President Trump visited Joseph R. Biden’s birthplace in Pennsylvania on Thursday night for his first town hall meeting of the election year and criticized the Democratic front-runner for leaving the country in a “mess” under former President Barack Obama on everything from trade to military readiness.
Speaking to a crowd in Scranton that chanted “four more years” during commercial breaks, Mr. Trump said Mr. Biden showed poor judgment in pushing for the NAFTA trade deal while he served in the Senate, and blamed the Obama administration for failing either to engage with North Korea as it developed nuclear weapons or to defeat the Islamic State in the Middle East.
“The country was a mess,” Mr. Trump said. “The country, when I took it over, was in very bad shape. The military was depleted. We were in wars all over the place.” Mr. Trump said in a moment of introspection in which he noted that he misses some of the personal freedom he enjoyed before his inauguration.
“This is not a free life,” he said. “But I love what we’re doing because I feel that we’re accomplishing more than anybody’s ever. … I’m feeling we’re saving this country. This country was going wrong.”
The event hosted by Fox News took place in the hometown of Mr. Biden, whose family moved to Delaware when he was 10 years old. Mr. Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes in 2016 and needs to win there again, although the latest average of polls at Real Clear Politics shows him trailing both Mr. Biden and Sen. Bernard Sanders in the state by 3 percentage points.
Asked whether he prefers Mr. Biden or Mr. Sanders as his opponent in November, the president said he had been preparing for the Vermont socialist who won early primary states.
“I was all set to take on Bernie,” the president said. “Communist — I was all set. And then we have this crazy thing that happened on [Super] Tuesday, which [Mr. Biden] thought was Thursday. So all of a sudden it’s a whole different deal, two very different people. I think in a certain way, Bernie would be tougher. I think it’s going to be very hard for him to come back.”
Asked about healing political divisions in the country, Mr. Trump replied, “I really believe we’re going to win this next election, and when we do, the other side’s going to say ‘That’s it, we have to get along.’ It’s going to come together, and it’s going to be sooner than you think.”
On the same day as the town hall event, a political action committee that supports Democratic candidates aired a new ad on Fox News in Pennsylvania featuring a veteran who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and no longer supports him. The American Bridge PAC is spending $10 million on ads in swing states to dampen Mr. Trump’s appeal among white, working-class voters.
Mr. Trump said in response to a question about the national debt that he will try to cut spending more in a second term, including entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare.
“We’ll be cutting, but we’re also going to have growth like never before,” he said.
The president showed a more reflective side while taking questions from audience members. He acknowledged that his only real conversation with Mr. Obama came in the Oval Office, on the day after he won the election in 2016 and visited the White House to talk about the transition.
“It was probably our only meeting. That was enough for me,” he said.
Mr. Trump said he did speak to Mr. Obama once more briefly, at the 2018 funeral of former President George H.W. Bush.
“I sat next to him and I said hello. And then I said goodbye,” Mr. Trump said to laughter. “That’s about it. … I didn’t like the job that he and Biden did. I didn’t like the position they put us in. I didn’t like what he did to our military.”
He addressed the coronavirus at length, urging people not to overreact but also acknowledging the outbreak could hurt the U.S. economy in his reelection campaign year.
“Everybody has to be calm,” the president said. “We have plans for every single possibility. We hope it doesn’t last too long.”
He noted that the Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered another steep decline Thursday and said of the outbreak, “It certainly might have an impact” on the economy. But “it’s going to be fine,” Mr. Trump said.
He downplayed his comments earlier in the week blaming Mr. Obama for proposed regulations that he said slowed the government’s ability to get testing kits to the public.
“I don’t blame anybody,” the president said. “They made some decisions that were not good decisions. We undid some of the regulations that were made. The testing, we did it as soon as we found out it was a problem. Some bad decisions were made, and we corrected those decisions.”
The famously germophobic president joked about the caution against shaking hands and spreading the virus.
“If there was ever a time you could convince people not to shake hands, this could be it,” he said.
While acknowledging that it presents “a little bit of a problem” for politicians, he said it hasn’t stopped him from shaking hands with supporters. He said there’s “no nice way” to decline to shake someone’s hand as president.
“You can’t be a politician and not shake hands,” he said. “The bottom line is, I shake anybody’s hand now. They’re people that I love, that I want to take care of.”
Asked about North Korea, he said Kim Jong-un “did not want to talk to” Mr. Obama.
“Me, he wanted to talk to,” he said. “We have a very good relationship. I gave nothing. The sanctions are on. I cannot guarantee anything, but for three years we’ve spent nothing. And we’re not in a war with North Korea, which is not bad.”
Asked about a tentative peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Mr. Trump drew sustained applause when he spoke of the need to bring home U.S. troops after 19 years of war.
“We have to get our people back home, it’s not fair,” he said. “We don’t want to stay there for another 20 years.”