Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

In Pittsburgh, Biden renews his pledge to oppose the sale of U.S. Steel to a Japanese firm

A man behind a podium speaks with his hands while other stand with signs behind im.
Alex Brandon
President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at United Steelworkers Headquarters, Wednesday, April 17, 2024, in Pittsburgh, Pa.

In an appearance that bore all the marks of taking place in an election year, President Joe Biden renewed his pledge to oppose the sale of U.S. Steel to a Japanese firm and pledged to defend American workers against the aggressive trade policies of China.

"U.S. Steel has been an iconic American company for more than a century. And it should remain an American company," he said to applause from the union members gathered on the fourth floor of the United Steelworker headquarters, Downtown. "That's going to happen, I promise you."

In a speech that lasted less than 20 minutes and was long on personal asides about Biden's upbringing in Pennsylvania and the loss of his son Beau, Biden said that protecting the domestic steel industry was at the heart of his economic strategy.

Biden said he first ran in 2020 to protect "the backbone of America, the middle class. And the backbone of America has a steel spine."

Biden said he would seek to triple tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminum, but while his willingness to go toe-to-toe with America's largest economic rival echoed that of Donald Trump, Biden said he is taking a more measured approach.

"I'm not looking for a fight with China, he said. "I'm looking for fair competition."

The problem, he said, is "They're not competing. They're cheating. They're cheating, and we've seen the damage here in America."

He said Trump's protectionist impulses are an overbroad response to international competition, and added that he is more optimistic about America's prospects than Republicans.

"America is rising," Biden said. "We have the best economy in the world," with rising productivity and employment. By contrast, he portrayed China as suffering from an aging population and a "xenophobic" culture that keeps people out.

Biden's appearance was billed as a White House event rather than a campaign stop, but it was hard to tell the difference at times. Biden referred repeatedly and derisively to the man he called "my predecessor," adding at one point that Trump "is busy right now" — a reference to his legal travails. Trump, he said, had "never lifted a finger to help" shore up at-risk union pension funds. (Biden allocated $36 billion in federal aid to shore those funds up in 2022.)

Meanwhile, Biden touted such accomplishments as the Inflation Reduction Act, which he called "the most significant law taken on climate change ever. ... That includes billions of dollars in investments in industries of the future, including clean American steel" that would generate fewer carbon emissions.

As he is wont to do, Biden laced his remarks with references to his childhood in Scranton, Pa. He recalled the working-class values his father instilled in him, and he bemoaned the fact that Trump reportedly called fallen military service members "suckers" and "losers." according to his former chief of staff. But Biden's remarks were warmly received by a union crowd, as did brief warm-up remarks by Rob Hutchinson, the leader of USW Local 1219 in Braddock.

Biden, he said, "has done more to lift up working people, empower union members [and] grow the middle class than any other president in history."

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey and Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato were on hand to deliver remarks as well, and a number of local Democrats and officials were in attendance. With the U.S. House of Representatives still in session, neither of the county's local Congressional representatives, Summer Lee or Chris Deluzio, was on hand for the appearance. But Biden name-dropped them both at the outset of his speech, as well as U.S. Sens."Bobby" Casey and John Fetterman, "who I want to stay on his side, no matter what."

In a statement, Deluzio hailed Biden's agenda as "a bold stand for American steel and steelworkers.

"Bad trade policies tried to strip our region for parts and ship our jobs overseas," Deluzio said in his statement. "The president's tariffs and actions today will help further supercharge our domestic steel industry — especially in regions like ours."

Bernie Hall, the Pennsylvania Director for the United Steelworkers agreed. "We're excited about what we heard," he said shortly after the speech. "It's a continuation of a very successful administration. We're seeing growth in manufacturing that we haven't seen in a long time."

It's a truism of Trump-era politics that while union leaders may embrace a Democrat, rank-and-file members are prone to go their own way. But Hall said Biden's actions "have a direct effect on their lives today, especially in the steel industry. These workers have had a hard time for so many years. [Biden] has shown them that he has their backs."

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Start your morning with today's news on Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

Not everyone was so enthusiastic. The Pennsylvania chapter of the libertarian-minded advocacy group Americans for Prosperity said Biden's China policy amounted to "another can't-miss way to make 'Bidenomics' worse."

Tariffs, it warned, "will only make life more expensive for Americans. ... It follows the same pattern as other wrong-headed 'Bidenomic' policies: more red tape, more government intervention in the economy, and more money coming out of Americans' paychecks."

Concerns about inflation have dogged Biden's administration and haunted his re-election prospects. To the extent that the cost of tariffs is passed along to consumers, they can make inflation worse. But Presidential senior advisor Gene Sperling told WESA after the speech that "this is not a random across-the-board approach that may not actually protect our workers or may just raise prices on American consumers."

Sperling added that America's performance against China has already improved on Biden's watch.

"The president has a very strong record of results from his more strategic approach," he said, noting that the trade deficit with China has declined during the administration.

White House advisors say that inflation is being driven less by goods than by the cost of services. In a call with reporters Tuesday evening, officials said the tariffs wouldn't change that dynamic, in part because they would be carefully targeted rather than broad-based.

Moreover, said one economic official speaking on background, "It is important for us to get ahead of China's new export surge. ... We're actually acting from a place of self-confidence and strength because our economy is growing and manufacturing is rebounding, thanks to all the investments the president has made. And it's important to safeguard and shield those investments from unfair competition from abroad."

"It has nothing to do with elections," the official added.

But while Biden's stop in Pittsburgh was an official White House visit, rather than a campaign event, there were obvious political overtones.

Donald Trump has made a pugnacious approach to foreign trade, and vocal support for American manufacturing has been a cornerstone of his political career. But Biden's appearance at the headquarters of the United Steelworkers, whose leadership has already endorsed him, placed him on friendly ground — and provided a marked contrast with Trump, who has been in a New York City courtroom this week.

And a Biden Administration fact sheet none-too-subtly questions whether that emphasis has translated into real gains for workers.

"President Biden is making historic investments in American steel and manufacturing that are a sharp contrast with the previous administration," the fact sheet asserts. "While the previous administration failed to deliver an infrastructure bill, President Biden’s spurring hundreds of billions of dollars in private sector manufacturing and clean energy investments."

Those investments, it says, include investments in greener steelmaking in Ohio and Pennsylvania — moves the administration says "will support the economic comeback of steel communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and the South and Midwest, so the U.S. Steel industry can remain competitive as the global leader in low-carbon iron and steel products."

Biden's travel itinerary this week, meanwhile, suggests the key role Pennsylvania will play in determining the outcome of this year's presidential election. His stop in Pittsburgh is his second visit to the state in so many days: On Tuesday, he made a speech about tax policy in Scranton, and he is set to visit Philadelphia tomorrow.

The United Steelworkers union, whose employees work at the company's Pittsburgh-area facilities, has opposed the proposed sale of U.S. Steel to Japan-based Nippon Steel, preferring a proposed purchase by Cleveland Cliffs.

Biden had already signaled his opposition to that deal, which has been widely opposed in Washington. U.S. Steel shareholders have overwhelmingly approved the deal, which could be blocked after a review by the federal Committee of Foreign Investment in the United States.

And Biden is also taking up a request by the USW and other unions to review China's efforts to enlarge its shipbuilding operations.

Julia Fraser contributed to this story.

This story is developing and will be updated.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.