By Trevor Hunnicutt and Jeff Mason
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Monday took shots at his likely 2024 rival, Donald Trump, in a Labor Day speech aimed at shoring up support in Pennsylvania, a state he needs to win next year to retain the White House.
A self-described champion of labor unions, Biden addressed union workers in Philadelphia as he sought to explain his economic policies to a public worried about the economy, despite easing inflation and low unemployment levels.
"It wasn't that long ago we were losing jobs in this country," Biden said ahead of a parade marking the U.S. Labor Day holiday. "In fact, the guy who held this job before me was just one of two presidents in history who left office with fewer jobs in America than when he got elected."
U.S. unemployment fell after Trump took office as president in January 2017, and the jobs market saw robust growth during much of his administration.
But unemployment rose sharply toward the end of Trump's term in a pandemic-driven economic downturn. Since January 2021, job growth has averaged 436,000 per month and now the U.S. is 4 million jobs above the pre-pandemic peak.
Trump spokesperson Steven Cheung said in a statement that Biden was “the destroyer of American jobs and continues to fuel runaway inflation with reckless, big government spending” and that Trump had produced a “booming economic recovery” while in office.
Biden earlier in the day weighed in on the tensions between the United Auto Workers union and the Detroit Three automakers, telling reporters he thought it was unlikely the UAW would strike when its current contract expires on Sept. 15.
That drew a response from union leadership, after the National Labor Relations board said on Friday it would investigate UAW claims that General Motors and Chrysler parent Stellantis were not bargaining in good faith, assertions that the automakers deny.
"I appreciate the president's optimism and I also hope that the Big Three will come to their senses and start bargaining in good faith, but we are ready to do what is necessary come Sept. 15 if they don't," UAW President Shawn Fain said in a statement.
Economic issues are likely to play a critical role in the 2024 presidential race, a likely rematch between Biden, a Democrat, and Republican former President Trump.
Rebuilding crumbling infrastructure has been a part of Biden's pitch to voters, with a $1 trillion infrastructure law pumping money into projects built with union labor.
Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that are seen as politically competitive and likely to determine who wins the White House in 2024. The others most competitive states are Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll last month showed that the economy, unemployment and jobs remained Americans' top concern. A full 60% of Americans, including one in three Democrats, said they disapproved of Biden's handling of inflation, according to the poll.
The Fed's preferred inflation gauge has moved down to 3.3%, from its peak of 7% last summer. Although the decline was a "welcome development," Fed Chair Jerome Powell said late last month, inflation "remains too high" and interest rates may need to move higher.
Republicans and some economists say Democratic policies helped spark the rise in prices, making Americans pay more for rent, groceries and gasoline under Biden's watch. Economists say inflation was also stoked by the lifting of COVID-era restrictions and revival of business activity that followed.
(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Philadelphia and Jeff Mason in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk, Ismail Shakil and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Scott Malone, Tomasz Janowski and Cynthia Osterman)