Though he has cultivated a reputation as unscripted, Vice President Joe Biden can be practiced when needed, with an instinctive feel for his audience.
And as he joined Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail Monday for the first time this year, he shirked a conventional political argument on her behalf in favor of an emotional pitch aimed at working-class voters: “She gets it.”
“What Hillary is all about is making sure that every one of you, every one of you can look your child and your grandchild in the eye and say, ‘Honey, I mean this sincerely, everything is going to be OK,’” Biden told an audience of 3,000 that included his relatives and former neighbors.
For Biden, campaigning in 2016 looks a lot like 2008 and 2012, as his more than half-hour performance here showed, but with one big difference: He’s not on the ticket.
Biden passed on a run for the White House last year but is reprising a familiar role as a Democratic ambassador to middle class and serving as the determined critic of Donald Trump.
“What bothers me the most about Donald Trump is his cynicism is unbounded,” Biden, the self-styled “White House optimist,” told the audience.
He used Trump’s trademark phrase against him, saying the joy Trump took in saying, “You’re fired,” was at odds with the values of Scranton residents.
“How can there be pleasure in division and ‘You’re fired’?” Biden asked. “He’s trying to tell us he cares about the middle class. Give me a break! And to repeat myself, [it] is such a bunch of malarkey.”
Biden said Clinton, by contrast, shares his philosophy of public service. The two share Scranton roots, which made this former coal town a natural site for their joint appearance. Biden spent his early days here before his family’s economic struggles prompted a move to Claymont, Del.; Clinton’s father was born here and worked for a time at a lace mill.
Among the day’s set pieces beyond the rally was a trip to the home Biden grew up in, just blocks from where Clinton’s father’s family lived.
“Hillary understands the hopes and aspirations of the people in Claymont and Scranton and every Scranton and Claymont in the United States,” Biden said.
Later, outside the former Biden home, Clinton pledged, “Nobody will love Scranton more than I will as president,” sidestepping a reporter’s question about the pockets of Trump support evident in the region.
The scene here, Biden surrounded by Clinton campaign banners and with the Democratic nominee seated behind him, was a far cry from his last high-profile appearance in Scranton nearly three years ago to the day.
Then, Obama joined Biden for a campaign-style event promoting the administration’s education policies that was timed to the fifth anniversary of the two joining forces as the Democratic presidential ticket. A Biden presidential candidacy was in play at the time, and the rally almost had the appearance of an early endorsement. Choosing Biden was “the best decision that I ever made politically,” the president said.
Weeks later, Biden appeared to take a preemptive swipe at Clinton as he declared at a high-profile event in the presidential proving ground of Iowa that John F. Kerry, only months into the job, was “one of the best secretaries of State” in the nation’s history.
Biden ultimately ruled out a third presidential bid last fall by citing the continued emotional toll on his family after his eldest son died of brain cancer. Close aides say he stands by the decision even as he marvels at the campaign that has ensued without him, and at times muses about how he might have performed in it.
But on Clinton’s behalf, he gave a determined performance Monday.
“If you live in a neighborhood like I grew up in … if you worry about your job, getting decent pay, if you worry about your children’s education, if you’re taking care of an elderly parent after losing the other one, then there’s only one person in this election who will possibly help you, and that is Hillary Clinton,” he said.
When Clinton and Biden were to first appear here in early July, an event postponed after the Dallas police massacre, it appeared she would need all the help she could get appealing to Rust Belt voters over Trump.
Now that Trump’s public self-immolations have given Clinton a more comfortable advantage, especially in Pennsylvania, she is increasingly seeking the votes of independents and Republicans uneasy with the former reality TV star.
But aides say Biden’s role will still be crucial. Though Clinton’s standing is stronger than it had been among the type of voter Biden has often appealed to, the vice president’s role will be to help lock down their support and free up Clinton and others to expand the electoral map.
Biden will spend considerable time in the coming weeks in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, as well as Florida. Senior aides to the vice president are in regular contact with their counterparts at Clinton’s Brooklyn, N.Y., campaign headquarters, and the vice president has personally committed to Clinton to do anything she asks of him.
Biden will also campaign aggressively on behalf of Democratic Senate candidates as the party looks to regain control of the chamber. The presidential battleground map largely aligns with states where Democrats believe they have the best chance to pick up Republican-held Senate seats, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
Clinton herself has revealed the extent to which she values Biden’s grasp on the middle-class psyche, incorporating some of his language as she contrasted Trump’s economic vision with hers.
And in her speech here, she also made it clear she would continue to call on Biden while embracing his last major fight as her own: the “moonshot” effort to find a cure for cancer.
“If I’m elected this fall, I’m going to ask Joe to continue the important work he’s begun,” she said.
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3:05 p.m.: This story was updated with Biden’s and Clinton’s rally.
This story was originally published at 5:40 a.m.