Joe Biden officially announced his bid for president Thursday, marking the third White House campaign of his lengthy political career but the first in which he enters as a frontrunner.
The former vice president and longtime Delaware senator joins a historically diverse field of first-time presidential candidates who reflect the party’s yearning for fresh faces and women and candidates of color — a paradox that the 76-year-old white Washington insider is hoping to reconcile through his association with a Democratic president beloved by the party base: Barack Obama.
Biden announced his intentions in a video posted at 6 a.m. on social media in which he accused President Trump of using a “moral equivalence” by failing to distinguish between white supremacists who protested at Charlottesville in 2017 and the demonstrators who opposed them in what became a violent clash that claimed a woman’s life.
“In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime,” Biden said. “I wrote at the time that we’re in a battle for the soul of this nation. Well, that’s even more true to today.”
Biden said that “history will look back, on four years of this president and all he embraces, as an aberrant moment in time. But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
For months, Biden anguished about whether to mount another White House run. He privately worried about whether his time had passed, whether he could raise the big money for a long campaign, whether the Democratic Party had shifted too far left beyond his brand of center-left politics and even if the party wanted a septuagenarian white male as a nominee.
Biden ran headlong into the dynamic before he even announced when a former Nevada Democratic assemblywoman, Lucy Flores, accused him of inappropriately touching her in an overly friendly manner. Three other Democratic women also came forward, plunging Biden’s not-yet-a-campaign into crisis mode and highlighting a generational divide in which Biden was criticized as being out of touch with the changing times.
But Biden’s belief that he’s uniquely situated to defeat President Donald Trump, as well as the encouragement from party elders and rank-and-file voters, made it impossible for him to sit out the election, even after more than 20 candidates jumped in and new progressive groups vowed to launch a Never Biden campaign.
“The primary isn’t anchored but now it becomes more centered around Biden,” said Joe Trippi, a veteran advisor of Democratic presidential campaigns. “Today, the rest of the field will position itself against Biden. Beto O’Rourke could position himself against Biden as old vs. new, others will position themselves as progressive vs. centrist, or outsider vs. establishment.”
The race, however, won’t be a clear referendum on Biden because the unstable politics of the times and the growing number — and dynamic quality — of other candidates makes it difficult to get a clear picture of the field, Trippi and others say.
One of Biden’s paths to defending his lead is to make the case that his age — he’ll be 78 in 2020 — is not a liability, but an asset that brings deep experience on the national and world stage at a time when Democrats are hungry for a win. And as top Democratic contenders drift leftward, Biden’s team hopes his record it will give him an advantage with moderate voters, who might be more of a silent plurality than social media — fueled by the loud voices progressive activists — suggests.
“In 2008, who could win wasn’t as much on people’s minds. This time, who can win and who can beat Donald Trump is Democrats’ number one criteria,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who worked on Biden’s 2008 campaign. “I really do think it’s different because of Donald Trump. Democrats have never felt the intensity that they feel right now about getting rid of someone they believe ruined the country and violates every value they have.”
But Lake says while the media might comb through Biden’s record, fellow Democratic contenders are unlikely to aim their fire at him, instead focusing resources on their own name ID and searching for a breakout moment.
“I don’t know that he starts out with a target on his back,” she said. “In a multi-candidate, crowded field, if you go after your opponents, you just send votes to somebody else.”
Biden’s entry into the race caps months of private deliberation over whether to run, shifting announcement dates that kept getting pushed off as his future opponents hired staff and leaks that claimed he was planning to pick an early running mate — Stacey Abrams, the failed Democratic nominee for governor in Georgia — to help him win. But the accounts only fed speculation that Biden felt a desperate need to shore up support in the changing party.
Biden has a slight lead or is neck-and-neck with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in most national and early state polls. And with the support of about a third or less of Democrats in those surveys, the former vice president’s support could be shaky.
However, Biden’s support is strong among older, white voters who typically make up more than half of the electorate that most often votes in Democratic primaries. And while Sanders was within just two percentage points of Biden in a recent Iowa poll, 70 percent of those queried said they saw Biden’s views on the issues “about right” while 48 percent said Sanders’ views were “too liberal.”
Biden lost his two prior races for president in 1988, after a plagiarism scandal, and in 2008 when Barack Obama captured the Democratic Party’s heart and pulled an upset win in early state Iowa, putting to rest any doubts that he was electable.
The theory of Biden’s case this time: he connects to middle class voters, is respected world wide by foreign leaders, has deep government experience and would bring a sense of normalcy and stability that voters crave in the Trump era.
“Biden’s argument is that he would offer a ballast in the storm, a seasoned leader of palpable character who would provide a clear contrast with Trump,” said David Axelrod, a former top adviser for Obama. “The political case is that Biden is particularly strong in the industrial Midwest, and states Trump won in 2016 and must win again to be reelected.”
Biden’s Rust Belt appeal was part of the reason that Obama chose him as his running mate in 2008. Back then, Biden served as an ambassador to white swing and working-class voters, and the veteran senator added a touch of gravitas to the ticket for the exciting but relatively inexperienced hope-and-change candidate.
This time, though, Obama will not be by his side: The former president has said he’ll stay neutral in the 2020 primary. However, as the former right-hand man and running mate of the popular former president, Biden has a natural constituency of supporters in the party, including African-Americans for whom the first black president is history made flesh.
That’s of particular importance in the early presidential primary state of South Carolina, where courting the African American electorate is critical to success in the first Southern primary test. Biden trounced the field in a recent poll, with 43 percent of African Americans polled saying they supported the former vice president. The next closest was Bernie Sanders at 15 percent.
Biden’s support among black voters, however, is likely to be tested in the new progressive era as his past opposition to forced busing in 1972 and his authorship of the 1994 crime bill that helped lead to a wave of mass incarceration of African-Americans are revisited.
Another potential problem for Biden as he tries to court black voters as well as women: his role as the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman handling the 1991 hearings into Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against Clarence Thomas during his successful Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
In the runup to his presidential announcement, Biden began to express more public regret about his support of the crime bill and his handling of Hill’s hearings.
Speaking at the National Action Network’s Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast in Washington in January, Biden acknowledged that “I haven’t always been right. I know we haven’t always gotten things right, but I’ve always tried” regarding criminal justice.
Biden didn’t mention, however, that he actually authored the crime bill, which set different penalties for crack vs. powder cocaine possession, triggering racial disparities in sentencing.
"It was a big mistake when it was made," Biden said, using the passive voice and blaming unnamed “experts” who told politicians like him that crack was worse and somehow fundamentally different.
Two months later, Biden spoke out about the Hill hearings he chaired in the Senate and lamented that “she paid a terrible price. She was abused through the hearing … To this day, I regret I couldn’t get her the kind of hearing she deserved.”
One of the progressive groups arrayed against Biden, the Working Families Party, said Biden “utterly failed Anita Hill when she bravely came forward to testify against” Thomas and also pointed to the crime bill.
The group’s national director, Maurice Mitchell, said the countless votes Biden cast in his 36 years in the Senate are all fair game.
"Any 2020 candidate is going to have to explain their record, and Biden’s is longer and spottier than most. He favored credit card companies over hardworking families in his bankruptcy bill,” Mitchell said. “In too many places and too many cases he has sided with those who have power over those who don’t.”
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine