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Biden joins UAW picket line in Michigan

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today in Michigan, President Biden grabbed a bullhorn and joined autoworkers on strike outside a General Motors facility. He told them they should get a raise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You deserve what you've earned, and you've earned a hell of a lot more than you get paid now. Thank you very much.

CHANG: This is the first time, at least in modern history, that a sitting U.S. president has walked a picket line. And NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now to talk about everything. Hey, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK. So what was the scene like? Tell us more about what Biden said.

KHALID: You know, the president was trying to show that he's a union guy and that he understands the plight of union autoworkers and what they're going through right now with this strike. He put on a black UAW baseball cap before he stood up in front of the crowd. And I will say, Ailsa, he only spoke for a few minutes, but his central message was that the auto companies are doing well, that they are doing far better than they were during the Great Recession in 2008, when these workers sacrificed a lot to keep the companies afloat. And since the companies, he said, are doing better financially, the workers ought to be doing a lot better, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: You deserve the significant raise you need and other benefits.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let's get it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

BIDEN: Let's get back what we lost, OK?

KHALID: You know, Ailsa, he was there to show solidarity with the workers. But the White House has not been very clear on whether Biden supports, you know, the specific financial demands that workers are seeking.

CHANG: Well, I'm curious. I mean, given that no president is known to have done this, what went into this decision to have Biden go to Michigan and stand with these workers?

KHALID: Well, Biden is a union man. I will say he has been no stranger to picket lines over the course of his political career. He even joined one during the 2020 campaign. But I will say the job of a president is fundamentally different than a senator or a political candidate. You know, the president has to also work with auto execs, and Biden has had to as well. You know, so I do think that this has been a challenge in terms of figuring out exactly how to navigate the striking situation. You know, there were also some awkward moments between the UAW and the White House when this strike began. Biden initially said that he was sending two high-ranking administration officials to Michigan to help. And then you heard the UAW publicly downplay any role that the White House could have in brokering a deal. Those administration officials ultimately stayed back in Washington. They did not go to Michigan. And then on Friday, you heard the UAW publicly invite President Biden to join them on the picket line. And the White House says it took up the invitation. So that's kind of the backstory of how this all happened.

But, Ailsa, I will say it's also hard to ignore the politics of this moment and the context in which this is all happening. Biden's trip came about after the former president and the current Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, announced that he would skip the GOP presidential debate and instead go to Michigan to rally autoworkers. And Democrats were nervous that Biden would potentially make himself vulnerable by letting Trump take up all the oxygen on this issue.

CHANG: Yeah, let's talk more about that. How unusual is it that a Republican presidential candidate is making this appeal to autoworkers?

KHALID: It is highly unusual. And, frankly, if Trump was not making this pro-worker pitch, I'm not sure that a Democratic politician like Biden could have the political will room to join a picket line. You know, the other thing, Ailsa, is that the cultural conversation in the country has fundamentally shifted. Unions are more popular with the public than they have been in decades. You see that in political opinion - you know, public opinion polling. And Trump is trying to step into this political moment. He is going to be going there to Michigan tomorrow, notably to a non-union auto supply shop. So I will say, you know, he's been hammering Biden over his policies to expand electric vehicles. That is something that some autoworkers are concerned about, too. But the immediate issue is not electric vehicles. It is a union contract.

CHANG: That is NPR's Asma Khalid. Thank you so much, Asma.

KHALID: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.