All Joe Biden had to do to claim ground against Donald Trump in tonight’s CNN town hall was show up and show he cared. And that’s exactly what the former Vice-President did from the very start of the unique drive-in event near his hometown of Scranton, PA with Anderson Cooper.
“My heart goes out to you,” the current Democratic POTUS candidate responded to local voter Shani Adams, who revealed that she had lost her sister to the coronavirus. That was very different from the former Celebrity Apprentice host’s appearance on ABC News’ town hall on September 15, where the president, in response to the personal stories of some of the questioners, often resorted to talking points he’s repeated in press conferences, rallies and tweets.
Deadline Now: The Best And Worst From Donald Trump’s ABC Town Hall And What It Means For The President’s First Debate With Joe Biden
I’ll tell you what takes away your freedom: not being able to see your kid, go to the football game, or see your mom or dad in the hospital. That’s what is costing us our freedom. #BidenTownHall pic.twitter.com/YM57H8lv2K
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) September 18, 2020
Still, Trump’s town hall was great TV because it was the president outside his element — what his detractors called a train wreck and what one of his boosters, Laura Ingraham on Fox News, groused was an “ambush.”
The two events were a tale of two different styles of campaigning and governance. Much more measured at his own very watchable town hall Biden displayed one of his key assets — empathy with voters on the campaign trail, even if the questioners were socially distanced next to their cars in a set up that resembled a movie drive in.
He also seemed to go out of his way to show that he had a command of facts and policy points, while trying to relate to the questioners’ stories of hardship. As if to counter the Trump campaign’s caricature of him as old and doddering, at one point Biden identified the different biological makeup of two different COVID-19 vaccines, and later in an answering a question on overregulation of farmers.
Biden did embellish the details of Trump’s famous walk across Lafayette Park to hold up a Bible at St. John’s Church, after protesters were cleared away.
But what was probably just as important was for Biden to try to connect with voters on economic issues, as Trump still holds an advantage on that front in some polls.
A 2016 Trump voter’s question, on how he would address the notion that COVID-19 unemployment benefits have been so good that they are a disincentive for workers to return to their employers, generally went unanswered.
Biden did emphasize his working class upbringing in Pennsylvania, one of the critical swing states, as a contrast to Trump, while he outlined some of the elements of his agenda. He talked several times about raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and rather emphatically insisted that he would not immediately ban fracking, diverging a bit from the tone if not his stance during the primary debates.
“The idea you’re not making a minimum $15 an hour is just wrong,” Biden said. “Wrong. No one should have to work two jobs to be able to get out of poverty.”
“The President talks about ‘in Joe Biden’s America,’ says Joe Biden, responding to Pres. Trump’s attempt to blame rising crime in some cities on Democrats.
— CNN (@CNN) September 18, 2020
He was at his strongest, though, when he could turn the attention back to Trump. He had plenty of opportunities to do so, what with a front-loaded series of questions tied to COVID-19, generally friendlier queires overall, and what seemed like a disproportionate number of guys named Joe in the audience.
“There’s never been a time when Americans have not been able to step up,” Biden said at one point, referring to the resilience of the public in the face of a crisis. Then he added, “The president should step down.”
With seemingly a disproportionate number of guys name Joe in the audience, this was Biden’s first significant face-to-face of sorts with voters since winning the Democratic nomination earlier this year.
With a mere 12 days to go before Biden and Trump go head-to-head in the first of three debates, Biden’s stint in front of approximately 100 attendees in the parking lot at PNC Field was followed later on Thursday night by an outdoor Trump rally in hotly contested Wisconsin. As expected, the president started his rally by complaining that Biden was “up there tonight getting softball questions from Anderson Cooper. They don’t ask me questions like that.”
Earlier, as an amped up and mainly jovial Biden took questions at the town hall on the coronavirus pandemic, the hobbled economy, his debate prep, China, white privilege, racial injustice and police brutality, Trump was throwing inaccurate shade not just on his rival but his own FBI Director:
On Air Force One heading to Wisconsin. Biden refused to go there to apologize for not showing up for the failed Democrat Convention. So funny to watch the Fake News fawning over Sleepy Joe’s ridiculous “car press conference”. Pathetic!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 17, 2020
But Chris, you don’t see any activity from China, even though it is a FAR greater threat than Russia, Russia, Russia. They will both, plus others, be able to interfere in our 2020 Election with our totally vulnerable Unsolicited (Counterfeit?) Ballot Scam. Check it out! https://t.co/mH3vrHWvS8
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 18, 2020
Waving his working-class roots and lack of an Ivy League degree, Biden made it personal against Trump in his own way too on Thursday. “I never ever ever thought I would see such a thoroughly totally irresponsible administration,” Biden said.
Queried by Cooper on Director Wray’s comments and how he would handle Vladimir Putin and Russian election interference, Biden remarked: “It wouldn’t be prudent for me to be more specific, but I assure you they will pay a price.”
Before the town hall had even ended, the Trump campaign was hammering Biden on his answer on China, calling the country a competitor versus an enemy. But there’s some question as to whether such a line of attack — that he is soft on China — won’t be all that relevant to voters in swing states. Rather often, no matter the question, Biden tried to turn the answer back to Trump, especially when it came to their own roots.
“Guys like Trump who inherited everything and squandered what they inherited are the people I’ve always had a problem with,” he said. “Not the people who are busting their neck.”