In Pittsburgh during whistle stop tour, Biden pitches himself as a son of the working class

CLEVELAND, OHIO - SEPTEMBER 29: U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speak during the first presidential debate at the Health Education Campus of Case Western Reserve University on September 29, 2020 in Cleveland, Ohio. This is the first of three planned debates between the two candidates in the lead up to the election on November 3. (Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH — Former Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday painted himself as a proud member of the working class who knows intimately the daily realities of struggling families, and President Donald Trump as an out-of-touch New Yorker who only cares about the ultra-rich.

“As soon as he got elected, he forgot the forgotten man,” Biden said of the president, barely 24 hours after their fireworks-filled debate in Cleveland. “The truth is, I don’t think he ever respected us in the first place.”

The appearance in Pittsburgh was part of a daylong whistle-stop tour beginning in Cleveland and ending in Johnstown. After a strained debate performance the previous night against an antagonistic Trump, Biden tied Pittsburgh’s unionized steelworker roots to his upbringing and identity.

“That’s what I lived with, people who busted their neck to make a good salary, and all of the sudden all gone,” Biden said of his childhood in Claymont, Delaware.

The vice president’s campaign and its surrogates in Pennsylvania have made work and jobs a central focus of their message to voters here, where many communities still feel the effects of the collapse of the American steel industry some 35 years ago.

Once again, the former vice president argued on Wednesday that Trump’s failure to manage the country’s public health response to the coronavirus had cost Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania thousands of jobs. His platform calls for the federal government to mobilize a Public Health Jobs Corps. and hire workers for major infrastructure projects.

The Pittsburgh area’s unemployment rate has recovered somewhat from their respective 16.4 percent in April, during the height of the country’s lockdown response to the coronavirus pandemic. But at 10.8 percent in August, Pittsburgh’s unemployed rate has lagged behind the nation’s 8.4 percent.

Decades removed from the height of the area’s manufacturing economy, Pittsburgh and surrounding metros have increasingly shifted to health care and education for economic activity. About a quarter of all jobs in both Pittsburgh come from those fields. The local workforce in education and health care is also about three times the size of the manufacturing sector.

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At his airplane hangar rallies in western Pennsylvania, Trump has emphasized his support for the coal and natural gas industry and painted Biden and the Democratic Party as an enemy of fossil fuels.

There, his campaign has featured coal miners and supporters from trades unions in the bleachers behind his podium, a constituency that a couple generations ago made up the bedrock of the Democratic Party.

“Your steel mills would, every one of them would have been gone had I not won,” Trump said at a rally last week at the Pittsburgh International Airport. “I’ve done everything I said and more, done more than I said. I’ll keep your jobs where they belong, you’ll be doing fracking for a long time,” he said referring to the natural gas extraction process that has proliferated the region.

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The New York Times and Siena College released a detailed poll Monday that gave Biden a nine-point lead in Pennsylvania against Trump, with a four-point margin of error. It also showed Biden cutting substantially into Trump’s dominance in 2016 with white voters without a college degree. Four years ago, Trump won that group by 32 points, but the poll showed that lead currently down to 14 points.

For much of the summer, Biden kept in-person campaigning to a minimum out of concern for the pandemic. But now the former vice president has made eight in-person visits to Pennsylvania since June. Trump has held frequent rallies throughout the state since public health restrictions relaxed over the summer. In the Pittsburgh region, Trump has held outdoor rallies in Latrobe and Moon over the past month.

Correspondent Tom Lisi covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @TommyLisi.