Biden strikes economic populist tone during campaign rally before exuberant union members

President Biden gestures as he speaks into microphones.
President Biden speaks at a political rally at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Saturday.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)
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President Biden delivered an unapologetically economic populist message Saturday during the first rally of his reelection campaign, telling an exuberant crowd of union members that his policies had created jobs and lifted the middle class. Now, he said, is the time for the wealthy to “pay their fair share” in taxes.

Biden spotlighted the sweeping climate, tax and healthcare package signed into law last year that cut the cost of prescription drugs and lowered insurance premiums — pocketbook issues that advisors say will be the centerpiece of his argument for a second term.

“I’m looking forward to this campaign,” Biden said to cries of “four more years!” before adding, “We’ve got a record to run on.”


His choice of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania — and a friendly union audience — as his first official campaign stop reflected their crucial role in his reelection effort. The city was the site of his 2020 campaign headquarters and the state was one of a handful that had voted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016 but flipped back to Democrats four years later.

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Until the rally, Biden’s primary reelection campaign activity had been fundraising as the campaign tries to amass an impressive haul before the year’s second quarter concludes at the end of the month. The president raised money at a private home in Greenwich, Conn., on Friday and soon will hold fundraisers in California, Maryland, Illinois and New York.

More than 1,000 union workers representing professions from carpenters and airport service workers to entertainers and heavy service equipment engineers — most wearing T-shirts bearing their union’s logos — began chanting “Let’s go, Joe!” and “We want Joe” hours before the president arrived.

Biden did not mention any of his potential Republican opponents by name, but said many in the GOP “oppose everything I’ve done.” Pointing to high inflation rates, Republicans have criticized “Biden-omics” a term the president tried to turn back on his opponents Saturday.

“I don’t know what the hell that is,” he said, “but it’s working.”

The event, which organizers said included unions representing 18 million workers nationwide, recalled then-candidate Biden opening his 2020 presidential campaign at a union hall in Pittsburgh.

Several of the nation’s most powerful unions — including the AFL-CIO, American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — officially endorsed Biden’s campaign Friday. The first-of-its-kind joint endorsement among the unions and the backdrop of hundreds of workers are part of a meticulously choreographed effort to show the support of labor behind Biden, who calls himself the most pro-union president in history.


The union endorsements followed Wednesday’s joint endorsement from major environmental groups — back-to-back by design, according to a campaign official — meant to demonstrate that tackling climate change through green jobs does not threaten workers’ rights.

Biden claimed in his remarks that if Wall Street bankers went on strike, no one would notice. But if union members walked off the job, “the whole country would come to a grinding halt.” He also criticized those worth more than $1 billion for paying, he said, as little as 8% in federal taxes.

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That prompted a man in the audience to shout, “What do you pay?” to which Biden responded, “I pay a hell of a lot more than that.” He said repeatedly that the wealthy must “pay their fair share.”

Before addressing the union gathering, Biden took a helicopter tour over the collapsed section of Interstate 95 in Philadelphia that has complicated traffic along one of the nation’s most crowded highways. Biden outlined the substantial initial federal commitment and longer-term support for a permanent fix for the vital roadway.

“I’ve directed my team ... to move heaven and Earth to get this done as soon as humanly possible,” Biden said.

At the rally, Michael Smith, a 62-year-old retired electrician and a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said he liked Biden’s chances next year because of his administration’s championing of green jobs and construction.

First Lady Jill Biden speaks at a political rally.
First Lady Jill Biden, a teacher and National Education Assn. member, speaks to a political rally audience filled with union members at the Philadelphia Convention Center on Saturday.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

Jennifer McKinnon, 53, a grade-school librarian and member of the National Education Assn., said she felt that Biden had a personal commitment to education because his wife, Jill, was a teacher who continued to teach English at Northern Virginia Community College as first lady. Jill Biden, an NEA member, addressed the union rally too.

“I fear that the Republicans are going to get caught in their cycle that they did last time and people aren’t going to buy it this time, so Joe’s going to sweep right in,” McKinnon said of the 2024 election, alluding to Trump, the early front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination despite his continuing legal issues including two indictments.

Biden said his economic policies can lift all Americans regardless of economic status, an argument that could help him counter the kind of economic populism that buoyed Trump with some rank-and-file union members during his first two presidential campaigns.

Clark Hamilton, a 63-year-old retiree and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers member, said Biden embraced union values but also noted that the president sometimes “plays it like most politicians, in the middle.” He referenced Biden’s urging Congress to help prevent a rail strike last year, which the president said could cripple commerce nationwide.

“That’s a shame,” Hamilton said. “But he was trying to save the economy.”

Still, Hamilton said he’s confident that Biden’s record will secure him a second term next year, “especially if it’s against Trump.”