Biden Anchors Middle Class Lovefest
By Alec MacGillis
PHILADELPHIA -- If anyone had any doubt what purpose Joe Biden's new "Middle Class Task Force" was supposed to serve, the group's debut meeting today at the University of Pennsylvania offered at least one possibility -- as a mutual admiration society for the benefit of boosting the morale of the stressed members of Obama's new administration.
The members of the task force sat on a stage in a full auditorium for more than three hours and spent a not-insignificant portion of that time accepting praise from each other and other assembled top officials and making chummy and light-hearted in-jokes. The rest of the time was spent on the topic of the day, green jobs, as various experts expounded at length and then volleyed exceedingly soft-edged questions from the administration officials on the task force. The panel took not a single question from the auditorium, which went from full to nearly half-empty over the course of the three hours.
The bonhomie was led by Biden himself, who started things off with an inevitable Scranton reference and offered himself as the exemplar of the middle class that the task force was seeking to address, joking about how much tuition money he'd spent on his kids. "So I'm really looking forward to this Recovery act," he said of the stimulus package. "I wish to heck the three or four last presidents were doing what we're doing now. My net worth would be much better."
Biden got the mutual praise going by showering some on Sen. Arlen Specter, one of three Republicans who voted for the stimulus package. "Senator, for 36 years I can count on one hand when I've watched people cast votes from another side of aisle than the one they happen to sit on, that no one doubts costs them, but cast a vote that they truly believe was in the best interests of the country. It might not help you, my saying this, but this legislation would not have happened without you."
Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.) followed this up by praising Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for being "newly minted" and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood because he "did a wonderful job banging the gavel during the impeachment process." He returned Biden's jokes about his affection for Pennsylvania: "We adopted him -- he has been our senator for three decades...The line that gave me most confidence [in Obama's address to Congress this week] was when the president said, 'Don't mess with Joe.'"
Rap. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) singled out for praise Obama's domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, and then praised Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter for "doing a great job." Green-jobs proselytizer Van Jones followed up by praising Nutter as a "champion and a hero who is emerging as one of our strongest green mayors."
Even the policy discussions about green jobs had an air of ceremony and self-regard -- one had the sense that the discussion was being held mainly for public consumption, given that the officials present had plenty of off-stage opportunities to ask one another the questions they were volleying back and forth before the cameras. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell discussed ways to better coordinate their grant-making for renewable energy, and one couldn't help but wonder -- was this really a bureaucratic breakthrough, or would such coordination have occurred anyway?
Some Cabinet secretaries present spoke almost not at all, making one wonder whether it had been worth them to make the trip to Philly. Education Secretary Arne Duncan did his best to horn in on some discussions of green-jobs training. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack weighed in with this rather opaque observation: "I appreciate the comments of the panel especially as they relate to community gardens and the oportunites they present." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood did not speak at any length until the session was nearly complete.
But Biden was there to keep everyone on track. He repeatedly let the audience know that the public could send suggestions to the Web site www.astrongmiddleclass.gov -- which was not really necessary, given that the group was sitting in front of giant banners covered with the address.
The next meeting is on March 19. Put it on your calendars.
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