February 24, 2024

Local history buff Nick Petula has crossed paths with Kennedys, Clintons and pretty much any president who has come through his home town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, for the past 60 years. But there’s one politician whose hand he’s never managed to shake, even though he is more closely tied to the city than any other: Joe Biden, the current president who spent the first 10 years of his life in the north-eastern Pennsylvania city.

“His visits have been, you know, pretty quick and pretty orchestrated,” said Petula, 76, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic complicated campaigning three years ago and made interacting with Biden all the more difficult.

The president may have built his political career in Delaware, the state he represented in the Senate for 36 years, but it is the former coal-mining boomtown of Scranton he so often invokes to build an image of hardscrabble, blue-collar origins – and the city has returned the love, with its voters overwhelmingly supporting him in the 2020 election, and the council naming two of the city’s main roads after Biden.

State of the swing states embed

Yet, even in Scranton, Biden cannot escape the problems that have plagued his presidency, which voters will be weighing as he campaigns for re-election next year in what is expected to be a rematch with Republican Donald Trump. In interviews with the Guardian, many residents of the city said they would support him once again in 2024, while acknowledging that concerns about his age and effectiveness worried them, too.

“I’ve lost a lot of the passion that I used to have,” said Petula, an independent who voted for Biden three years ago. “I’m kind of pleased the way the economy seems to be going. I think that inflation is certainly improving.” He worried, however, about Hunter Biden’s legal troubles. “All the things about his son, of course, it’s discouraging to hear that.”

Scranton has long leaned Democratic, and Biden’s supporters see him as someone who cultivated a genuine relationship with the city, even though he left when he was a child.

The ‘Electric City’ sign in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images

“We’re proud that he’s from here, and that he attributes to Scranton so much of what he’s tried to achieve, and that’s to help working-class people,” said Kevin Hayes, 45, as he hung Christmas lights a few doors down from the former Biden family home, where the then candidate signed the living room wall on the day of the 2020 election.

But it is unknown whether Pennsylvanians elsewhere will feel that affinity when they cast ballots in just shy of 11 months. Trump carried the Keystone state in 2016, while Biden won it in 2020, but both men’s margins of victory were about one percentage point. Next year, Pennsylvania will be among the handful of swing states crucial to determining who wins it all.

When he ascended to national prominence 12 years ago as Barack Obama’s running mate, Biden cast himself as a champion of both Delaware and Pennsylvania. The Obama campaign reminded the press that Biden had acquired the nickname “Pennsylvania’s third senator” during his time in Congress; at that year’s Democratic convention, Biden told the crowd: “I am here for everyone I grew up with in Scranton and Wilmington.”

Fifteen years later, Scranton remains on the tip of the president’s tongue as he begins his fourth year in the White House. “I hope you feel something that really matters – at least where I come from in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Claymont, Delaware,” he told unionized carpenters in Las Vegas earlier this month, three days before he described himself as “a Scranton boy” at a campaign reception in Philadelphia.

“We appreciate that he knows where he’s from,” Scranton’s Democratic mayor, Paige Cognetti, said in an interview. “This is the type of place where people are just trying to make it work or trying to give their families, their kids, a good life, trying to find fulfilling jobs and have a high quality of life.”

Joe Biden’s presidential motorcade passes a sign for the President Biden Expressway in Scranton on 17 August 2023.
Joe Biden’s presidential motorcade passes a sign for the President Biden Expressway in Scranton on 17 August 2023. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/AFP via Getty Images

Cognetti, who worked in the treasury department during Obama’s presidency, pointed to ways she says Biden’s policies have benefited Scranton, where manufacturing, the city’s five institutes of higher education and various white-collar employers – like those satirized in the television comedy The Office, which was set in the city – have partially replaced the coal industry that dominated a century ago.

The American Rescue Plan stimulus bill Biden signed shortly after taking office allowed the city to create programs to help lower-income people afford childcare and Scranton’s small businesses to upgrade their facades, Cognetti said. Some of the shells produced by the Scranton Army Ammunition Plant have been sent to Ukraine as part of the Biden administration’s support against Russia’s invasion.

Earlier in December, the Federal Railroad Administration took a key step in restoring the passenger train line to New York City, thanks to the $1tn infrastructure bill Congress approved on Biden’s watch.

Biden’s national public approval ratings have been in the low 40s for two years, and recent polls have found him losing to Trump in several swing states, including Pennsylvania. In November, a poll from the New York Times and Siena College found Biden trailing his predecessor by four percentage points in the state, a conclusion reached by other surveys.

There are myriad interpretations for why the president’s approval ratings have languished, including the wave of pandemic-induced price increases that hit American consumers after he took office, Biden’s failure to achieve congressional passage of big parts of his agenda, and his age.

At 81, he’s already the oldest president to serve, a record that was on the mind of art therapy major Brandon DeManincor as he walked across the campus of Marywood University, around the corner from the old Biden family residence.

Biden speaks after touring the Electric City Trolley Museum as he promotes the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and Build Back Better in Scranton on 20 October 2021.
Biden speaks after touring the Electric City Trolley Museum as he promotes the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and Build Back Better in Scranton on 20 October 2021. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

“I would prefer someone new for the Democratic party besides Biden, but that’s probably not going to happen,” said the 22-year-old. While in 2020 the president triumphed over Trump among people aged 18-29, polls have lately found young voters turning their backs on him.

DeManincor referred to the “Sleepy Joe” insult Trump deployed against Biden, saying that it wasn’t a completely off-base description for a leader he felt lacked energy.

“It seems like he’s a talking piece,” he said. “It’s not somebody you look up to.”

Restaurant worker Mike Boratyn, 30, also voted for Biden three years ago, but has not made up his mind about next year, irked by the president’s failure to relieve student debt and codify Roe v Wade. Biden’s plan to cancel some federal student loans was blocked by the supreme court’s conservative majority, though his administration is moving forward with other debt relief measures, while Democrats in Congress never had the votes during Biden’s presidency to enshrine abortion protections into federal law.

“I think Biden tries to be inspiring, but I think he was the lesser of two evils,” Boratyn said. “He doesn’t seem like he was getting as much done as he promised.”

Scranton is the seat of Lackawanna county, where Democratic presidential candidates have dominated for most of the past 100 years. But the party only has to look at the county’s neighbor Luzerne, another former coal-mining area in the Wyoming Valley, to see how fragile that consensus can be. In 2016, Trump became the first Republican to win that county in 28 years, helping propel his victory in Pennsylvania. Its voters also supported his failed re-election bid four years later, albeit by a smaller margin.

With a relatively sizable population of nearly 76,000, Scranton has many of the urban voters with whom Democrats have found success nationwide. That, combined with Biden’s hometown appeal, means Lackawanna will probably support him next year, said Ben Toll, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Luzerne county.

“I think among Democrats, they feel pride that he refers back to Scranton, that he refers back to his upbringing there and in the formative years of his life. So, that would be enough to get the average Democratic voter out to the polls in Lackawanna county,” Toll said.

The Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, which makes artillery shells for Ukraine.
The Scranton Army Ammunition Plant, which makes artillery shells for Ukraine. Photograph: Hannah Beier/Getty Images

There are plenty of people in Scranton among whom Biden’s hometown appeal does not land, and a few of them could be found on a cold Tuesday night at Diskin’s Saloon in the Minooka neighborhood.

The bar’s owner, Jessica, rattled off a list of grievances against the president: the large numbers of migrants crossing the border; the Biden administration’s aid to Ukraine, which she considered a waste of money; and the Scranton city council’s decision to change the name of downtown’s Spruce Street to Biden Street, which put a burden on businesses who had to change their signage and stationery.

“I haven’t heard a Trump supporter come out and say ‘I can’t wait to vote for Biden’ but I’ve heard a lot of Biden supporters say ‘We are in trouble,’” she said. (Jessica did not want her last name printed, saying the last time she gave a media interview she was inundated with hate mail, including a hand-scrawled note reading “IMPEACH TRUMP” that she keeps around to show off.)

As he sat beneath the Christmas lights that hung over the smoke-filled bar, the sole Democrat in the house, car salesman Mike Harrity, predicted a Biden win next year, propelled by voters upset with Republicans for their campaign to do away with abortion access.

“I think he still has it,” Harrity, 64, said of the much-debated concerns about Biden’s age. “He wasn’t as sharp as he once was, I would think, but I think of the accomplishments he made.”

Down the street, Tom Barrett, the owner of Joyce’s Cafe, said his support for the president was as much about his policies as it was about his connection to the residents of Scranton. Barrett showed off a picture of a young Biden standing with his parents, and recalls how, when he saw him on a beach in Delaware years ago, he walked over and said, “Hello, senator, I’m from Scranton.

“He came right over to me,” Barrett said. “There was always a bond there. This was where he came from.”