PHILADELPHIA — Joe Biden railed against President Donald Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and framed the 2020 election as a choice between Main Street and Wall Street during an outdoor town hall meeting Thursday just outside his childhood hometown of Scranton.
The former vice president, taking questions from voters for a little more than an hour in an open-air parking lot in Moosic, said Trump’s failure to be honest with Americans about the severity of the virus cost thousands of lives. Trump admitted to downplaying the threat in a recently released recorded interview from March with journalist Bob Woodward.
“He’s all about his reelection. It should be about the American people, and they’re in trouble,” Biden said during the town hall, televised on CNN “We have to be honest with the American people.”
Biden, saying the contest was between the ideals of working-class Scranton and upscale Park Avenue, said Trump “only cares about the stock market.”
“The way we were raised up here in this area, an awful lot of hard-working people bust their neck,” the Scranton native said. “All he thinks about is the stock market … . In my neighborhood in Scranton, not a whole lot of people own stock.”
The night featured mostly friendly questioning, largely from Democratic voters, a stark contrast to the pointed questions Trump faced at an ABC town hall event in Philadelphia on Tuesday. During that event, Trump gave no ground, rewriting the history of his response to the pandemic with assertions directly at odds with his own comments in public and on tape.
Biden said little that would seem to alienate moderate or undecided voters, sticking to his usual practice of empathizing with those in front of him, sharing long-winded personal stories — and decrying Trump as a president who has shredded American norms.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Biden said at one point. “I never, ever thought I would see such a thoroughly, totally irresponsible, administration.”
Later, asked about whether he had benefited from white privilege, Biden said he had. Trump responded to a similar question from Woodward with derision, saying Woodward “really drank the Kool-Aid.”
“I’ve benefited just because I don’t have to go through what my Black brothers and sisters have had to go through,” Biden said Thursday. He then turned the focus to his own upbringing in Scranton and later Delaware, noting how journalists have pointed out that he lacks an Ivy League education.
“Who the hell thinks you need an Ivy League degree to be president?” Biden said, in one of the only lines that generated applause from the audience.
“Guys like me, the first in my family to go to college … we are as good as anybody else,” he added. “And guys like Trump, who inherited everything and squandered what they inherited, are the people I’ve always had a problem with.”
Taken together, the Trump and Biden town halls served as something of a preview of the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, which may be one of Trump’s last high-profile chances to upend a race in which Biden has held a steady but not commanding lead in public polls nationally, and in critical battleground states like Pennsylvania.
“Virtually every question for Joe Biden was an invitation for him to attack President Trump, while moderator Anderson Cooper offered almost no pushback, giving Biden a total pass on his lies and misrepresentations,” Trump campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said in a statement late Thursday.
Asked about the controversial drilling process known as fracking — which has lifted local economies in the parts of Northeastern and Southwestern Pennsylvania that make up the core of Trump’s support in the state — Biden repeated his insistence that he won’t ban it, even as he promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
“Fracking has to continue, because we need a transition,” he said. “There’s no rationale right now to eliminate fracking.”
Asked about the sweeping Green New Deal climate plan championed by liberals, Biden said: “I have my own deal.”
And asked by a local police chief about civil unrest in American cities and attitudes toward law enforcement, Biden said he condemns “every form of violence,” whereas Trump “has yet to condemn the far right and the white supremacists.”
“Protesting is one thing. A right to speak is one thing,” he said. “Violence of any kind, no matter who it is coming from, is wrong and people should be held accountable.”
In one of the few questions from a Republican, Biden was asked how he would work to get thousands of Americans who received unemployment during the pandemic off the government payroll. Biden didn’t answer that question but said he had a plan to help frontline workers like the woman who asked the question, a nurse.
On the topic of violence and how he would unite the country, Biden added: “The president has yet to condemn the far right and the white supremacists.”
Biden took questions in a parking lot at PNC Field in Moosic, where 100 voters selected by CNN left their cars to ask questions at a podium.
The Scranton area, and Northeastern Pennsylvania more broadly, have been a hotbed of political activity this election. Biden was last in the region in July. Vice President Mike Pence went to Luzerne County earlier this month for a “Workers for Trump” campaign rally.
In many ways, the shock of the 2016 presidential election can be traced to places like Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties. The traditionally Democratic region broke dramatically toward Trump, giving him a 55,000-vote swing compared the 2012 presidential race, in a state he ultimately won by about 44,000 votes, or 0.7%.
Luzerne County was one of three counties in the state that twice supported Barack Obama before flipping to Trump.
The 26,000-vote edge Trump received over Hillary Clinton in the county accounted for more than half of his total margin of victory in the state.
“I think they want to fight this out to the end here because both candidates feel it’s so important to win here in order to win Pennsylvania,” said Virginia McGregor, whose Dunmore-based company, McGregor Industries, Biden visited last time he was in town.
“And Scranton has a lot of voters,” McGregor, who has been a longtime Democratic fundraiser, added. “Our culture here is to vote.”
Lance Stange, chair of the Lackawanna County GOP, said Biden has done little to help the city over decades in public service.
“I know it won’t take very long but I hope Biden will discuss what he believes he has done for Scranton in his nearly 50 years in public office because I don’t believe in using Scranton as a political prop when he needs votes,” Stange said.
Trump has taken to saying in recent weeks that Biden “abandoned” his childhood hometown, but Biden actually maintained close personal relationships and professional ties to the city in the more than six decades since his family moved to Delaware, when he was 10.
On Monday Scranton’s School District announced it would furlough 222 district employees. Biden was quick to blame Trump:
“Trump not only refused to prioritize the health and safety of students and educators in Pennsylvania throughout this crisis — he intentionally misled Americans on the gravity of the virus for his own political gain.”
And now, his failure to deliver adequate state and local fiscal relief funding has hit home in Scranton, where more than 200 school district employees are being furloughed and stripped of their medical benefits.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer