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Joe Biden just turned Donald Trump’s most famous catchphrase against him

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The core of Vice President Joe Biden’s case against Donald Trump was simple. Everything you need to know about Trump, he said, you knew long before Trump ever started campaigning.

“His lack of empathy and compassion can be summed up in that phrase he is most proud of making famous: ‘You're fired,’” Biden said. “Think about everything you learned as a child. No matter where you were raised, how can there be pleasure in saying, ‘You're fired’?”

Biden was doing what has been his job since President Obama added him to the ticket in 2008: trying to prove to blue-collar white Americans that the Democrats still speak their language. Those voters were Trump’s base early in the primaries, and Trump is trying to reach them in the general election — they’re his best hope for winning swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. The stakes are high.

But Biden, by now, is a virtuoso at playing variations on this theme. He went on to call Trump’s professed concern for the middle class “a bunch of malarkey” and to make an overt appeal to voters with backgrounds like his own:

If you live in the neighborhoods like the ones Jill and I grew up in, if you worry about your job and getting a decent pay, if you worry about your children's education, if you are taking care of an elderly parent, then there is only one person in this election who will help you, only one person in this race who will be there, who has always been there for you, and that is Hillary Clinton's life story.

And, perhaps equally importantly, Biden made a version of the “America is already great” argument that explicitly catered to the self-image of Americans who work in manufacturing jobs, join the military, and so forth — which includes white voters as well as people of color:

We have the finest fighting force in the world. Not only do we have the largest economy in the world, we have the strongest economy in the world. We have the most productive workers in the world. And given a fair shot, given a fair chance, Americans have never, ever, ever, ever, ever let the country down. Never!

The first two nights of the convention featured speakers who argued that America was great in part because of the growing inclusivity toward people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities. But to white working-class voters, it might feel like those gains are coming at their expense — the “economic anxiety” that is purportedly behind so much of Trump’s rise.

Biden was trying the white working class that that’s not true — that they were the people helping make America great. And if they are worried about their economic status, Biden was basically asking, is the guy who loves to say “you’re fired” really the guy they trust to fix it?