By Jarrett Renshaw
SCRANTON, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - In Joe Biden's childhood hometown of Scranton, signs of affection for the U.S. president are hard to miss.
Two streets and an expressway into the city bear his name, and personal letters from Biden that invoke the "Scranton values" of hard work and common decency that he frequently flags are proudly displayed in living rooms and offices of some supporters.
Two residents told stories about Biden making surprise calls to their moms during one of his visits. Business owners credit Biden's programs for their financial survival through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite those strong ties, interviews with about two dozen Scranton voters show many harbor deep concerns about Biden running again. Biden, 80, is already the oldest sitting U.S. president and would be 86 at the end of his second term, if re-elected.
“I worry about his age and his health," said Jenn Saunders, 57, who owns a downtown coffee shop, and voted for Biden in 2020.
The interviews provide a window into voters' attitudes toward Biden's re-election bid, set to be formally announced in coming weeks. National polls show Democrats want a younger candidate, and the lack of fervor in Scranton may be an early warning sign for the party. Biden's approval rating remains quite low but it edged up to 42% in a Reuters/Ipsos poll this month.
Many Scranton residents say they might back Biden again in 2024, albeit without much enthusiasm. They expressed frustration at the Rust Belt town's long economic slump and the apparent lack of options in 2024.
“I think it's kind of what he's supposed to do, run again, right? That's really what he’s supposed to do. Is there a president that didn't go for a second run at all? But who else is there?” Kimberly Smith, 45, a manager at the city's Glider Diner, said. “We just need someone fresh.”
With lower voting rates than many other democracies, enthusiasm plays an important role in deciding U.S. elections. An average of 57% of voting age eligible voters cast ballots in the last four presidential elections.
Biden aides say they welcome a possible rematch against Donald Trump, arguing it will help energize a base angered by the former president. However, polls show the American public doesn't feel the same way.
"The idea of a Biden-Trump rematch makes me cringe," said Donald Banks, 83, a retired teacher and Scranton native. Saunders said choosing Biden over Trump might end up being "the lesser of two evils once again."
Scranton, where European immigrants once flocked to local coal mines, has long been the foundation of Biden’s origin story, even though he left around the age 10. The region was for years dominated by Democrats, but Trump upended that dynamic with his support among white, working-class voters.
Biden won the Democratic stronghold of Lackawanna County, due in large part to Scranton, by nine points in 2020, outperforming Hillary Clinton in 2016 who won the county by under four points.
Biden often peppers speeches with references to the lessons learned in his town in northeastern Pennsylvania, now a swing state in presidential elections. Biden has visited Scranton twice as president and several times on the campaign trail.
"I am proud to fight for the Scranton values that we were raised on," Biden wrote in a 2021 letter to former mayor Jim Connors. The letter hangs in Connors' living room, along with other Biden photos and a newspaper clipping showing a 13-year-old Biden at a Scranton parade for former president Harry Truman.
Connors, 76, says the president embodies the underdog mentality embraced by working-class cities like Scranton. He says he is proud of Biden for leading the global fight against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which he visited recently.
“He went over there to help. He's from Scranton. That's what we do. They call this place the friendly city. That's not just hype,” Connors said. “That's how Joe was raised.”
He added: if Biden wants to run again, “let somebody step up and beat him.”
Few residents, though, said life has improved under Biden.
Glyn Johns, 29, is a local Black activist who had hoped having a Scranton native in the White House would illuminate the problems facing Rust Belt cities. Roughly one-in five people in Scranton are in poverty, twice the national rate, and the school district sits near the bottom of national and state rankings.
Johns says she is disappointed so far.
“I still think there should be more than street names that are changed and highways that are renamed for you. Because those highways still have potholes. People that are on Biden Street are still struggling with their businesses,” said Johns.
Black voters were credited for helping deliver the White House to Biden, but Democrats fear some Black people are growing disillusioned and souring on the idea that politics offer solutions to their problems.
Paige Cognetti, the current mayor of Scranton, says the city has flourished under Biden, even if that has sometimes gone unnoticed. She said the city and region benefited from millions of COVID-19 stimulus dollars, including paying for a new fleet of electric vehicles.
Scranton has tapped into federal funding to help boost local wages and support small businesses. Biden is also supporting a plan to build a new rail line from Scranton to New York City.
“So, when I think about President Biden, I don't just think about President Biden being our hometown son," Cognetti said. "I think about him ushering through an era of funding for the things that cities like Scranton need."
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Heather Timmons and Alistair Bell)