'A Little Worried': Union Members at Biden's Philly Speech See Uphill Climb for 2024

'They don't think he's rough-and-tumble enough, they think he's too old'

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)
June 17, 2023

PHILADELPHIA—President Joe Biden in his first major rally since his reelection announcement told union members on Saturday that Democrats have "the power to transform the country for the next five decades." Some of those members are more concerned about 2024.

Biden's campaign speech rehashed familiar themes—Republicans, he told the Philadelphia crowd, want to slash Social Security and Medicaid benefits, and the wealthy need to "pay their fair share." The message appeared to resonate with the union members in attendance, but several who spoke with the Washington Free Beacon said their colleagues at home felt different. Inflation and a leftward lurch on social issues, those members told the Free Beacon, had alienated many blue-collar voters who once were the bedrock of the Democratic Party but now don't want to show up to support the president.

"I'm a little worried about my membership in my union, and how they feel," said Eric Houghtaling, a retired electrician who served as a Democrat in the New Jersey Legislature. "They don't think he's rough-and-tumble enough, they think he's too old. I gotta tell you, the guys at home want to talk more about stuff like guns and immigration."

Biden is one of the most unpopular first-term incumbents in recent history, a reality that even his staunchest supporters who gathered in Philadelphia acknowledged. The RealClearPolitics average of recent polls shows his approval rating at a meager 41 percent, while nearly 66 percent of voters think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

Voter dissatisfaction with Biden is evident in his own party as well. Only about half of Democrats want Biden to seek a second term, and his most significant Democratic primary challenger, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., consistently registers double-digit support in polls.

Brad Schneider, 54, said his fellow steelworkers in Pittsburgh feel as though Biden has forgotten them.

"The members here think Biden's in good shape, but the members at home? Not so much," said Schneider. "The members at home don't really think he’s done enough. They don't see him enough."

A senior White House official in attendance insisted that the speech—which featured signs displaying the slogan "LABOR FOR BIDEN HARRIS 2024"—was not a campaign event. That same official declined to comment on Kennedy's challenge and said Biden's team doesn't "feel that we have to be out there campaigning."

The AFL-CIO on Friday backed Biden's reelection bid, the earliest the organization has ever given an endorsement to a presidential candidate.

AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler told the Free Beacon that the early endorsement was not meant to rally Democratic voters behind an unpopular president, but rather to "unlock support" early on in the campaign. Union member support for Democrats has slipped in recent years.

David Wu, a member of the Screen Actors Guild and staunch supporter of the president, blamed Biden's poor numbers on political polarization, which he said has increased since 2021. Asked about Biden's reelection chances, Wu said that anyone would have a hard time winning a second term in this "oddly divided political environment." Wu, however, discounted Kennedy's support in polls as a real threat to Biden.

"People say they want RFK because you've got to protest, and you want to send a message," Wu said. "Those poll results are good tools for political advisers, but a lot of it is just about how the wind is blowing that day."

Biden's speech did not outline a vision for a second term but rather was a laundry list of his legislative accomplishments, such as the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill and the $500 billion Inflation Reduction Act.

"I came with a plan and it started with passing the American Rescue Plan, a plan to vaccinate the nation and get our economy going again," Biden said. "And that's exactly what it did."

Issues that polls say are on the minds of voters, such as inflation, crime, and immigration, were unmentioned by the president.