WASHINGTON ― Joe Biden likes to say that other people call him “Middle-Class Joe,” but there is little evidence that anyone calls him that other than Joe Biden himself.
“I know I’m called Middle-Class Joe,” Biden said at a campaign event in October. “It’s not meant to be a compliment. It means I’m not sophisticated. But I know what made this country what it is: ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”
The former vice president and possible presidential candidate has been saying some variation of this line for years. He has probably said the phrase “Middle-Class Joe” more times than everybody else combined. It has been a standard part of many Biden speeches.
“I’m referred to for the last 35 years in Washington as Middle-Class Joe,” he said in 2017. “It’s not meant as a compliment. It means I’m not sophisticated.”
“I know I’m called Middle-Class Joe, and in Washington, that’s not meant as a compliment,” Biden said in 2016. “It means you’re not sophisticated.”
“I know I’m always referred to as Middle-Class Joe,” Biden said in 2015. “In Washington, that’s not a compliment. That means, supposedly, I’m not sophisticated if I’m middle class.”
Most American politicians claim to be champions of the middle class, an amorphous term that in political rhetoric often includes the very rich. It is immodest to give oneself a flattering nickname, however.
Yet a search of news archives turns up few instances of anyone other than Biden using the moniker. (His own usage dates to at least 2009.) As for people using it derisively, a lot of journalists have put the phrase in quotation marks and noted that Biden uses the term to describe himself.
Last year, as he continued to lay the foundation of a possible 2020 candidacy, Biden outlined a middle-class policy agenda that includes making the tax code more progressive, free public universities, disallowing firms from forcing workers to sign “noncompete” agreements, more infrastructure spending and more support for rural businesses.
Biden’s ideas so far have been less ambitious than other possible Democratic candidates, who have proposed new taxes on wealth, new public health care systems and substantial new benefits for households with children ― policies that could slash poverty.
During his career as a senator, Biden also supported many policies that were favorable to banks and big corporations, such as legislation exempting soda makers from antitrust regulation and financial deregulatory measures that helped set the stage for the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession.
Biden’s special middle class bona fides come from his folksy demeanor ― he says “folks” a lot ― and his upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a former coal-mining town with a high rate of poverty. His family was indeed middle-class.
The former vice president has a sense of humor about the fact that his long career as a senator and vice president came with upper-class salaries. During the runup to the 2012 presidential campaign, Biden went off-script a couple of times. He told a crowd in Ohio he actually gets “tired of being called ‘Middle-Class Joe,’ like that somehow I’m just Joe and I don’t dream.”
And in New Hampshire, when he was stumping for President Barack Obama’s re-election, Biden said he had talked about the middle class for his entire career ― but not because he himself was middle-class.
“I don’t live like I did when I was growing up. I have a beautiful home, and you pay me a lot of money,” Biden said. “But I remember. I remember.”