Politics

Biden revives his blue-collar persona in the face of midterm fears for Democrats

President Biden is reviving his folksy, blue-collar persona to connect with rural voters and try to help congressional Democrats hold on to their thin majorities in the November elections.

That persona was on full display Thursday when the president traveled to North Carolina. He repeatedly referred to audience members as “folks,” talked about the struggles of growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and professed camaraderie with a college student in the audience who has a postgraduation job lined up at IBM.

“When you are chairman of the board, remember me. When I call and say, ‘Hey, Malcolm, it’s Joe here,’ I don’t want to hear you say, ‘Joe who?’” the president joked.

After decades of declining prospects in rural America, Democrats are facing the possibility of losing their House and Senate majorities in the November midterms. Voters in those districts feel the Democratic Party has abandoned them by failing to address pocketbook issues such as inflation and rising prices, polls show.

Those rural voters, who are overwhelmingly White blue-collar workers, disagree with Democrats on cultural issues, which has overshadowed much of the White House messaging.

A poll released last week by The Associated Press/Ipsos found that 69% of rural voters disapprove of Mr. Biden’s job performance, compared with 26% who approve.

Seeking to reverse the declines, Mr. Biden has returned to his Scranton, blue-collar roots, which he played up during the 2020 campaign and earlier races.

The question is: Will voters buy it?

“He’s trying to get out in the country and be that ‘Scranton Joe,’ the one that got him the vice presidency and got him the presidency,” said Jimmy Keady, a Republican Party strategist. “He has been sold as the everyman blue-collar guy, and now that’s starting to wear off. A year and a half into the presidency, and he has become aloof, a laughingstock on foreign affairs and out of place trying to rebuild energy.

“Getting Biden back to what the left considers to be everyman country will allow him to redo his image,” he said.

To reach rural voters, Mr. Biden and his Cabinet are fanning out across America to promote his policies. Mr. Biden traveled to Iowa on Tuesday and North Carolina on Thursday. He lost both states to President Trump in 2020.

As part of the outreach, the White House this week released a “Rural Playbook” detailing resources available to local governments to access federal funding for infrastructure projects.

Zoe Nemerever, who studies rural voting at Texas Tech University, said it’s too soon to tell whether the latest reinvention of Mr. Biden will pay off during the midterms.

“If this is the beginning of a trend, the folksy, blue-collar Joe Biden would go to other states, and that persona would set the agenda,” she said. “It could also be an aberration where he spends a week visiting rural voters and Democrats are back to their rural-negligent policy agenda.”

The revamp follows a slew of failed makeovers. While running for president, Mr. Biden positioned himself as an experienced centrist politician and statesman who would restore competence to the White House. Upon election, he promoted himself as a liberal, pushing a massive climate and spending package. He also has presented himself as a foreign policy expert after years in the Senate.

Mr. Biden’s liberal bona fides are in tatters after his spending package and voting rights legislation failed in Congress. The former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee oversaw a bungled pullout from Afghanistan and failed to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine.

The president has also been caught flat-footed by rising inflation and the spread of two coronavirus variants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Biden’s image has changed over the last three years, but it doesn’t surprise me that they are going back to basics,” Mr. Keady said. “This White House has been dealing with crisis after crisis, and the midterms are going to be a bloodbath for Democrats. This is a move to get him back to what made him good 10 years ago.”

The shift to domestic issues is also an attempt to boost Mr. Biden’s political standing while his approval ratings are at the lowest point of his presidency.

Joe Shepherd of United Rural Democrats rejects the notion that Mr. Biden is remaking himself. He said the president is using the bully pulpit of the presidency to connect with rural voters.

“He is the president of all Americans, and by going to states like Iowa that didn’t vote for him, he’s still looking out for their interests,” he said.

Mr. Shepherd said the focus on rural states may not reverse Mr. Biden’s fortunes but could help Democrats down-ballot. On Tuesday, the president traveled to the district of Rep. Cynthia Axne, Iowa’s only federal Democratic representative. Ms. Axne is locked in a tough midterm fight for her seat.

During his visit, Mr. Biden said Ms. Axne can get things accomplished while fighting for Iowa. On Thursday, Mr. Biden visited the district of Rep. Kathy E. Manning of North Carolina, one of the state’s two Democratic representatives, who is locked in a midterm fight.

Mr. Biden also touted his plan to suspend the summertime ban on selling gasoline with higher ethanol blends to reduce gas prices. Voters in Iowa, the largest ethanol producer in the U.S., have long called for lifting the summertime ban. In North Carolina, Mr. Biden talked about easing supply-chain issues.

“That Biden came to Cindy Axne’s district and said we are doing all these things will help her in the long run,” Mr. Shepherd said. “When she’s campaigning, she’ll be able to say, ‘Look what I’ve delivered.’ Even when a president is unpopular, people will still try to ride the wave of their legislative accomplishments.”

Still, it is unclear that legislative deliverables will save the Democrats in the midterms. A Morning Consult poll released in January found that 65% of rural voters view the Democratic Party unfavorably, including 48% who do so “strongly.” Only 23% of rural voters said the Democratic Party cares more about their community than Republicans.

The same survey found that culture-driven issues are driving rural voters away from the Democratic Party. It found that 75% of voters want lawmakers to support their police and 65% want them to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, about 20% want their lawmakers to support LGBTQ rights and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Culture is among the most salient dividing issues,” Ms. Nemerever said. “They don’t want their legislators talking about transgender athletes and wondering why they won’t talk about easing economic strife when there’s one transgender athlete within 500 miles of where they live.”

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