By Peter Sullivan
Vice President Joe Biden gave a heartfelt and sometimes somber speech in the College’s Harris Center Tuesday, focusing on education as he sharply contrasted the Democratic Party’s vision for the future with that of Republicans.
Biden aimed much of his address at college students, who made up most of the crowd of about 700 people.
“You are destined to be the greatest generation in this country’s history,” he said. “But it really matters, it really matters, it really matters, what you inherit, and what you inherit in the very near term.”
The first quarter of the speech stressed the importance of education and the Obama administration’s vision for improving it.
“We can be the best educated country in the world, for if we are, if we are, our future is assured,” Biden said. “If we’re not, we’re going to have a real problem.”
He called for the United States to move up from its current place as 16th in the world in the percentage of the population that graduates from college, emphasizing a goal of having the highest percentage by 2020.
“Six in ten jobs in the future, in the next ten years, are going to require something beyond a high school education,” he said. “That is a reality and the rest of the world understands it. That’s why we provided, and I’m so proud of it, a $2,500 tax credit for your parents to be able to send you here and keep you here.”
The tax credit he referred to was increased from $1,800 to $2,500 per year under the administration’s 2009 stimulus bill.
Biden also touted student loan reform. A bill passed by Congressional Democrats in 2010 through the fast-track process known as reconciliation ended a system of federally-guaranteed loans issued by private banks and instead has the government issue them directly.
Some of the savings were used to increase funding for Pell grants, and Biden proudly stated that the number of students aided by the grants had increased from six million to nine million during his and President Barack Obama’s time in office.
Later in the speech, the Vice President returned to more familiar stump speech territory, hitting Republicans on budget cuts and their desire to turn Medicare into what he called “vouchercare.”
Biden made no mention of the stir caused by a leaked video released Monday by Mother Jones magazine that showed Republican nominee Mitt Romney speaking at a private fundraiser. In the video, Romney says that the 47 percent of Americans who pay no federal income tax (or 46.4 percent according to the Tax Policy Center) “are dependent upon government” and “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Biden did try to refute Republicans’ larger arguments about dependency though. “The president, Michelle, my wife Jill and I, we know something that probably a lot of your parents know, none of us would be standing where we are today were it not for college scholarships and college loans,” he said.
“They didn’t cause any of us to be dependent,” he went on to say. “It empowered us. It empowers you.”
There were relatively few interruptions for applause, as Biden spent more time explaining the details of policy than emphasizing applause lines. A long stretch on the duty Americans owe returning soldiers, during which Biden’s voice got so low he almost whispered, fixed a particularly somber mood on the crowd.
The crowd did erupt for a message of gender equality that came when Biden included in a section laying out his vision for the future that he hopes the country will be a place “where my four granddaughters have every single solitary opportunity my grandsons have.”
The event gave hundreds of Grinnellians a chance to have close encounters with the second-highest elected official in the country. After the speech, Biden seemed to revel in working the room. He shook hands, gave kisses and posed for pictures with almost every group of students pressing against the ropeline.
He ducked under a railing and waded into the middle of the cheering section behind the podium to take a group photograph.
But a few Grinnellians had a chance for even more memorable experiences. Joe Engleman ’14, Co-Chair of the Campus Democrats, introduced Biden and then sat on stage behind him with U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa).
Engleman’s speech told of his encounter with Biden at a rally in Iowa City Friday.
“When the Vice President shook my hand he said, ‘Hey, big guy,’ and I responded in the only way I could,” Engleman said. “I blurted out, ‘Come to Poweshiek County. Come to Grinnell. And today he’s here.”
Continuing the joke, Biden put his arm around Engleman when he came on stage and said, “Well, big guy, you see I take orders well. He said come to Grinnell, and I’m here.”
“Most people never get to meet them, let alone introduce them, let alone have them quote a line of your speech back at you,” Engleman said in an interview later, referring to the president or vice president.
“It was just so cool to see him, the vice president, walk up the steps,” Engleman said. “I was pretty much just frozen solid at that point and I felt like a total stiff.”
Kirsten Nelson ’15 got close enough to smell the vice president’s breath.
She said she shook Biden’s hand after the speech and thanked him for taking a stand on lgbt issues.
“He just grabbed my face, pulled my face against his face, like foreheads touching,” she said. “Our noses were like two inches apart, and our eyeballs were like three inches apart. I could smell his breath.”
She said Biden told her that he would always stand up for civil rights. “It was moderately sincere, I feel like, probably because he grabbed my face,” she said.
Emily Boydston ’13 told Biden that she had a pre-existing condition and thanked him for the Affordable Care Act.
“He looks me in the eyes and proceeds to say, ‘You’ve got another pre-existing condition: you’re beautiful,’” Boydston said.
Then he kissed her on the forehead.
“I already really, really love Joe Biden and to me this just reaffirms my love for him,” she said. “He’s just really charming and I think only he could have gotten away with doing something like that.”
Watch Bruce Braley’s introduction of Joe Engleman ’14 and Engleman’s introduction of Biden below, along with the beginning of Biden’s speech.