Every presidential campaign has a narrative. The 2020 election cycle is defined by President Trump and who among the 22 Democratic presidential candidates can beat him. And each individual campaign has a narrative. But when it comes to former vice president Joe Biden, there are two. His strong standing with the African American community is one. His propensity for gaffes is the other.
Sitting in an office at Clinton College, the historically black college in Rock Hill, S.C., in an interview for a special edition of my podcast “Cape Up,” I asked Biden about both, starting with the generational schism in the black community over supporting him. My Aunt Gloria is on one side. She’s the one who told me at the family barbecue this summer that “it’s going to have to be an old white person to go after an old white person, old-school against old-school.”
“Well, I hope she’s wrong,” Biden responded. “I don’t think that’s the case, but, look, what it underscores is that I found in all communities, but particularly the African American community, there’s an overwhelming concern about Trump remaining as president.” He correctly said blacks view Trump as an “existential threat to the African American community, minority communities.” Then he added, “But I also think there is a real desire to elect someone who they think understands the community and understands what makes it tick, understands the dilemmas that they face.”
Then, Biden echoed something he said during a session with a group of African American reporters earlier this week. “I think that I have demonstrated through my career that … there has never been a time I’ve ever been uncomfortable in a black community, whether it’s a black church, it’s a tough neighborhood, it’s a wealthy neighborhood … I think most, the vast majority of the community, young and old, knows where my heart is.”
The other side of the schism is represented by Rolling Stone columnist Jamil Smith, who took issue with Biden’s “comfortable” comment in a recent piece. Biden’s response? “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I speak to black communities all the time. C’mon. I invite him to come with me.”
As for the other narrative, a report by The Post’s Matt Viser and Greg Jaffe about factual issues with a story Biden often tells on the campaign trail underscored the gaffes problem for the Democratic front-runner. When I asked Biden about it, he pounded the table in his defense. “I was making the point how courageous these people are, how incredible they are, this generation of warriors, these fallen angels we’ve lost,” he said, staring me right in the eyes. “I don’t know what the problem is. What is it that I said wrong?”
Compared to Trump’s prevarications (okay, lies), Biden’s rhetorical flights of fancy seem relatively innocuous, akin to an uncle who tells the same story every year, each year more dramatic than the last. But these gaffes are feeding a narrative that he likes to make things up. They also raise questions about whether Biden is too old or perhaps isn’t even all there. I asked him about this right after he had just finished pounding the table about the courage and bravery of the man in the disputed story. How does he break this narrative and keep it from destroying his campaign?
“Well, I can only break out of it if I win,” Biden said.
Listen to the podcast to hear Biden talk more about the presidential campaign, why he thinks any of the Democratic candidates would be a better president than Trump, how would handle China and whether I’m wrong to say that Trump is a racist with a white-supremacist policy agenda.
“No,” he said.
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