Joe Biden joined the presidential race with a message strikingly different than that of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. In words and images reflecting a sense of national urgency, the vice president defined the election and his own candidacy almost solely as a crusade to rid the country of President Trump.
Other Democrats have adopted different approaches with their announcement speeches, highlighting policy ideas or biography or expressions of values. They did or did not mention the president but uniformly chose not to make Trump the central focus of their introductory messages. Some of them have even advised that talking too much about Trump isn’t the way for Democrats to win the election.
Biden’s announcement ran counter to all that. His 3½-minute video was an effort to move the nomination battle to a different level, to raise the stakes for the country and his party. By beginning his campaign as he did, Biden played what he believes is the strongest card in his hand — that whatever Democratic voters might feel about aspects of his record, he hopes they will see him as the candidate best equipped to win a general election.
He chose as his starting point one of the most divisive and defining moments of the Trump presidency: the August 2017 white-supremacist, neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville. There, torch-bearing Klan sympathizers marched with chants that, as Biden put it, echoed “the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe” ahead of World War II. Trump, Biden said incredulously, claimed days later that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a battle that turned violent and caused the death of a counterprotester.
Biden described this moment and the coming election as a battle for the soul of the nation, reduced in political terms to a question of whether Trump’s presidency ends after a single term or extends to a second term. If Trump is defeated in 2020, Biden said, history may well judge these years simply as “an aberrant moment in time.” He added, “But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White house, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation.”
The Biden who appeared in the video on Thursday morning was not Lunch Bucket Joe, the pal of working families, or Uncle Joe, the sometimes gaffe-prone but well liked Democrat who has been on the stage for what seems like a lifetime and would like to be seen as a comforting and reassuring leader at a time of national unrest.
This was instead a Biden who has appeared at different times over the course of his 40-plus years in public life, the one who has used the power of his oratorial skills and expressions of moral outrage to rally people behind him. “Everything that’s made America America is at stake,” he said.
There will be more to Biden’s message in the weeks and months ahead, expressions of middle-class and working-class values and talk of his experience on the international stage. Some of that will be unveiled on Monday, when he will participate in a blue-collar and union-themed rally in Pittsburgh.
Western Pennsylvania is at the heart of the electorate that Trump carried in 2016 and where Democrats must recoup if they hope to win in 2020. The Monday rally, symbolically, will be Biden’s way of saying to Democrats that if you want someone who can win back Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, look no farther than me. It will be his way of saying that he, better than others in the race, can rekindle enthusiasm among white working-class voters who have abandoned the party.
His choice of highlighting Charlottesville and all that the rally there said about racial divisions that have been exacerbated by the Trump presidency spoke to others in the Democratic coalition, especially African Americans, a constituency where Biden enjoys support but must maintain it to win the nomination. But in focusing on Charlottesville, and in juxtaposing the raw images of the clashes that occurred in August 2017 with the words of Thomas Jefferson from the Declaration of Independence, Biden stamped his candidacy beyond that of the patron of blue-collar America.
Biden will have much to answer for and explain as his candidacy moves forward. He will have to explain positions taken over the span of four decades in public office that are more questionable today than they might have been at the time.
The litany is well known and already undergoing scrutiny, from his handling of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation fight and the testimony of Anita Hill to his opposition to school busing to his support for a 1994 crime bill that resulted in incarceration rates of African Americans that are now regarded as unduly punitive and discriminatory. He voted in favor of the Iraq War and warned then-President Barack Obama against launching the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
More recently, he was confronted by criticism from some women who found his hands-on expressions of empathy and support discomforting. Though Biden promised to do better, he later seemed to dismiss it all with a few jokes at a public event. A politician of the old school, he now runs in the era of #MeToo and will be challenged to show, as he put it when responding to the criticism, that he does “get it.”
Biden, who is 76, must also confront the issue of generational change within his party. When he first ran for president in 1988, his announcement speech highlighted a generational appeal. “In 1988, the clarion call for my generation is not, ‘It’s our turn,’ but rather ‘It’s our moment of obligation and opportunity,’” he said then. Those words could be thrown back in his face by some of his younger rivals for the Democratic nomination.
Finally there is the record of two previous presidential campaigns, one that ended with his early withdrawal after charges that he had plagiarized the words of a British politician, and the second, in 2008, that ended after a disappointing finish in the Iowa caucuses. He begins this campaign in a far stronger position than in those past races but still with much to prove.
Biden has already signaled he will not embrace some of the ideas that have become popular among the party’s progressive wing. He will not try to outbid Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on health care or education. He likely won’t have the kind of policy agenda of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). He will play it safer, offering center-left ideas mostly consistent with those of the administration in which he served. Whether that will prove to be savvy or costly remains a question.
Ultimately, Biden will not want the nomination battle to become a test of policy chops or a debate about generational change. His announcement video showed that, instead, his goal will be to make the coming election a moment of reckoning for the country and his party and then to prove he can meet that test.