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Biden Speeches To Frame Election Debate


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Countless supporters of President Obama got a text message yesterday. The message offered free Obama/Biden bumper stickers, one of many signs - large and small - that President Obama is intensifying his campaign for re-election. Another sign comes today as Vice President Joe Biden gives the first in a series of campaign speeches. He is expected to deliver encores to his 2008 campaign role as the Obama campaign's ambassador to the middle-class.

NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The vice president is speaking today at a union hall in Ohio. He'll be talking about what the auto rescue means for that state and its industrial workforce.

He'll be introduced by Shelly Whitson. She's worked at the Jeep plant in Toledo for almost 30 years.

SHELLY WHITSON: It really is an honor for me to meet Joe Biden. I mean, excuse me, Vice President Joe Biden.

HORSLEY: It's that familiarity that the White House is banking on. Even though he's the vice president, for a lot of voters like Whitson, Biden is just Joe.

WHITSON: He seems to be just a down-to-Earth guy. Like he's one of us. You know, you kind of think of him that way. One of the kind of guys you could have a beer with.

HORSLEY: Never mind that the Biden's a teetotaler. His everyman persona and glad-handing style help the vice president connect to white working-class voters in a way that President Obama does not. The Democratic ticket fared poorly with these voters four years ago. So Biden will be on the road a lot this year, trying to hold the line in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.

Political scientist Paul Beck of Ohio State University says Biden played the same role in 2008.

PAUL BECK: He was much better at working the union halls. Not that President Obama at the time was bad at doing that, but Biden really connected with union workers, with blue collar workers, with, you know, just kind of average middle-class voters.

HORSLEY: Biden told a campaign crowd in New Hampshire last month he's worn that middle-class label proudly, throughout his political career.

VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Initially, in the '70s when I got to the Senate and I was a middle class guy, it was really a polite way of saying he ain't very sophisticated.


BIDEN: That's what it is. Most people when they talk to you about middle class, they think that somehow you're kind of pedestrian. I am middle class. It didn't take me long to figure out who I was and where I came from.

HORSLEY: Even though Biden earned a six-figure income as a senator, he routinely ranked last in the chamber in personal wealth. He notes that he borrowed against his house to help put his children through college. Biden peppers his speeches with homespun stories about his parents' wisdom and worries. And when he mis-speaks, which he does with some regularity, the embarrassment doesn't seem to last long.

BIDEN: No one's ever accused me of saying anything I didn't mean. They pointed out, though, I tend to say all that I mean.


BIDEN: That's sometimes a problem. Sometimes a problem.

HORSLEY: The president once joked that he was going to try to go off the teleprompter more often, while trying to get Biden to stay on it. The vice president can be long-winded. But in summing up the administration's case for re-election, he's bumper-sticker brief.

BIDEN: When anybody asks you about us: Osama bin Laden's dead and General Motors is alive.


HORSLEY: Today's speech focuses on the second half of that argument. The campaign notes 120,000 people in Ohio are directly employed by the auto industry.

Political scientist Beck says many more have benefited indirectly from the recovery of GM and Chrysler.

BECK: It would have been devastating to the Ohio economy had any one of the Detroit automakers gone under as a result of a failure to support them in, you know, in the rescue attempts.

HORSLEY: Jeep plant worker Shelly Whitson sees the automakers' turnaround in more personal terms. She recalls the two months she was laid off before Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy.

WHITSON: When you have to start thinking of calling unemployment and that you might not have a job, that is one of the scariest feelings - to think that you could lose everything that you've worked for 29 years.

HORSLEY: Three years later, Whitson's working six days a week to keep up with demand for the popular Jeep Wrangler. She's happy with the overtime. And while polls suggest the auto rescue is still controversial, Whitson says a lot of people in Toledo are sold.

This town depends on us. The stores, the little grocery stores, the bars, the restaurants. They're glad to see us working. Believe me.

And that's exactly the message the vice president hopes to send to middle class voters in Ohio and other swing states around the country.

Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.