Former Vice President Joe Biden accused President Donald Trump on Wednesday of ignoring middle-class interests and endangering economic growth as he made his case for the White House in a key 2020 battleground state.
Biden returned to his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, to mount an argument against Trump's economy hours before Trump was schedule to appear across the state in Pittsburgh. He said the president has looked out for the interests of the wealthy rather than the working class by passing a tax plan that largely benefits richer Americans and corporations and by watering down Obama administration rules designed to protect workers.
Trump has pointed to strong U.S. economic numbers — like the unemployment rate and gross domestic product growth — as he makes his case for reelection in 2020. Democrats hoping to challenge him have argued the president's policies have not boosted prosperity for the middle class despite the statistics.
"If you're going to restore the middle class, you're going to need to start to reward work again, not just wealth," Biden said during a 45-minute address.
"Donald Trump inherited a strong economy from Barack and me. Things were beginning to really move. And just like everything else he's inherited, he's in the midst of squandering it."
The former vice president aimed to contrast his economic vision from Trump's in a key electoral state that is also essential to the brand he has long tried to cultivate as "Middle Class Joe." Biden promoted his plan for a public health-care option, which he said would reduce costs for middle-class Americans, and his proposal to improve public education and cut college costs to improve job opportunities.
He also said he would reverse parts of the the 2017 Trump-backed Republican tax plan that favor the wealthy and corporations. Biden said he would raise the U.S. corporate tax rate to 28% from the current 21%. (The rate stood at 35% before the GOP law cut it).
"The wealthy didn't need [the tax cuts] in the first place. The corporations have spent them on stock buybacks," Biden said.
Biden's speech, which also targeted the president for a lack of "empathy," precedes a Trump event later in the day. The president will speak in Pittsburgh at a shale industry conference, as he touts his efforts to promote a U.S. natural gas industry that many Democrats have proposed to regulate more tightly in order to combat climate change.
In a statement responding to Biden's speech, Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany highlighted Biden's past support for both the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, trade deals that she called "disastrous."
"Job-killing Joe Biden is clueless as to how to win for America's workers while President Trump has verifiable results," she said.
Pennsylvania helped to deliver Trump the presidency in 2016 after backing President Barack Obama twice, and the state's 20 electoral votes could prove critical again next year. The president's campaign has already shown the importance it will place on the Keystone State: Vice President Mike Pence went to the state Tuesday to promote the administration's replacement for NAFTA, which the White House is pushing House Democrats to approve despite lingering concerns about labor protections.
In a tweet Tuesday, Biden said Trump "talks tough on trade but has nothing to show for it — other than pain for America's families." He appeared to reference the president's trade war with China, which has led to tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in imports from the world's second-largest economy.
In Pennsylvania and across the country, Trump has touted the economy as he prepares for a difficult reelection bid. The state's unemployment rate was 4% in September, slightly higher than the national rate of 3.5%. Nationally, the metric hit a 50-year low in September.
Biden addressed the low unemployment rate, contending it does not reflect the real conditions in many parts of the country.
"Go back to your old neighborhoods. Ask them how they're doing, how they're feeling. They're in trouble," he said.
Biden targeted Trump's rhetoric from the 2016 campaign, when he said he would elevate the Americans "forgotten" by a political system that looked out for special interests.
"He said he's working for the forgotten American. But he forgot about the forgotten American," Biden said.
Trump has also promoted his efforts to ease regulations on the energy industry, a push he hopes will resonate with voters in western Pennsylvania, where the coal and, more recently, natural gas industries have been major employers. Even so, Trump faces hurdles in trying to win Pennsylvania again in 2020.
Only 42% of Pennsylvania voters approve of the job the president is doing, while 54% disapprove, according to a Quinnipiac University poll in May. The poor approval came even as 71% of respondents described the state's economy as either "excellent" or "good."
The same survey found Biden beating Trump by 9 percentage points in a hypothetical general election matchup in the state. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, led the president by 7 and 3 percentage points, respectively.
Surveys have showed Biden as the frontrunner in a jammed Democratic presidential primary field since he entered the race in April. Recently, polls have found tightening races in the key early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, which start the process of selecting the Democratic nominee in February. Biden has consistently enjoyed a huge lead in polls of South Carolina, the fourth nominating state.