden, long mentioned as a potential challenger to Trump, has not yet decided whether he will run for president in what is expected to be a crowded Democratic field.

The former vice president's reluctance to draw attention to his possible presidential ambitions during the midterms has even affected his campaign schedule this year, according to NBC News. He will not campaign for Democrats running in battleground House districts in Iowa and New Hampshire — two early states in the presidential nomination contest where 2020 intrigue could distract from his message.

If Biden decides to run, he could find himself in the heat of a potential ideological battle during his party's primary. More Democrats have started to embrace policies championed by the party's left wing, including Medicare for all, free public college tuition and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The former vice president declined to run for president in 2016 following the death of his son, Beau.

Several Democratic voters who support Sherrill said they like Biden but would prefer someone younger to represent the party in two years. Biden is three years older than Trump, who was the oldest U.S. president ever elected to a first term in 2016.

"I wish he would have been there in the last election. I do worry about his age," said Mark Sutich, a 70-year-old retiree from Morristown.