As Biden celebrates Labor Day, Democratic candidates tread gingerly

REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz
U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One en route to Joint Base Andrews at Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, U.S., September 5, 2022.

MILWAUKEE and WEST MIFFLIN, Pa. – President Joe Biden touted the labor movement Monday in two crucial battleground states, showcasing his role as a helpful ally – if not enthusiastically celebrated leader – to Democrats facing competitive elections in November.

At his first stop, in Milwaukee, Biden appeared alongside Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, while the state’s Democratic candidate for Senate, Mandela Barnes, steered clear of a president struggling with a weak approval rating.

In his second stop, just outside of Pittsburgh, Biden appeared with Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Senate, while Democratic Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running for governor in the state, did not join Biden – though the two men had appeared together just last week, in Wilkes-Barre.

Biden’s Labor Day itinerary underscored the challenges Democrats face as they consider whether to be seen with the leader of their party, who has a relatively low approval rating but is coming off a string of legislative victories. In a survey last month by Marquette University Law School, 40% of registered Wisconsin voters approved of the job Biden is doing while 55% disapproved.

Now, as Biden’s approval ratings have begun to finally tick upwards, many Democrats find themselves in a muddled relationship with their party’s leader, unwilling to outright reject him but not yet ready to fully embrace him, either. Fetterman, for instance, kept his remarks focused squarely on his Republican opponent, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, and never once mentioned Biden.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Barnes – the lieutenant governor who is challenging Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in November – for days wouldn’t say whether he planned to appear with Biden. On Monday, he didn’t show up at the president’s speech and instead participated in other Labor Day events.

By contrast, Evers embraced Biden, saying he planned to meet with the president as soon as Biden announced his plans to attend Laborfest, a long-running Labor Day event along Lake Michigan’s shore in downtown Milwaukee.

After his Milwaukee stop, Biden headed to Pennsylvania, another battleground state with high-stakes races for governor and Senate. Biden’s visit to Pittsburgh comes two days after former president Donald Trump rallied in Wilkes-Barre for Republican candidates Oz and Doug Mastriano, the party’s gubernatorial pick.

While the party that holds the presidency historically performs poorly in midterm elections, Democrats see signs of hope this fall after Biden notched wins on gun control, climate change and prescription drug prices for senior citizens. Democrats believe independent voters will rally to their side after the Supreme Court this summer struck down the Roe v. Wade decision that, for a half-century, guaranteed a right to abortion.

From the stage in Milwaukee, the speakers praised Biden, with Evers calling him an important partner and saying he “hasn’t forgotten that working families matter not just on Labor Day, but every single day of the year.” Evers shook Biden’s hand when he took the stage, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler each called Biden the most pro-union president in history.

Biden in turn thanked Evers and others who attended his event – including Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley. Biden gave a brief nod to Barnes, who he said couldn’t be there.

Barnes spokeswoman Maddy McDaniel said Barnes appreciated Biden coming to Milwaukee. Barnes participated in a labor parade in Milwaukee and met with striking workers in Racine.

Richard Garcia, an ironworker from Milwaukee, said he would have liked to have seen Barnes appear with Biden but his decision not to do so wouldn’t affect how he votes. He said it is essential to oust Johnson, calling the longtime senator “useless.”

Jim Giedd, a retired machinist from Beaver Dam, Wis., who sported a “Welcome, President Biden” pin, said he was glad to see Evers appear with Biden and understood why Barnes wasn’t there.

“I think Evers came here as respect to the president and being the governor of the state,” Giedd said. “Barnes is from here so I think he has the Milwaukee area tied up. But he needs to get around the state.”

Biden’s appearance Monday came four days after he gave a speech in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia to argue that Trump and his backers threaten democracy. The speech was aimed directly at candidates like the ones running for statewide office in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania because they have aligned themselves closely with Trump.

In Milwaukee, Biden singled out Johnson for saying the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol happened amid what Johnson dubbed “by and large” a “peaceful protest.” In the hours ahead of the attack, a Trump attorney was in touch with Johnson about delivering a set of fake electors to Vice President Mike Pence to prevent the certification of Biden’s victory in the presidential election. Johnson has downplayed the exchange with the Trump attorney and never handed off any paperwork to Pence.

“Have you seen the videos, what happened that day? Listen to the stories of the members of both parties of Congress and the jeopardy they were put in. Cops attacked and assaulted, speared with flagpoles, sprayed with Mace, stomped down, dragged, brutalized. Police lost their lives as a result of that day. And the MAGA Republicans and your senior senator said it was a peaceful protest,” Biden said, referring to Trump’s supporters by the former president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

“There’s no democracy where you can be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy,” Biden said.

In response to Biden’s speech, Johnson in a statement said Biden was making dishonest attacks against him.

“President Biden confirmed he has become the divider in chief,” Johnson said in his statement. “Wisconsinites are tired of the division and forty year high inflation, record gas prices, and rising crime that are the result of Democrat policies.”

Tim Michels, the Republican construction executive challenging Evers for governor, has said he will dissolve the state’s bipartisan elections commission and left open the possibility he would try to reverse Biden’s 2020 victory in the state, even though doing so is impossible. In an event ahead of Biden’s visit, Michels on Monday put his attention elsewhere, saying the president should do more to address inflation.

“If I had the opportunity to talk to him, I would talk to him about inflation and how it’s out of control,” Michels said.

In Pennsylvania, Biden spoke to a steelworkers union in West Mifflin, just southeast of Pittsburgh. The president spoke for 20 minutes and offered a similar message to that in Milwaukee earlier in the day, but as the sun began to slip behind the clouds, he appeared more subdued, almost murmuring some of his remarks.

“It’s great to be almost home,” said Biden, who was born in Scranton, a roughly five-hour drive across the state.

Fetterman, who is facing Oz in November for the state’s Senate seat, appeared with Biden on Monday, despite skipping both of Biden’s Pennsylvania events last week – the Thursday speech at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and a speech two days prior, in Wilkes-Barre.

In advance of the president’s visit, Fetterman, a longtime advocate of the legalization of marijuana, said he hoped to use Biden’s Labor Day trip to push him to “finally decriminalize marijuana.”

“The president needs to use his executive authority to begin descheduling marijuana, I would love to see him do this prior to his visit to Pittsburgh,” Fetterman said in a statement. “This is just common sense and Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly support decriminalizing marijuana.”

The two men mingled privately before the event began, but it’s unclear if Fetterman brought up the issue of marijuana.

Last week in Wilkes-Barre, Biden praised Shapiro – calling him “a champion for the rule of law” and someone who will “make one hell of a governor” – as well as Fetterman in absentia.

“I tell you what, Fetterman is a hell of a guy,” Biden said at the time. “A powerful voice for working people. And he’s going to make a great United States senator. He’s going to make a great United States senator.”

On Monday, Biden similarly praised Fetterman: “If I have to be in a foxhole, I want John Fetterman in there with me,” he said.