- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

POLITICAL THEATER:

HARRISBURG, Pa. | It may not have been punishment for predicting that his boss’ economic stimulus plan stands a one in three chance of failure, but Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Wednesday found himself in this little town playing a backroom at the Speaker K. Leroy Irvis Office Building.

“Thank you all for coming out today,” he opened his comments to about two dozen local reporters, some of whom snapped pictures and shot movies while the vice president talked about the dire need for passage of the $789 billion bill working its way through Congress.

In closing, the folksy veep “from up the line a little bit in Scranton” delivered a message: “At the end of the day, this debate’s not about Washington, it’s about you.” The 20-some reporters looked perplexed — us? — but dutifully scribbled the quote down in their notebooks.

While President Obama is playing the big venues, traveling the country to hold town hall meetings before thousands and addressing the nation in his first prime-time White House press conference, Plain Ol’ Joe has been working way off-Broadway. He stopped by a Maryland Area Regional Commuter rail station one day, toured a crumbling bridge over the Conodoguinet Creek in North Middleton, Pa., the next.

With the Harvard-educated president talking, as he himself says, “philosophically” about the stimulus package, Joe is on the road to explain the nuts and bolts — and take a look at some, too.

The vice president’s first stop Wednesday was the Spring Road Bridge, built 80 years ago during the Great Depression. The Route 34 bridge, still open to traffic, is one of more than 6,000 Pennsylvania bridges designated as structurally deficient, just the kind that would be repaired or replaced under the stimulus package.

In a smart charcoal suit, polka-dot tie and crisp white shirt (with a razor-sharp starched collar), Mr. Biden walked across the bridge with the Pennsylvania governor, a congressman and a small cadre of reporters, giving the bridge a good-natured kick at one point. Even though the event was small by comparison to his boss’ outings, there was method to the madness: The stories, video and pictures would hit media markets statewide, from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.

In his speech, just 22 minutes, the veteran orator — fast becoming one of the administration’s top salesman of the pricey package — ticked through the positives of the Obama plan, spelling out how the state can even benefit from rising unemployment, as long as the out-of-work aid in the package goes through for those just now losing their jobs.

“One billion dollars coming into the pockets of Pennsylvanians … and that means people are going to spend that money. They’re going to create jobs, they’re going to keep the local sandwich shop open, they’re going to be able to make sure the barber shop’s still functioning,” he said for the cameras in the small press room.

Last week, the vice president, known for his regular gaffes, got into hot water with Mr. Obama when he said that “if we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, if we stand up there and we really make the tough decisions, there’s still a 30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.”

In Monday’s White House press conference, the president drew guffaws from reporters when he said: “You know, I don’t remember exactly what Joe was referring to, not surprisingly.”

Mr. Biden has been lampooned regularly on the late-night comedy shows. Just this month, “Saturday Night Live” spoofed his foot-in-mouth syndrome as an actor playing him — complete with the white-hair, swept-back comb-over — barged into an Oval Office address by Mr. Obama to say: “Look, I know $819 billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. I mean that money is going to get us to April, tops!”

On Wednesday, the Scranton boy made good called on all his usual folksy colloquialisms: “God willing and the crick don’t rise,” he said of his optimism that the bill will soon pass; “the proof’s in the pudding,” he said about how well it will work.

He eschewed the lofty rhetoric displayed by his boss, at one point telling the pack of reporters, many who cover the state legislature, just what a “conference” is. “That’s Senate-ese … meaning the House passed a bill, the Senate passed a bill and they’re going to come to final numbers in a conference.”

Still, the vice president delivered the administration’s stance again and again - the situation is dire and action is needed. While Rep. Tim Holden told the reporters that Gov. Ed Rendell was making “sure Pennsylvania gets its fair share” of the hundreds of billions soon to be doled out by the federal government, Mr. Biden explained the trickle-up effect all Americans will benefit from through the stimulus package.

“If we had the best possible roads, bridges, transit systems, sewer and water systems in the world and a modern renewable energy system, business is going to be more competitive. They’re going to stay in America, they’re going to stay in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Outside the Capitol, watching the expansive vice-presidential motorcade leave, a woman, asked what she thought of Mr. Biden’s odds that the stimulus package has a one-in-three chance of failure, said with a laugh: “I think they’re all just guessing.”

But she got serious as she walked away: “I sure hope somebody guesses right.”

— E-mail Joe Curl at jcurl@washingtontimes.com.

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