Biden Needs More Than Nostalgia

Interstate 81, southbound, you can’t miss it: Exit 185 PRESIDENT BIDEN EXPRESSWAY. The three-quarter-mile road leads into downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania, birthplace of Joe Biden. Keep going straight and you’ll eventually end up—where else?—on Biden Street. That these namesake roads exist while the president is still alive, let alone still in office, feels odd. But this exact strangeness—forced nostalgia, preemptive memorialization—is the essence of Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign.

Yesterday afternoon, inside the Scranton Cultural Center, Biden sought to remind a few hundred supporters of his lifelong Scranton values. His address coincided with the release of a new campaign ad, titled—wait for it—“Scranton.” The president’s event took place just down the road from his childhood home. Of course he popped by the old place to say hello, with his traveling press corps in tow. Subtlety has never been a Biden virtue.

The hometown crowd wasn’t treated to the booming, bombastic State of the Union version of Biden, but the president still managed to land a few genuine laughs during his 30-minute speech. His savviest moment was a fake-out. Biden appeared to be unspooling one of his trademark failed American-dream stories about a poor man drowning in debt, but it was a setup for a punch line: “I said, ‘I’m sorry, Donald. I can’t help you.’” Mentioning Trump’s name at all, as Biden repeatedly did yesterday, was a notable departure from an earlier period of this campaign season, when both Biden and his allies treated his opponent like Voldemort.

Still, an overwhelming sense of safety and caution defined the day—perhaps a fear of messing something up. Biden’s gathering wasn’t a rally so much as a town hall without the questions. He didn’t wax on about the Middle East, or Ukraine, or abortion, or other polarizing issues. He was laser-focused on taxes. Just a few hundred chairs were arranged in a semicircle, and the small-scale optics did not help him. Before Biden took the stage, a misleading image of many empty seats began going viral on social media. In reality, they were all eventually occupied, but there was no arguing that this campaign stop was a fraction of the size of the average Trump event. Yesterday’s energy was tame. It felt more like an early primary event for a minor candidate than a rally by the sitting president.

Many versions of Joe Biden exist, and they often compete against one another. There’s the doddering old man, there’s Dark Brandon, there’s the bighearted consoler, there’s the guy who uses variations of the word fuck under his breath. Biden’s campaign seems to hope that voters will come back around to good old Scranton Joe. This is the Biden who talks about faith, families, factories, and fairness. Millions of voters pine for this Norman Rockwell version of Biden—and of America, in general. Millions of others are demanding that the president plunge into the present moment and engage with Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. Specifically, a significant portion of Democrats and liberals want Biden to call for a cease-fire and reduce (or eliminate) military aid to Israel. Biden knows this. Yet his campaign is doubling down on kitchen-table issues, such as the tax code.

He seemed most comfortable when operating squarely within the realm of the classic and the domestic. “I am a capitalist,” Biden proclaimed. Still, he occasionally sounded like his old Democratic rival, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “No billionaire should pay a lower tax rate than a teacher!” he yelled at one point. He scoffed at trickle-down economics and preached about the long-term effects of the child tax credit. All the while, he peppered in sayings from his grandpa, sayings the elder Biden may or may not have ever said.

Many voters don’t want to believe that it’s really going to be Biden and Trump again. And some people still seem surprised that Biden, in particular, is officially seeking a second term. A swath of Democrats dream of him withdrawing before the party’s convention. There is perpetual talk of a younger candidate—namely a governor such as Gavin Newsom, Gretchen Whitmer, or Josh Shapiro, who yesterday served as Biden’s opening act—stepping up to be the Democratic nominee in Biden’s place. All of this seems like West Wing fan fiction. The race is set, and it’s a rematch. (With wild cards like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. promising to make trouble.)

Biden long ago realized the stakes. Now he has to figure out how much to talk about himself and his accomplishments versus warn voters about Trump. “Listen to what he says, because you know he means it,” Biden said. Though he didn’t opt for the 30,000-foot “democracy is on the ballot” message in Scranton, he drew stark comparisons between himself and his rival. “He’s coming for your money, your health care, and your social security,” Biden warned.

Successful political campaigns are also movements. Trump and RFK Jr., for all their flaws, long ago internalized that simple truth. Until recently, Biden has more or less run what his allies referred to as a “Rose Garden campaign.” This week, he’s changing that. Scranton marked Biden’s first of three stops across Pennsylvania; he’s off to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia next. By no accident, the president is traversing a swing state while his Republican rival is glowering inside a Manhattan courtroom. But yesterday’s crowd struck me as a bunch of polite, well-behaved people who knew when to sit quietly with their hands folded, when to laugh, and when to cheer. It did not feel organic.

Just outside the venue’s security perimeter, I spoke with three University of Scranton students who had tried to see Biden and were turned away. One of them, Neveah Wall, a 19-year-old sophomore, told me that this would be her first time voting, and that she was torn between going Democrat or independent. She said she was passionate about prison reform, and that she liked where Kennedy stood on the issue. Her family members would likely vote for Biden. “I think I am pretty much leaning towards RFK,” she said.

It may seem surprising that the Biden campaign would put on an event within walking distance of a university and not try to welcome in as many students as possible. (A 20-something attendee inside the room told me he had been personally invited by a local politician.) Incumbents often go to great lengths to avoid disruptions and control the narrative. In a statement last night, a Biden campaign spokesperson told me, “Members of the public are invited through various methods including local groups and organizations, mass emails to subscribers to the campaign’s email list, and by utilizing the voter file, which allows the campaign to target the voters we need to reach.” But new, younger, or first-time voters, such as Neveah Wall, may not even have voter files yet—and, like her, they may end up drawn to another candidate after being denied entry to a Biden event.

Perhaps Biden’s campaign was worried about young people bringing some of the present-day challenges into the room. When the crowd spilled back outside into the street, attendees were met by pro-Palestine protesters chanting “Genocide Joe!” One person held a sign that read I’M VOTIN UNCOMMITTED!

Biden can keep leaning into his roots as an antidote to Trumpism, but it may not be enough. Near the end of his speech, he brought up Trump’s infamous “losers” and “suckers” remark about veterans. “Who the hell does he think he is?” Biden shouted.  He could have used more of this. Scranton Joe—a harmless, affable character—doesn’t necessarily inspire unwavering devotion. Biden has just over six months to find a message that can simultaneously ground him in the present and point toward the future. He can only sell so many tickets as a tribute act playing old hits.


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