WATERLOO, Iowa — “Can I get a picture with you?” The man with the dazzling smile says “Sure!” and grabs the woman’s iPhone, holds it at arm's length, pushes a few buttons, frames the two of them in the screen, and takes the picture.
In Iowa, you don’t just get a picture with presidential candidate Joe Biden, you get a picture taken by Joe Biden. It’s all part of a campaign by the former vice president and longtime U.S. senator to show that while he may have begun his political career in 1970, he still can be the right person to lead the country into the 2020s.
This is Biden’s third run at the presidency — he ran in 1988 and 2008 — and while he’s the current front-runner, he’s taking nothing for granted, campaigning vigorously in Iowa, which features the first in the nation Democratic caucus on Feb. 3, 2020. He tells the crowd gathered in a union hall in Waterloo, “I promised you you’d be seeing a lot of me. The bad news is I’m keeping that promise. I’m going to be here a lot.”
Biden says that in his mind he entered the race in 2017, after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“I made the decision to run for president when Donald Trump called white supremacists and neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan ‘very fine people,' " he said. "Look folks, he’s wrong. Hate has no place in America.”
The three main reasons Biden cites for running for president are both lofty and pragmatic: “One, to restore the soul of our nation and two, to rebuild the backbone of the nation, the middle class.” Thirdly, he wants to unite the country.
For Biden, it’s a seminal moment: “We all know in our gut that this election is different than any of us have faced.”
Biden argues that while the country has gotten wealthier, the middle class has been taken advantage of and disrespected.
“You know, there used to be a basic bargain," he said. "If you helped create the success of the enterprise with which you worked, you got to share in the benefits — for real. That bargain has been broken.”
Biden says his dad used to tell him, “Joe, your job is a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity, it’s about respect.” He tells the crowd in Waterloo that “we have to start rewarding work over wealth,” and “this country wasn’t built by Wall Street and bankers and hedge fund managers, it was built by ordinary people like where you and I come from.”
To that end, Biden is promoting an agenda he argues will help lower- and middle-class Americans.
• Education: Triple funding for Title 1 (disadvantaged) schools and provide Universal pre-K care while investing $100 billion in school infrastructure.
• Health Care: Build on the Affordable Care Act, known as "Obamacare," by allowing people to keep their current insurance if they want but giving them the option to buy into a public-option plan like Medicare. “We have to finish the job and make health care a right, not a privilege. Give everyone the peace of mind they deserve.” (Biden pauses when recalling what an open microphone caught him saying to President Obama when Obamacare passed — “This is a big ****ing deal” — and says “I’m glad my mom didn’t hear that," then crosses himself.)
• Climate: Invest $400 billion over 10 years in clean energy research to, as he says, “accelerate innovation and partner with farmers and ranchers to develop the next generation of biofuels.”
Biden says these and other investments (including free community college for qualified students) can easily be paid for by eliminating the tax cuts of 2017 and reforming the tax code. “Folks, we have $1.6 trillion in tax loopholes out there. You can’t justify it. Yeah, we can give tax breaks for owning a racehorse and lots of other things. We should be investing in our children instead of investing in these tax cuts. If I’m elected president of the United States, goodbye Trump tax cuts for the super wealthy. Goodbye!”
During his speech in Waterloo, Biden often shakes his head in disbelief while he recounts where he thinks America should be at this point in its history and where it actually is, saying over and over again, “What are we doing? What are we doing?” He becomes particularly agitated when talking about education. “They call us not the party of progress and not the party of growth? My Lord. Imagine what happens if we prepare (students) better? Sixty-five out of every 100 jobs needs something beyond a high school degree — a certificate, an apprenticeship, a job training program, community college. Folks, what are we doing?”
But Biden’s message is not one of doom and gloom, and in fact it is reminiscent of the “get up off the mat” refrain that Ronald Reagan used in his 1980 presidential campaign. After lamenting what he calls the embarrassments and abuses of power of the Trump era, he tells Iowans, “Folks, for all our problems, I am more optimistic today than when I got elected as a 29-year-old to the U.S. Senate. And here’s why: We are in a better position than any other nation to own the 21st century.” Then he gets revved up. “The only thing that can tear America apart is America itself. So it’s time we pick up our heads and remember who in God’s name we are! This is the United States of America. There’s not a single thing we cannot do together.”
Biden ends his speech to applause and music, then plunges into the crowd, an excited throng barely held in check by a rope line. He shakes hands, takes pictures and accepts multiple hugs. Forty-five minutes later he’s still at it, willing to greet everyone who wants to meet him. He is simply not ready to leave, and he hopes the voters of Iowa don’t want him to either.