Scranton vs. Park Avenue: Biden leans into his working-class roots to draw a contrast with Trump

Key Points
  • Joe Biden embraced his blue-collar roots and his political centrism during a town hall hosted by CNN in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
  • Biden appealed directly to potential "Trump-Biden voters," who voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and whom Biden plans to win back.
  • Biden also noticeably moved toward the political center on issues that animate progressives, like the Black Lives Matter movement and the Green New Deal. 
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden takes part in an outdoor town hall meeting in Scranton, Pennsylvania, U.S. September 17, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden embraced his blue-collar roots and his political centrism during a town hall hosted by CNN in his hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania. 

On question after question Thursday night, Biden replied with answers aimed directly at potential "Trump-Biden voters," whose defection from the Democratic Party in 2016 helped deliver narrow victories to Donald Trump in key battleground states.

"I view this as a campaign between Scranton and Park Avenue," said Biden, drawing a contrast between his industrial hometown and Trump's lavish Manhattan lifestyle. 

"All that President Trump could see from Park Avenue is Wall Street. All he thinks about is the stock market," said Biden. "How many of you all own stock in Scranton? Not a whole lot of people own stock." 

As president, Trump has often used equity markets as a barometer for the nation's overall economic health.

He argues that millions of Americans own stocks through their 401(k)s or pensions, even if they don't necessarily consider themselves investors in the stock market. 

Following the town hall, the Trump campaign claimed in a statement that "virtually every question for Joe Biden was an invitation for him to attack President Trump." And it accused CNN of "giving Biden a total pass on his lies and misrepresentations."

Over the course of more than an hour on Thursday, Biden repeatedly painted Trump as an elite Manhattan mogul, detached and uninterested in the challenges facing everyday Pennsylvanians. It's a tactic Trump himself used to great effect in his 2016 campaign, to undermine Democrat Hillary Clinton. 

Biden also noticeably moved away from a number of issues that animate the left wing of the Democratic Party, most notably the Black Lives Matter movement and the Green New Deal. 

Biden defended and sympathized with law enforcement officers, saying "the vast majority of police are decent, honorable people" who don't embrace brutality. He also called for a "much more transparent means by which we provide for accountability within police departments." 

But Biden did not use the kind of impassioned language about systemic racism in policing that many on the left might have wanted to hear. And when host Anderson Cooper asked him whether he had personally benefited from "White privilege," Biden said he had but quickly pivoted away from race to talking about privilege as a class issue.

"Growing up in Scranton, we were used to guys who looked down their noses at us. Look at us and think we're not equivalent to them. If you don't have a college degree, you must be stupid. If, in fact, you didn't go to an Ivy League school," Biden said in response to the question about privilege. 

The former vice president said he was bothered by journalists noting that he could be the first president in decades without an Ivy League degree. Trump has a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. "What the hell makes you think I need an Ivy League degree to be president? Guys like me, the first in my family to go to college … we are as good as anybody else," he said.

"And guys like President Trump, who inherited everything and squandered what they inherited, are the people I've always had a problem with. Not the people who are busting their necks." 

Biden also broke with the left flank of his party on the question of fracking, a key source of jobs in northern and western Pennsylvania. 

"There is no rationale right now to eliminate fracking," he said, adding that his proposal on climate change aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and it includes a full plan to retrain drillers and miners to work in clean energy fields.

Instead of denying global warming, said Biden, he would approach it as an opportunity to embrace new industries. 

"When Trump hears global warming, he thinks, 'Hoax!' When I hear global warming, I think, 'Jobs,'" he said. 

If it weren't clear enough from his answer about fracking, when the next participant asked him point blank whether he supported the Green New Deal, Biden did not say yes. Instead, he said "I've got my own deal." 

Overall, Biden sought to downplay the divide between the parties that Trump foments with his constant attacks on "the radical left."

"I'm running as a Democrat, but I'm going to be everyone's president," he said. "I'm not going to be a Democratic president. I'm going to be America's president." 

Expect to hear more of Biden's pitch to the Trump-Biden voters on Friday, when the former vice president travels to Duluth, Minnesota, to tour a union training center and give a speech. Duluth is a former industrial city that has branched out into new industries, but remains a key shipping hub for the products mined in Minnesota's Iron Range. 

Trump will also be traveling to Minnesota on Friday, a reflection of the state's outsized significance in a race that both candidates believe will be won or lost in the upper Midwest.

Clinton won Minnesota by fewer than 2 points in 2016, and his campaign has zeroed in on the state as a potential buttress against an electoral college defeat in the event that the president loses states he won four years ago.

Biden leads Trump in polls in Minnesota by a comfortable margin. Any hopes the president has of winning the state would require a big surge in support for Trump from the same blue-collar voters Biden will be targeting Friday.