PITTSBURGH — More than anything else, the pro-union crowd at former Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s campaign kickoff Monday cheered him as someone they believe can beat President Trump and bring back the Obama era.
The fervor inside the Teamsters union hall combined a nostalgia for President Obama with the conviction that Mr. Biden was electable and a belief that the former vice president would be a transitional figure on the way to the far-left government envisioned by party activists.
Looking up at Mr. Biden on the stage, public school teacher Sherri Suppa beamed with pleasure.
“He brings me smiles because I think of when times were better and people were civil. He and Obama were a great team. We need to get back,” said Ms. Suppa, 55, a member of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers.
As he heads out on the campaign trail, Mr. Biden is under pressure to keep Democrats’ hopes for 2020 alive.
“We have to choose hope over fear, unity over divisions and maybe most importantly truth over lies,” Mr. Biden said to cheers.
The themes of his speech often echoed Mr. Obama and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, including her line about restoring America’s “basic bargain” that hard work gets people ahead in life.
The rhetoric underscored Mr. Biden’s standing as an establishment candidate, which is the chief argument being used against him by rivals and activists pushing the party into socialism.
Still, Mr. Biden struck a chord with the party’s traditional union base.
“The country wasn’t built by Wall Street bankers, CEOs and hedge fund bankers. It was built by you,” he said.
He later said, “They are squeezing the life out of workers.”
Mr. Biden is courting union support both for the primary and the general election, when blue-collar voters in states from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin likely will decide the next president.
“He represents the labor force and the middle class,” said Bill Vrana, 55, a member of Teamsters 249 that hosted the Biden rally. “Biden can get us back on track.”
He said he was backing the former vice president because he was confident Mr. Biden could beat Mr. Trump.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Biden picked up an endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters that promised to put union muscle behind his campaign.
“Joe will bring civility and decency and enhance the political discourse that our country needs right now,” said IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger, warming up the crowd at the union hall.
He made a blunt appeal to resist the forces pulling the Democratic Party to the left.
“We can’t have a nominee that is too far left. We can’t have a nominee with high-minded ideas, maybe good ideas but no chance of winning,” he said.
In his speech, Mr. Biden checked off a few boxes on the liberal wish list, including raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and calling health care “a right, not a privilege.”
But Mr. Biden stopped short of embracing a “Medicare for All” program for government-run health care or the Green New Deal plan to fight climate change — two proposals that have become staples of the radical left.
Mr. Biden said he was running for three reasons: to fight for “the soul of America,” to rebuild the middle class and to unify the nation.
Though his message has been muddled and his fierce anti-Trump rhetoric is shared by his rivals, his assumed electability and the warm feeling he engenders among Democratic voters has helped make him a front-runner for the party’s presidential nomination.
Mr. Biden leads the crowded field of Democrats with 29% of the vote, and far-left icon Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont is a close second with 23%, according to the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls.
The rest of the candidates are in the single digits.
The long-awaited Biden bid has shaken up the race, pulling the limelight away from a new generation of lesser-known candidates who have been trying early on to capture the attention of activists and donors.
Mr. Biden sent a message to his Democratic rivals last week when he announced raising $6.3 million over the first 24 hours of his campaign — more than anyone else in the massive field.
The 76-year-old also has led most national and early primary state polls, and voters have consistently rated him in surveys as the party’s safest bet to topple Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump mocked Mr. Biden on Monday by saying the excitement for “Sleepy Joe” is driven by the “Fake News” media.
“Funny, I’m only here because of Biden & Obama. They didn’t do the job and now you have Trump, who is getting it done - big time!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
The Republican National Committee also ripped Mr. Biden’s record, saying he is “going to have a tough time explaining to Pennsylvanians why they would want to go back to the Biden-Obama economy.”
Voters in Pittsburgh, though, said they would love to go back to the future.
“Anybody who worked with Obama is No. 1 in my book,” said Bay Bennett, 45, a retired Army staff sergeant who was wearing an Obama T-shirt with the caption “Miss you.”
“I think he is going to be the one who is able to pull the more moderate voters over,” said Brandon Groves, a social worker who made the hourlong drive from West Virginia. “I am actually a registered independent. I was a Democrat, I switched to an independent because I didn’t like how far left the party is going.
“I think he is my early favorite,” he said.