President Joe Biden in Las Vegas on Friday heralded his efforts to secure funding for the much-anticipated commuter rail project from Southern Nevada to Southern California, again emphasizing his administration’s economic policies less than one year out from the 2024 election.

Biden — who met with UNLV students and administrators still reeling from a mass shooting on campus Wednesday — focused his speech on the economy, the same approach he’s taken during his campaign. He particularly highlighted the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that helped provide funds for the rail project and his efforts to support unions. Still, most Americans remain unhappy with Biden’s handling of the economy despite favorable job numbers and easing inflation, while other Democrats on the ballot have been more hesitant to lean into the economy.

Inside a sprawling carpenter’s union training facility in central Las Vegas, Biden stood on a custom wooden stage emblazoned with “UNION STRONG.” To his left, two dozen union carpenters watched from above, lining a training scaffold; to his right, hundreds of attendees waited for hours to catch a glimpse of the president. 

Biden’s appearance was meant to highlight the project that had for decades been a boondoggle, a long-promised, never-realized train that could supplant the often congested hours-long drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.  

“Harry Reid, I told you 35 years ago I’d get this sucker done,” Biden said. “We’re getting it done.” 

Biden flew into Vegas on Friday afternoon — en route to a fundraiser in Los Angeles — to tout more than $6 billion in federal investments for new high-speed rail projects, namely the $3 billion for the $12 billion Brightline West project aiming to connect Las Vegas to Rancho Cucamonga, outside Los Angeles, with a two-hour transit time (The remainder of the projected cost will be privately financed). Another $3 billion will go toward funding part of a new rail line in California’s Central Valley that could eventually link Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It’s a project lauded by the state’s congressional delegation, whose five Democrats — three U.S. House members and both senators — opened Friday’s event. 

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV) called the money “transformational.” Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) cast it as “once-in-a-lifetime,” the culmination of lobbying efforts that stretched back to the 1990s. Even Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo was on the guest list, waiting in line to meet Biden after Air Force One landed. 

President Joe Biden speaks during an event at the Carpenter’s International Training Center in Las Vegas on Friday, December 8, 2023. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

But Biden also came to a city again shaken by gun violence, arriving two days after a gunman killed three UNLV faculty members and seriously wounded another in a shooting on campus. Biden spoke just 5 miles away from the scene.

Ahead of his remarks, the president met with UNLV administrators, students and families. The state’s congressional Democrats also gave their condolences to UNLV, as well as to the families of two state troopers killed in a hit-and-run last week. 

Biden called on Congress to “step up,” calling for legislation to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, as well as national red flag laws that allow police or family members to petition a court to temporarily take away someone’s firearms if they are believed to be a threat to themselves or others.

“Over 600 mass shootings in America this year alone, plus daily acts of gun violence that don’t even make the national news,” Biden said. “This is not normal, and we can never let it become normal.”

But any policy fallout after the shooting has, so far, remained muted. 

Clark County Sheriff Kevin McMahill told reporters this week that the shooter obtained the handgun used in the shooting legally, and Nevada law already largely bans the possession of weapons on college and university campuses.

On Thursday, Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) referenced the shooting in a social media post that also criticized a maneuver by Senate Republicans to block legislation instituting an assault weapons ban and universal background checks (Nevada lawmakers expanded background checks for private gun sales in 2019). 

“Enough is enough,” Rosen wrote. “We need common sense gun reform.”

Whither Bidenomics? 

For months, Biden’s campaign has sought to capitalize on economic momentum, in large part by seizing on the message of “Bidenomics” — a catch-all portmanteau that the campaign hoped would tie together high jobs numbers, falling unemployment and easing inflation.

But rank-and-file Democrats have soured on the branding. Horsford, head of the powerful Congressional Black Caucus, told Politico in September that the messaging erroneously centers the economy around Biden, rather than voters. 

On Friday, “Bidenomics” was mentioned just once by the president, as he focused on union jobs — Biden was greeted at the airport by members of the powerful Culinary Workers Union — the latest economic numbers and investments in rail expansion. He also criticized former President Donald Trump and railed against billionaires and the nation’s largest corporations.

“The American people are tired of being played for suckers,” Biden said.

President Joe Biden speaks during an event at the Carpenter’s International Training Center in Las Vegas on Friday, December 8, 2023. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

But more broadly, Biden has yet to see a shift in voter sentiment, even as economic indicators have continued to point toward a potential “soft landing” from last year’s inflation surge. A CNN poll conducted in November found two-thirds of voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the economy. A New York Times/Siena poll last month also showed 59 percent of Nevada voters rating economic conditions as poor.

Ahead of his visit, Biden touted the latest jobs report on Friday — another 199,000 jobs added in November, dropping unemployment nationwide to 3.7 percent. Updated state-by-state unemployment rates were not yet available Friday, though Nevada maintained the nation’s highest unemployment rate in October at 5.4 percent. 

On Friday, the Brightline West announcement became a conduit for all of the above. Biden touted 35,000 jobs expected to be created through the project, among them 10,000 union jobs.

“America’s had the strongest growth and now has the lowest inflation of any major economy in the world,” Biden said. “But there’s more to do. We know that prices are still too high for too many things.”

Swirling around the economic projections are the looming political consequences, both for Biden and for the top-of-the-ticket races. 

In 2022, Biden’s underwater approval ratings — stymied in large part by souring economic concerns over surging inflation — made the president persona non grata in competitive elections nationwide, among them Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s re-election tilt. Just before the 2022 election, Cortez Masto joined former president Barack Obama for a get-out-the-vote rally, rather than Biden. 

Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) speaks during an event at the Carpenter’s International Training Center in Las Vegas on Friday, December 8, 2023. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

But ahead of Sen. Jacky Rosen’s re-election campaign in 2024, the senator rode with Biden on Air Force One en route to his Las Vegas speech. She (alongside the other delegation members) credited Biden and his cabinet members for securing the high-speed rail funding, calling it “historic.”

“President Biden’s infrastructure law made it possible,” Rosen said. 

But the issue has proven fodder for her potential Republican opponents. That includes leading Republican Senate hopeful Sam Brown, whose campaign cast the federal grant as a “handout” to a “private equity billionaire.” 

Friday’s visit marked Biden’s second to Las Vegas this year, following a speech in March where he trumpeted the prescription drug pricing provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act. He is next set to travel to Los Angeles late Friday as part of his two-state West Coast swing, where he will hold a high-priced Hollywood fundraiser.

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