PHILADELPHIA — Former vice president Joe Biden offered himself to voters as a leader uniquely positioned to unify a divided country during a rally Saturday afternoon. The event, the largest of his nascent campaign, was intended to bookend the opening phase of his White House bid.
He added a note of optimism: “In this great experiment of equality and opportunity and decency, we haven’t lived up — but we’ve never given up on it.”
Biden walked onstage with his signature swagger, wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses that he shed, along with a sport coat, before speaking to an audience of about 6,000, according to an estimate from a security firm hired by the campaign.
Biden took repeated and direct aim at President Trump, comparing his tactics to those used by dictators. At one point, he quoted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered during the Civil War on a Pennsylvania battlefield, to drive home the importance of uniting the country.
“Will we be the ones to let the government of, by, and for the people perish from the face of the Earth?” Biden asked. “Dare we let that happen? Dare we let that happen? Absolutely not. We will not.”
Biden entered the race three weeks ago with a video that spotlighted Trump’s reaction to the violent 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where white supremacists marched and clashed with protesters.
The president said at the time there were “very fine people on both sides” of the conflict, which prompted Biden to pen an opinion piece in the Atlantic titled “We Are Living Through a Battle for the Soul of This Nation.” The former vice president has made restoring the nation’s soul a theme of his campaign.
Biden followed that video with a rally at a Pittsburgh union hall, where he focused on another theme: rebuilding the middle class. Saturday’s event was designed to highlight the third message of his candidacy: uniting the country.
“I know some of the really smart folks say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity,” Biden said. “They say Democrats are so angry that the angrier a candidate can be the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination.”
“That’s wrong, Joe!” an audience member yelled.
“I don’t believe it,” Biden continued.
“If the American people want the president to add to our division, lead with a clenched fist, a closed hand, a hard heart, to demonize your opponent, to spew hatred, they don’t need me,” he said. “They’ve got President Donald Trump.”
It’s an idea other candidates also highlighted at their kickoff rallies.
“We must not allow those with power to weaponize hatred and bigotry to divide us,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) during her launch.
“We’re going to bring our people together,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) said.
“We need to recognize that we’re already on common ground,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said.
Biden also used the 30-minute speech to address some of the criticism about his campaign message, including some who think it’s naive for him to suggest that he’ll work with Republicans if elected.
“I’m going to say something outrageous: I know how to make government work. Not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it. But because I’ve done it. I’ve worked across the aisle to reach consensus,” he said.
He also previewed a policy to address climate change that his campaign will release in coming weeks, saying, “we need a clean energy revolution” and expressing a desire to “set the most aggressive goals possible.”
Biden took heavy criticism from liberals after a Reuters report quoted a Biden adviser saying the vice president would try to find a “middle-ground” solution to the problem.
Since entering the campaign, Biden has visited all four of the early nominating states. During those visits, he has taken relatively few questions from voters and the news media. On Saturday, he took no questions at the public venue.
That hasn’t hurt him in early polls, and it’s a factor that has attracted attention from Trump.
The president has sought to define Biden by using the nickname “Sleepy Joe,” tweeting the moniker about a half-dozen times since Biden entered the race.
The president has also referred to Biden on social media as “SleepyCreepy Joe,” a reference to a recent focus on Biden’s affectionate manner, which some women say made them uncomfortable. Biden has promised to be more mindful in the future and blames the interactions on his personal style.
In a stark reminder of how the issue could be a problem, one of those women made news Saturday shortly before Biden took the stage.
Lucy Flores, the former Nevada state assemblywoman who wrote an essay earlier this year accusing Biden of touching her without her consent, broke down in tears at a public event hundreds of miles away in Richmond.
Flores was the keynote speaker at an organizing event sponsored by She the People, a group that aims to boost voter turnout among women of color. As she listened to the introduction, which referenced her decision to publicize her uncomfortable physical encounter with Biden, she began to cry.
Tears continued as Flores took the stage, where she spent a few seconds attempting to regain her composure, sniffling and wiping her eyes.
She made only passing remarks about Biden. “I had no idea that as many battles as I’ve had with the Republican Party, I would have as many if not more with my own party,” she said.
Flores received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 250 mostly black and Hispanic women.
Holly Bailey, Chelsea Janes and David Weigel contributed to this report.