CLEVELAND — President Biden spent Wednesday afternoon in the key swing state of Ohio courting union workers, seeking to convince voters his policies are helping buttress the middle class as polls continue to show Americans souring on his handling of the economy.
Biden spoke to a packed crowd at Max S. Hayes High School in Cleveland to announce the final rule for implementing a program created by his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief law to support struggling multiemployer pension plans so that union workers have more retirement security.
“Who is the backbone of this country? It’s you, the American worker,” Biden told the crowd, speaking in front of a sign that read “Jobs. Unions. Retirement Security.”
“I see you. I hear you. And I always have your back — I promise,” he said.
Biden faces extreme headwinds due to inflation, and poll after poll shows the president presiding over dampened approval ratings and particularly low marks on the economy. Those numbers have spawned fears among Democrats about a Republican blowout in November.
Ohio is among the most important battlegrounds in the fast-approaching midterm elections, with competitive gubernatorial, House and Senate races. Former President Obama won the Buckeye State in 2012, but the state has shown signs of tilting red since, with former President Trump winning Ohio in 2016 and defeating Biden in the state in 2020. Democrats in recent years have lost ground to Republicans among blue-collar workers who were persuaded by Trump’s rhetoric on trade.
Biden’s appearance came with some notable absences: Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who is running for the state’s open Senate seat, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Whaley were not on hand for the event, citing previous schedule commitments. Biden thanked Ryan — who he called a “future senator” — during his prepared remarks for his work advocating for the pension program that Biden was there to speak about.
Biden was joined by Ohio Democratic Reps. Shantel Brown and Marcy Kaptur and Sen. Sherrod Brown, as well as Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. Kaptur name-checked Trump during the event, arguing his policies did nothing to help union and middle-class workers.
“The Donald didn’t do anything,” Kaptur said, prompting boos from the crowd. “I’m offended when he sets foot in this state.”
Biden is confronting a decidedly pessimistic American public: A Monmouth University poll released this week found that 88 percent of Americans said the country is on the wrong track, while only 10 percent said the opposite.
Biden’s argument about delivering for the middle class is also in jeopardy. In the same poll, 54 percent said the middle class has not benefited at all from Biden’s policies, up nearly 20 percentage points from a year ago.
And the president has seen his approval rating slide even among Democratic voters. Democratic pollster Celinda Lake attributed that decline to frustrations about inflation and dampened hopes about Biden and Democrats in Congress accomplishing more than they have to date.
“Democrats are very unhappy with life,” Lake said. “We have to turn despair into action and we have to get energized.”
Biden has focused on selling the American Rescue Plan as well as the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law he signed last fall as important legislative accomplishments ahead of the upcoming elections.
Wednesday’s speech focused in part on boosting a federal program created by the rescue package that the White House estimates will restore full pension benefits of 2 million to 3 million workers and retirees. Brown first introduced legislation creating the program back in 2019; it was named after Ohio native and pension advocate Butch Lewis.
The program allows multiemployer pension plans — those that represent multiple businesses within an industry — to apply for relief through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a federal agency that ensures these plans. The Biden administration says that the final rule Biden announced Wednesday will allow the pensions to receive a higher rate of return on investments and ensure the multiemployer pension plans remain solvent through 2051.
“Millions of workers will have the dignified retirement they earned and they deserve,” Biden said, noting he kept a campaign trail promise by signing the program into law.
Biden also assailed Republicans for not voting in favor of the rescue package and argued that Trump left blue-collar workers behind by not moving to support the bill while he was in office.
Biden has cast himself as a champion of unions, who have largely lined up in support of the president. Biden noted toward the end of his speech that he would soon award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the late labor leader Richard Trumka.
Bill DeVito of the Iron Workers Local 17 said in remarks introducing Biden that the president has done “more for unions than any president that I can recall.” The audience at Wednesday’s event was friendly and enthusiastic, welcoming Biden periodically with chants of “Joe! Joe! Joe!”
Still, Wednesday’s speech comes as Biden considers whether to lift some tariffs on Chinese goods in a bid to ease inflation, a move that promises to anger labor unions. The White House on Tuesday declined to offer a timeline on Biden’s decision.