Surrounded by security and photographers, President Joe Biden wades into the crowd and shakes hands at the Laborers Union apprenticeship training center in DeForest after addressing supporters Wednesday. (Erik Gunn | Wisconsin Examiner)
President Joe Biden visited a union training school north of Madison Wednesday where he recapped his State of the Union speech in a massive shed normally used to teach apprentice laborers how to lay pipelines.
A crowd of Laborers Union members, Democratic officeholders and party loyalists cheered the president as he focused his message on jobs and the economy in one-third the time he took the night before when he spoke from the U.S. Capitol rostrum.
In contrast to his address to Congress and the nation, there were no hecklers, although toward the end of his talk Biden referred to Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene’s shouts of “liar” on the House floor Tuesday night.
“Many of you have seen we had a spirited debate last night with my Republican friends,” Biden said. “They seemed shocked when I raised the plans of some of their members in their caucus to cut Social Security, and Marjorie Taylor Greene and others stood up and said, ‘liar liar.”
He then pulled out what he said was a brochure from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) containing the platform Scott drew up for the Republican Senate campaigns in 2022. “He says all federal legislation sunsets every five years. If the law’s worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” Biden added for emphasis, “That’s Social Security. Medicare. Medicaid,” and struck a mock shocked look.
He quoted Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson’s suggestion that the social insurance programs should be voted on every year, drawing hearty boos from the crowd.
Biden’s Madison visit was an opportunity to showcase yet again the legislation passed in the first two years of his presidency, from the American Rescue Plan Act to the Inflation Reduction Act along with major bipartisan bills on infrastructure and microchip manufacturing. He rolled that legislative record into his emphatic support for unions.
“I’ve said many times, Wall Street did not build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class,” he said to a roar of applause. “And by the way, now you’re rebuilding the country.”
He checked off projects across Wisconsin funded by grants in the infrastructure bill — a Green Bay port terminal, a replacement bridge on the Wisconsin River in Columbia County, and Madison’s Bus Rapid Transit system using electrified buses.
“Each of these projects means jobs for laborers, plumbers, pipe fitters. electricians, carpenters, cement masons, iron workers and so many more,” Biden said. “These are good jobs, jobs you can raise a family on, and most don’t require a college degree, jobs where people don’t have to leave in search of an opportunity.”
Turning to one of his favorite themes, Biden praised union apprenticeships, calling them “one of the reasons the United States has the best-trained workers in the world.”
Biden was introduced by a Laborers Union apprentice, Sarah Varga, who has been learning the skills of her trade at the union’s training center in DeForest where the president spoke.
“The work that I do on Wisconsin’s infrastructure has helped myself and my fellow union brothers and sisters and our union way of life and there has been no greater friend that President Biden when it comes to creating more union jobs, building our roads and bridges, replacing lead pipes and building renewable energy and high tech manufacturing facilities,” she said.
Biden’s 23-minute talk began on a serious note as he spoke in sympathy for earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria. “We mourn the loss of so many lives, we offer our deepest condolences,” he said, then shifted to center the role of U.S. rescue and recovery teams along with those of NATO allies.
Biden highlighted a proposed standard to require American-made construction materials used on federal building products. He also boasted of the growth of 800,000 manufacturing jobs in his first two years in office, including recent announcements for a Madison area drug manufacturing plant and a Green Bay paper plant expansion adding 100 jobs along with 500 construction workers.
He then broadened the focus to include administration initiatives such as proposed regulations to require airlines to display all ticket surcharges up front and to reduce fees for bank overdrafts and late credit card payments, along with legislation to crack down on other so-called junk fees.
Watching a television broadcast on the Air Force One flight to Madison, Biden said he heard a commentator remark, “Why isn’t Biden talking about important things? Important issues? Why, the next thing is he’ll be talking about taking in your garbage.”
Biden paused, his mouth set. “Well, let me tell you something,” he said. “Junk fees may not matter to wealthy people. They matter to most folks like in the home I grew up in.” Another round of applause.
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Much as he did in Tuesday night’s speech, Biden managed to promote bipartisanship while also poking the GOP on preserving social insurance plans. Early on he highlighted the bipartisan nature of large initiatives as well as “over 300 bills beyond the big ones” — ignoring the party line votes that passed the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.
“If we could get work done in the last Congress, there’s no reason we can’t get things done as well this Congress,” Biden said.
Later, he relived the moment when he seized on Republicans’ denial to declare a deal to leave Social Security and Medicare alone. “It sounded like they agreed to take these cuts off the table,” Biden said, grinning, then reiterated, “We’ve gotten a lot of good bipartisan stuff done in the previous year. Why can’t we do it again?”
Between the loud cheers and periodic standing ovations, the crowd’s enthusiasm looked nothing like polling data from the Marquette Law School poll in January that showed Biden losing to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or tied with former President Donald Trump among Wisconsin voters in a hypothetical 2024 presidential contest.
Biden supporters said word of his record simply hasn’t filtered through to the public.
“I think that not enough people know about what is happening on the ground,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, Wisconsin AFL-CIO president, who sat in the VIP section and joined the cheers for Biden’s talk. “They haven’t been able to see the outcomes of the legislation” such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill enacted in late 2021.
“But they will,” she added, citing clean water projects in urban and rural areas and plans to remove lead pipes.
Unions, she said, are engaged in “talking with our members and making sure that they have the right information in terms of what’s happening in our country.”
State Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) said it’s up to Biden’s supporters to talk up his record. “I think he’s done a remarkable job creating jobs and supporting our infrastructure,” she said. “People just need to get past his age and look at his accomplishments.”
Rep. Kalan Haywood (D-Milwaukee) sees Biden’s visit as an opportunity to overcome negative social media about the president.
“We’re battling a lot of misinformation and a lot of propaganda,” Haywood said. “He can come into the state of Wisconsin and travel the nation, communicating directly with the people what he is doing, what work is happening, what Democrats are doing to support the everyday American, support the middle class and grow the middle class.”
State Sen. Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit) praised Biden’s speech. “It was awesome to have the president here, and both today and in his speech last night really talking about American jobs, American manufacturing,” Spreitzer said.
“Getting the message out” will lift Biden’s esteem in the state, he predicted.
“Obviously, inflation has been hard on people. Wages are going up, but so are prices,” Spreitzer said. “As we start to see inflation coming down, and if we can make sure that everybody feels like they’ve got a good economic future, it takes a little time for that to really settle in with folks.”
In addition to visits like Biden’s on Wednesday to highlight the results of his presidency so far, “I think we each as legislators have a responsibility to get out about our districts and get that message out,” Spreitzer said. For lawmakers, he added, it makes their current term in office all the more important. “We’ve got time till the next election time to actually govern and get things done, and that’s what we should be focused on doing right now.”
The host for Wednesday’s visit, the Laborers Union, is “as diverse as the state is when it comes to politics,” said Kent Miller, president of the union’s Wisconsin District Council.
“But we’re a jobs club,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, we’re focused on policy and not so much politics. The policy of the Biden administration has really been very focused on creating job opportunities for union members. And we’re seeing it firsthand here in Wisconsin.”
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