Joe Biden speaks to voters last month at the Community Oven in Hampton, N.H. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The Post reports on the latest hullabaloo over comments made by former vice president Joe Biden:

Biden’s remarks, which came at a fundraiser Tuesday night in which he said one segregationist senator “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’ ” seemed intended to highlight a central argument of his presidential candidacy: that he knows how to bring unity to a polarized nation.

Instead, they prompted another controversy for Biden’s campaign — and the sharpest attacks yet from his rivals on matters of race that are central to his bid and important to black voters who are seen as a crucial force in deciding the Democratic nomination battle. ...

“I am trying to figure out if I am more outraged or simply disappointed,” said Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic strategist who became the first African American woman to run a presidential campaign when she managed Al Gore’s 2000 White House bid. “He should apologize.”

Unsurprisingly, two African American candidates, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), expressed extreme discomfort with his warm and fuzzy words for bitter segregationists. Booker also demanded an apology. It went downhill from there:

“They know better,” [Biden] told reporters as he went to a fundraiser. “Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body; I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”

Booker, during an interview Wednesday night on CNN, said Biden calling on him to apologize was “really problematic” and that “I don’t understand why he needs this lesson” about racial sensitivity.

“The fact that he has said something that an African American man could find very offensive and then to turn around and say, you know, ‘I’m not a racist, you should apologize to me’ . . . is so insulting and so missing the larger point that he should not have to have explained to him,” Booker said. “He knows better. And at a time when Donald Trump never apologizes for anything . . . I know Joe Biden. He’s better than this.”

And so here we are, just a couple of weeks after Biden’s stumble on the Hyde Amendment, back to asking the same questions: Is Biden out of step with the sensibility of his party and 2019 media coverage? Does he lack discipline? I’d suggest that the answers are “somewhat” and “yes,” respectively.

Few Democrats think that Biden lacks concern for women’s rights or racial injustice. And yet, his stubborn refusal to apologize for anything rankles some Democrats and suggests that even when caught saying something off-putting, Biden doesn’t understand how he comes across.

In other words, these incidents suggest that Biden’s biggest problem is neither prejudice nor lack of discipline. Rather, Biden’s greatest liability might be his stubbornness — the sort of refusal to change late in life that comes after years of success doing it your way.

Apparently, Biden was told to stop invoking the names of dead segregationists. (“As seemingly random as it was for Biden to reference Sen. James O. Eastland, a long-ago deceased segregationist senator from his own party, some in Biden’s campaign had heard him discuss this relationship before — and warned him against mentioning it in public.”) He ignored entirely sound advice. And that’s a problem.

Biden certainly was a successful senator and able vice president, but he was — as we saw in two tries — not a stellar presidential candidate. To make matters worse, he has not been on the ballot since 2012 — and seeks the comfort of loyal old friends who might be unwilling, when necessary, to deliver some tough love and candid criticism.

To navigate through a thicket of competitors and then beat President Trump, Biden will need to start listening to savvy advisers who are willing to level with him. In some campaigns, the person best equipped to play the role of frank confidant is the spouse. In others, it is a longtime peer — or a newcomer to the team who was selected specifically because his or her instincts and judgment are impeccable.

Biden benefits from a huge reservoir of affection from voters and Democratic officials. It is early in the campaign, when many still aren’t paying attention. However, voters’ indulgence is not unlimited. In a field with 20-plus alternatives and a premium on having the sharpest, most adept nominee to tackle Trump, Biden needs to stop making the “too stubborn to know when he’s totally out of step” errors. And he had better figure out how to respond in next week’s debate without coming across as belligerent or clueless. He is going to be asked about these incidents, and he had better not come back with a “No, you apologize to me” retort.

Biden might be able to stumble through the primaries without changing a thing. However, Democrats should not imagine that they can beat Trump without a nimble, shrewd nominee who can make Trump look clueless. That means Biden had better refine his game — and find a coach whose advice he will take to heart.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Joe Biden is badly undermining his ability to challenge Trump

Helaine Olen: Biden’s remarks to donors accidentally highlighted an important truth

Elizabeth Bruenig: Why Biden can’t take us back to normal

Helaine Olen: Can Joe Biden’s nostalgia act work?

Jennifer Rubin: The perils and privileges of being Joe Biden