President Biden celebrates union gains during speech at Milwaukee's Laborfest, continues broadside against 'MAGA Republicans'

President Biden celebrates union gains during speech at Milwaukee's Laborfest, continues broadside against 'MAGA Republicans'

Corrinne Hess Bill Glauber Ricardo Torres - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

President Joe Biden praised unions in a speech at Milwaukee's Laborfest and used the event Monday to continue his broadside against the "MAGA Republican" wing of the GOP.  

"I'm here because of you — the middle class built America, but the unions built the middle class — that's a fact," Biden said. "Laborers are the single greatest technicians in the world. People forget, you go four, five years to school, in an apprentice, build a better product, it lasts longer, it's cheaper for the business, it's better for the country." 

Wisconsin Democratic and labor leaders, including Gov. Tony Evers and U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, welcomed Biden who visited just two months before the high-profile midterm elections in the battleground state.

Noticeably absent from the Miller Lite stage at Henry Maier Festival Park was Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is challenging incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson. Barnes participated in a Laborfest parade before Biden's arrival, according to his campaign.  

Biden thanked Milwaukee and Wisconsin elected officials, including Barnes saying, "he couldn't be here, but he's going to be your next United States senator." 

Biden then carried a political message as he said the country was at an inflection point, whether it wanted to move forward or backward, to build a future "or obsess about the past."

"Not every Republican is a MAGA Republican, not every Republican embraces that extreme ideology," Biden said, a followup to his speech five days ago in Philadelphia and referring to the acronym for Trump's campaign slogan Make America Great Again. That same speech was attacked by Republicans for condemning backers of former President Donald Trump.

"But the extreme MAGA Republicans have chosen to go backwards, full of anger, violence hate and division. But together we can and we must choose a different path."

Unlike in the Philadelphia speech, Biden didn't mention the former president by name, instead referring to "the last guy" and "Trumpies

Biden targeted Sen. Johnson saying he wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the "chopping block." 

"This guy never stops," he said, referring to Johnson.

More:Sen. Ron Johnson says Social Security 'was set up improperly' and would have been better invested in the stock market

Evers, who is in a tight race with Republican challenger Tim Michels, has pledged to support Biden if he launches a reelection campaign for a second term. 

Introducing Biden Monday, Evers called the president an important partner to states like Wisconsin. 

"Fortunately, we have a president who understands the challenges facing working families and (is) willing to work with us to find common sense solutions," Evers said.

Wisconsin Republicans Tim Michels and Ron Johnson take jabs at Biden 

Michels, appearing at Milwaukee’s lakefront ahead of the speech, said “if I had the chance to talk to him (Biden) I would talk to him about inflation and how it’s out of control. And the reason we have out-of-control inflation is because of the excess government spending that’s been going on and a failed energy policy as well.”

Michels charged that Biden and Evers “are two peas in a pod."

"They’re politicians that are in way over their heads," he said, echoing a campaign television ad. "They’ve done nothing, nothing but come up with bad policies.”

During a media call, Wisconsin Republicans slammed Biden for crime, inflation and the president's plan to cancel up to $10,000 in student debt for Americans earning less than $125,000 per year.

Johnson said Biden has "become the divider in chief."

"Not only have his policies been a disaster for hard working Wisconsinites, he continued his dishonest attacks against me. He can’t defend his record, so just like he lied about not discussing Hunter’s overseas business venture, now he falsely claims I want to cut Social Security. I want to save Social Security and Medicare," Johnson said in a statement issued after the speech that included a reference to the president's son Hunter Biden.

"The biggest threat to both programs is the massive deficit spending and growing debt that Biden and the Democrats are pushing. Wisconsinites are tired of the division and forty year high inflation, record gas prices, and rising crime that are the result of Democrat policies.”

More: U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson defends record, warns of 'fundamental transformation of America' in speech to American Legion

Paul Farrow, chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin, said the student loan forgiveness proposal puts a burden on people who didn't choose to take on debt. 

Farrow said this proposal is different than another federal loan forgiveness program, the Paycheck Protection Program, that business owners were eligible for.

More:Businesses tied to Speaker Robin Vos and other lawmakers could see taxes cut after they took PPP loans

"Those businesses that received those loans, didn't have the decision to close down, they were forced to close by the government," Farrow said. "I don't believe the government should be repaying a student loan for someone saying this is what I want to do, this is what I signed up for." 

Labor parade draws hundreds to Zeidler Union Square

Hundreds of union members and workers gathered at Zeidler Union Square to rally and march to the Summerfest grounds before Biden's arrival.

“The road to working class and immigrant justice runs through Wisconsin,” said Christine Neumann-Ortiz, president of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights activist group. “As an organization that has built the largest statewide network of Latinx and multi-racial youth voters in Wisconsin, we were critical to delivering a winning margin of victory that defeated Scott Walker in 2018 and Trump in 2020.”

We Energies lineman John Hagen of Waterford has been a union member for 35 years. He's currently part of IBEW Local 2150 union.

“I don’t need a union, but they take care of bidding for me to ensure that I have... fair pay,” Hagen said.

Hagen said being together on Labor Day with others who do similar work felt good. 

“We’re the storm chasers, we’re the ones that put the lights back on,” Hagen said. “Being here with the other folks that are doing a lot of the same things is so meaningful to me only because, again, if it's not for the infrastructure what good is this country?”

More:'What are you going to do for working people?': Wisconsin AFL-CIO president speaks on importance of labor for midterms

Laborfest in Milwaukee returns for the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic

Monday was the first time since 2014 a sitting president has attended Milwaukee's Laborfest.

Barack Obama made three appearances at Laborfest, as a presidential candidate in 2008 and then as president in 2010 and 2014. President Bill Clinton spoke at Laborfest in 1996 as he kicked off his fall re-election campaign. 

The annual festival hadn't been held since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and logistical issues in 2021.

Biden's visit to Milwaukee comes as support from Wisconsinites is low. A  mid-August Marquette University Law School poll found 40% of those surveyed approved and 55% disapprove of the job he is doing.

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