"DISCONTENT over the failure of our political system is rampant throughout our citizenry," said Joseph Biden. "And bluntly, it is in this gathering of discontent that my candidacy intends to find its voice." Thus did Sen. Biden announce his candidacy yesterday in a tone that was exhortatory, indignant, emotionally intense and, in intention, anyway, inspirational.

But what does Mr. Biden intend to inspire? The Delaware Democrat didn't get much into specifics in his announcement speech, but he's done so recently in several lengthy, detailed speeches. To help poor children he would strengthen the WIC program, adjust the earned income tax credit and increase the minimum wage, for example. He is against isolationism and against SDI, against protectionism and against ignoring flagrant abuses of trade laws by others. He can lapse into aimless indignation: we should "totally refashion our education system." Fine -- except that states and school districts have been busy doing that for several years already, and Sen. Biden has contributed little to the process.

Candidate Biden has some impressive endorsements, but he also has a thin legislative record. The intensity he brings to almost every issue will strike some as contrived; others say it genuinely reflects the man. Either way it is slightly melodramatic. Mr. Biden's stump speech for four years has talked of how his generation saw its heroes assassinated; but there was no reference to the Kennedys yesterday and just one paraphrase. His generational theme now is less the adolescent "It's our turn" (Gary Hart's 1974 Senate campaign slogan) than a more parental assertion of "the obligation of this generation to care for and protect the future of our children."

A worthy (though not original) theme, but Mr. Biden has yet to bridge the gap between his apocalyptic stump speech and his modest specific proposals. Whether or not he is just, as some say, a windbag, he is attempting a difficult task: trying to create a politics of enthusiasm for a program that is mostly common-sensical and changes that are mostly marginal. This candidate who speaks the language of everyday America has made a hit with big-money-givers but has yet to score well in the polls in Iowa. The enthusiasm is there in the candidate, but the question is, can it spread?