Trump and Pence try a messaging reboot on economic recovery

“On this Labor Day, it’s important to remember that in the last three years wages were rising at their fastest pace in the last decade,” Pence told workers and their families at a power cooperative near the banks of the Mississippi River.

He continued: “I encourage you to keep pressing on. Keep showing the strength and the faith and the resilience that working people have always shown in the history of this nation. Keep standing with us and we’ll keep standing with you.”

The uplifting speech was befitting of Pence, who has developed a knack for conventional campaigning in the age of Covid-19. While President Donald Trump has plowed ahead on the culture war front — stoking disproven theories about voter fraud, amplifying footage of violent riots, and warning suburban families their lives will change for the worse if Democrats win at the presidential level — Pence has traveled to working-class enclaves left devastated by the coronavirus pandemic’s economic toll. The vice president traveled to Exeter, Pa., last week and plans to maintain a rigorous campaign schedule through much of the Rust Belt between now and Election Day, according to aides.

“We believe all honest work is honorable work,” Pence told a couple of hundred workers gathered outside the Dairyland Power Cooperative on Monday. “It’s been the hard work and the strength of working Americans — people who believe in faith and patriotism and working hard — that have always and will always be the backbone of this country.”

While Pence was courting construction workers in one of Pennsylvania’s most closely watched swing counties last week, Trump excoriated House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for visiting a San Francisco hair salon that was closed to local customers due to the pandemic, fended off accusations that he disparaged American soldiers at several points during his presidency and declined to meet with the family of Jacob Blake, the latest victim of a police-involved shooting, during a trip to Kenosha, Wis.

Law enforcement officials shot Blake, a 29-year-old African American man, seven times in his back, leaving him severely wounded late last month. The episode has led to ongoing unrest in Kenosha, where some protesters have looted businesses and lit them on fire. Trump toured some of the destroyed businesses and met with law enforcement officials last week in a visit that was widely panned by local Democratic leaders.

A similar split screen contrasting Trump’s blunt “law and order” message with Pence’s empathetic overtures and cheerful tone unfolded on Monday, when the two men appeared at separate events to mark the Labor Day holiday. During Pence’s remarks in Wisconsin, the president held an afternoon news conference at the White House, where he floated October as the administration’s new target date for a coronavirus vaccine — an unlikely timeline, according to most health experts — and accused top Pentagon officials of disliking him because he is opposed to wars that reap financial benefits for the defense industry.

“They want to do nothing but fight wars so that all of those wonderful companies that make the bombs and make the planes and make everything else stay happy,” he said from the North Portico at the White House.

Pence’s attempt to reboot the administration’s recovery message comes after previous attempts this spring and summer fell flat amid mounting concerns about the novel coronavirus and conflicting containment efforts by state leaders and the Trump administration. As infection rates climbed across a handful of states in mid-June, the vice president marveled at the administration’s “remarkable” progress in addressing supply-chain issues, promoting social-distancing guidelines and facilitating new research on Covid-19 therapeutics and vaccines.

“Our greatest strength is the resilience of the American people… It’s because of their embrace of social-distancing guidelines that all 50 states have begun to reopen in a safe and responsible manner,” Pence wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed shortly before some states, including California and New York, forced certain industries to halt their reopenings or close down again as a result of new outbreaks.

In reintroducing his message of American resilience on Monday, Pence underscored the strategy he and Trump will embrace as they enter the final months before the country decides whether to hand them a second term. Rather than asking voters to judge them on their response to the pandemic, which has emerged as a weak spot for the president according to numerous polls in the past six months, Pence is on a mission to convince voters that the pre-coronavirus economy — with its record unemployment figures and stock market gains — can be restored only if Trump is reelected.

“As our economy is beginning to stand back up, as we’re putting millions of Americans back to work, you need to ask yourself, who do you trust to rebuild this economy, a career politician who presided over the slowest recovery since the Great Depression? Or a proven leader who created the greatest economy in the world?” Pence said to a crowd in Exeter, Pa., last week, drawing a contrast with Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee.

In his remarks on Monday, the vice president said the country had “gone through a time of testing” but was on the verge of a comeback “and then some.” The August jobs report showed the U.S. unemployment rate dipping below double digits, to 8.4 percent, for the first time since March. Still, wage cuts remain in place across several industries and millions of Americans who remain unemployed could see their benefits disappear in a matter of weeks without a funding boost from the administration or Congress.

Pence, however, used his Labor Day campaign stop to paint a rosy picture of the economic recovery that he and Trump claim is rapidly taking shape. “In the last four months alone, we’ve literally seen half of the Americans that lost their jobs go back to work,” he claimed.

While the Republican National Convention last month made an outsize effort to court suburban voters who’ve drifted away from the party during the course of Trump’s presidency, Pence has kept his appeals concentrated on working-class communities the president either just barely won or narrowly lost in 2016. For example, Monday’s trip to La Crosse brought the vice president to a small industrial community that Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by 9 percentage points in 2016. Recent polls show Biden with a 5-point lead over Trump in Wisconsin, a state Clinton lost four years ago, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average.

Pence’s event in the Badger State on Monday overlapped with a nearby campaign stop by his potential successor, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, whom Pence accused of putting the interests of the “radical left” ahead of blue-collar workers.

“I heard Joe Biden’s running mate is in Milwaukee today, but dairy farmers in Wisconsin deserve to know that Senator Harris is one of only 10 senators who voted against the USMCA,” Pence said, referring to the Trump administration’s renegotiated trade deal with Canada and Mexico. “She said it didn’t go far enough on climate change.”

Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, has made limited appearances outside of Delaware — Biden’s home state — since she joined the ticket last month. She was slated to meet with labor leaders and tour an electric workers’ training facility during her trip to Milwaukee on Monday.