YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Joe Biden has a lot to say for himself. I spent a rainy 12-hour day with the vice president on Monday and from beginning to end, I don’t think there was any period when he was not talking to people. The man is determined to carry the burden of his work. He wants to show you what he knows.
Ohio is a state that the Democrats must carry. This day was devoted to Gov. Ted Strickland, an early supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2008 but now an ally of President Obama and Biden.
This was the fifth visit for Obama or Biden to Ohio in the last four weeks, and the president has at least one more stop to come. The governorship is vital to them, much more so than the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Republican George Voinovich.
Rob Portman, a mainstream conservative who once was budget director for George W. Bush, is far out front in the Senate race. But Strickland is in a close contest for the governorship.
Biden struggled to find a message that would work, improvising all day. In a stage-managed conversation with five local citizens in a back room at the Golden Dawn diner, he was rocked by the open skepticism about the new health care plan, voiced by the African-American owner of a barbecue restaurant. For a full hour, Biden defended the administration plan, arguing that it would help, not hurt, local businesses.
The same balancing act went on all day. Whether talking over the din of a metal processing plant at a rally put on by the United Steelworkers union or at a Strickland fundraiser in the art-filled, elegant home of a fireworks mogul, Biden cherry-picked hopeful economic statistics, while acknowledging the “pain” being felt in the overall economy. Striking an empathetic note, he recalled the “longest journey” his father had to make when he lost his job in Scranton, Pa., and had to tell his children he was moving the family to Delaware to find work.
Unlike Obama, who led a mostly sheltered economic existence, Biden has a family history that he shares with millions who are feeling the uncertainties of the current economy. In an interview toward the end of the day, he acknowledged the difficulty of his task. “People are angry,” he said, “and I’m angry too.” But as the defender of the party in power, the vice president has to strike a hopeful note, while admitting “you have to be honest with people.” This is not the economy he and Obama expected to face in 2010, a slump Biden blames on the economic crisis earlier this year in Greece and other European countries. “That knocked out the momentum for growth we were beginning to get,” he says.
The fire that was always part of his politics is most visible now when he talks about the Republican Party. “This is not the party we knew. I don’t think Bob Dole and Howard Baker would recognize this party. Not even Trent Lott.” From his perspective, the tea party element that has gotten stronger this year threatens to make cooperation between the parties impossible on any subject, if its candidates prevail.
“On the other hand, if we turn them back, then I think the next two years can be much better than those we’ve just gone through.”
With that in mind, he was off to Minnesota the next day, with Wisconsin, Missouri and Washington state soon to follow. The road is long for the vice president, and he has a supply of words as long as the road.
E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at email@example.com.