Biden confident in Pentagon’s Austin despite judgment lapse

By Nandita Bose and Trevor Hunnicutt

EMMAUS, Pennsylvania (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden said on Friday that he has confidence in Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin despite what Biden agreed was a lapse in judgment by the Pentagon chief over his secret hospitalization.

Biden spoke to reporters in Pennsylvania, a hotly contested state in the 2024 election, as he campaigns on reviving faded manufacturing hubs.

Austin has been in a hospital receiving treatment for prostrate cancer since the beginning of the year. His failure to tell Biden he was hospitalized drew criticism from lawmakers and caught the White House by surprise. Biden has stood by Austin despite calls for the Pentagon chief to resign.

Asked if he had confidence in the defense chief, Biden, in his first public comments on the issue, said: “I do.” Asked if he considered Austin’s failure to disclose his whereabouts a lapse in judgment, Biden said “Yes.”

Biden’s focus of the trip, which included visits to a handful of small businesses in the onetime steel and manufacturing haven of the Lehigh Valley, was to illustrate his case that middle-class entrepreneurs and workers are thriving, inflation is waning and that the 81-year-old Democrat deserves a second term in office.

The president stopped by Emmaus Run Inn, which sells shoes and athletic gear, and jokingly asked the owner when he planned to open a store in Biden’s home state of Delaware. He quipped that the owner should give accompanying reporters a pair of running shoes so they could take off.

He also made stops at a cycling store and a coffee shop.

“They’re feeling much better about how the economy is doing. What we haven’t done is letting them know exactly who got it changed,” Biden told reporters at the end of his visit. “If you look at the consumer confidence measures, they’re way up. Look at it across the board. Everybody’s doing better and they believe it, they know it and they’re just beginning to sink in.”

Heavy manufacturing in what has been dubbed the Rust Belt began to ebb in the 1970s, hollowing out once-thriving American cities as rising costs and global trade drove business elsewhere. Today, unemployment in the Pennsylvania city of Allentown stands at around 3.9%, near 20-year lows.

Biden is aiming bread-and-butter arguments about falling consumer inflation and low unemployment at the plurality of voters who say that the economy is their top concern. He is pairing those with the case that Republican Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are a threat to U.S. democracy, something he highlighted in a trip to Pennsylvania a week ago.

Biden has struggled to make either message stick with voters. Polls show Biden in a very close race with Trump as many Americans appear to be unenthusiastic about their choices.

Biden aides see Pennsylvania, home to Biden’s Scranton birthplace, as a must-win state. He won in 2020 with 50.01% of the vote. In 2016, Trump won Pennsylvania with 48.58% of the vote.

Biden’s political aides are in general-election mode, hoping to woo swing-state voters even as Trump’s focus remains on the primary contest in Iowa, which is holding its Republican caucus on Monday although the state is not expected to be very closely contested in the November election.

Trump, president from 2017 to 2021 and leading the field for the Republican nomination, has made inflation under the Biden administration a key part of his pitch for re-election.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Trevor Hunnicutt; additional reporting by Eric Beech; Writing by Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons, Cynthia Osterman, Alistair Bell and Leslie Adler)