ST. CLOUD - At times, it seemed like an old-fashioned pork barrel festival.
When Vice President Joe Biden came to town Thursday, his aim was to paint in broad brush strokes how much the federal stimulus package would help middle-class Americans.
But some of the 10 Minnesotans who posed questions to Biden during his 90-minute town hall meeting quickly got down to business.
One man wanted to know whether any of the $787 billion in stimulus money could be used to extend the Northstar commuter rail line from Big Lake to St. Cloud.
Biden, noting that "I'm kind of a nut on rail," said at first that such an extension is in the hands of local communities, only to be interrupted by Sen. Amy Klobuchar: "Mr. Vice President, they want the rail!"
"Then we'll get you the money to build the rail," Biden said to loud cheers.
Earlier, when Apple Valley Mayor Mary Hamann-Roland asked whetehr stimulus cash could help her city buy new buses, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood replied: "Tomorrow, you'll have a phone call from folks at DOT to find out how we can make this happen. We'll be in touch."
Wearing his hat as the Obama administration's cheerleader-in-chief for the middle class, Biden brought Klobuchar, LaHood and three other Cabinet secretaries to a bus manufacturing plant that allowed him to tout the administration's plans for job creation while promoting green energy.
"We're here to listen and have our eyes open -- we're here to hear," Biden told about 400 people at the New Flyer of America Co. plant. The meeting was the second in a series being held by the White House task force on the middle class that Biden heads.
The vice president defended the administration's aggressive push on the stimulus package. "Things were a lot worse than anyone expected in this economy," he said. "We need a very long ladder to get ourselves out of a very deep hole."
He also said the work of the task force will provide a booster for middle-income families as the economy "comes roaring out of this recession."
He took an indirect swipe at the economic legacy of the Bush administration, saying that while productivity of American workers increased by 20 percent during the past eight years, "you didn't get anywhere near that 20 percent increase. From now on, you folks are going to share in the expansion."
"We'll measure our success, in these four or eight years, by one thing: Whether or not we can raise the standard of living for middle-class people. We've got to get this nation growing again."
During the meeting, the task force released a report that says jobs created by the stimulus would lower the nation's unemployment rate by 2 percentage points, which would raise middle-class incomes by 2.3 percent. Tax benefits included in the measure could also add $2,000 to after-tax family income, the report said.
A 'success story'
The White House has described New Flyer of America as "a leader in transit innovation and low-emission, alternative fueled vehicles."
Biden praised New Flyer and pointed to the fact that $8 billion will be available to local governments to buy new mass transit vehicles. "We're standing here today under the roof of an American success story," he said. "There's a great opportunity here in the recovery act to provide help to local governments to buy the buses you make. We're going to help them."
Not incidentally, Winnipeg-based New Flyer also is adding jobs at the plant at a time when most of the nation's manufacturers are shedding them.
Faced with a two-year backlog of orders for buses, the company has added more than 90 jobs in the past year, bringing the plant's total employment to 650.
Biden fielded questions on topics ranging from higher education to veterans' benefits.
Among those attending was a man who used to hold Biden's job, former Vice President Walter Mondale. The two met privately after the gathering.
As people streamed out of the meeting, several had high praise for Biden. "It made me feel hopeful and it showed the depth of the administration's commitment to rebuild the middle class," said Diane O'Brien, an AFL-CIO official from the Twin Cities.
New Flyer employee Loren Goenner said Biden spooled out "a lot of neat ideas, but what I didn't hear is how we're going to pay for it all. To do what he wants, it's going to take a lot of money."
Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184