Joe Biden is Obama's secret weapon

Mitt Romney has a credibility problem.

Shepard Smith, the Fox news anchor, was talking about Mitt Romney's "friendship" with Newt Gingrich when he said it, but the sentiment could apply categorically.

"Politics is weird. And creepy. And now I know lacks even the loosest attachment to anything like reality."

I laugh every time I watch that video.

There is indeed something weird about Romney's singular focus on the economy when he, as the former head of a private-equity firm that bought and dismantled companies for profit, knows as much about job creation as a butcher knows about animal husbandry.

There's something creepy about a Republican ignoring tried-and-true red-meat issues, like gay marriage or immigration or "religious liberty," with which Republicans are historically good at dividing and suppressing votes.

And there's something truly surreal about Romney's avoidance of the words "George W. Bush." In Florida last week, Romney said that Obama doubled the national debt but didn't mention the part about the stimulus program, the auto bailout and the fact that George W. Bush added $4 trillion to the debt. (In fact, it was Vice President Dick Cheney who said deficits don't matter.) Evidently, Romney is banking on memory loss but just to be sure, he's avoiding Bush's name so as not to remind us where much of that debt actually came from.

Yet there was a moment of clarity last week of the kind that comes from having the scales fall from your eyes to see the truth about America's classless society. The Obama campaign released a video about the time Bain Capital, the Wall Street firm Romney once headed, took ownership of a steel mill in Kansas City. Former workers recalled Bain loading the mill up with debt, filing for bankruptcy, firing employees, closing the mill, shirking pension obligations, and walking away with a smile.

Let me say this. My father is a truck driver. He hauled steel for more than a decade. He was proud, as most white working-class men are, and he saw what happens when rich guys take over a steel mill. They don't care about the important stuff, only money, and even when they have "enough," as my dad would say, they want more until the company is bled to death. The Obama camp was careful to avoid appearing to be anti-private equity (since so many firm directors give to the Democratic Party), just anti-vulture capitalism. But that kind of hairsplitting means little to working-class men like my father. They know the truth when they see it.

Shortly after it released the video, the Obama campaign released "The Biden," as they like to say. That is, Joe Biden, the vice president, who actually comes from working-class stock. Picking Biden as his running mate was brilliant, but we didn't see it as such four years ago. With the economy still humping along, with Romney as the richest man ever to run for the White House, with unlimited sums of money being poured into this election -- all this makes it crystal clear why a cool and rational wonk like Obama needs a pulpit-pounder like Biden.

The campaign "released" Biden on Youngstown, Ohio, an old mill town gone to seed like rest of the Rust Belt that rings around the Great Lakes. In a speech, Biden took on the notion that complaints about inequality and injustice are rooted in envy. "[Romney] doesn't get what's at the core of all this. It's about people's dignity." He went on:

I resent when they talk about families like mine, what I grew up in. I resent the fact that they think we're talking about envy. It's job-envy. It's wealth-envy. That we don't dream. My mother and my father believed that if I wanted to, I could be President of the United States, I could be Vice President. My mother and father believed that if my brother and sister wanted to be a millionaire, they could be a millionaire. My mother and father dreamed as much as any rich guy dreams. They don't get us. They don't get who we are.

As Bob Moser, of the American Prospect, said: "This wasn’t Obama’s brand of 'class warfare,' which never actually sounds like a declaration of war. This was righteous fury. The real thing. From the gut."

Biden's right. Romney has a credibility problem. He told college students that a simple solution to the rising cost of tuition is to borrow from your parents. He made a bet with Rick Perry (who didn't accept) for $10,000. He said speaking fees of over $300,000 "wasn't much money." And he said his wife drives not one but two Cadillacs.

There's another reason why Romney "doesn't get what's at the core of all this." As the American economy has shown signs of tepid but incremental improvement, Romney has pivoted to focus on debt. The hope, I suspect, is that talk about the national debt will sound so big and scary, as it did two summers ago, that Romney will seem to be the most sensible choice.

But most people don't understand debt, and they don't want to. They understand their own (which is bad), but not the federal government's (which might be good, it depends). What they do understand is jobs. Their jobs and the jobs of the people they love. I'd bet that in the minds of most Americans, the national deficit is big and scary, and somebody ought to do something about it, but it's not as pressing or immediately felt as losing one's job, health insurance, home -- or sense of dignity.

Perhaps politics does lack even the loosest attachments to reality. That's certainly a luxury Romney and the others of the 1 percent can afford. For the rest us, though, this is the real thing. Life lived from the gut.
 

Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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