Biden’s emphasis on moderation, a hallmark of his decades-long political career, comes after a spring and summer in which he made concessions to his party’s liberal wing as he aimed to consolidate its support. He also made the case for a more transformational presidency, as the coronavirus pandemic and a reckoning on race and police violence sparked calls for sweeping change. All told, his platform is more liberal than that of every past Democratic nominee.
Now, with three weeks until Election Day and millions of Americans already casting their ballots, Biden is bluntly distancing himself from the party’s left flank. He is making more explicit appeals to Republicans and speaking openly of reclaiming “White working-class Democrats” who “thought we forgot them.” He has built a loyal following among older Black voters, who tend to be more conservative than younger Black Americans. And he is waging an aggressive effort to appeal to White women, seniors and suburban voters, who supported Trump four years ago but have shifted away from him.
“I’m running as a proud Democrat; I’m going to govern as an American president,” Biden said Tuesday in Pembroke Pines, Fla., de-emphasizing his party affiliation in his address to seniors. He said Trump has left them behind with his fumbled response to the pandemic and concluded, “We cannot let ourselves remain divided.”
He also framed his candidacy as middle-of-the-road in Cincinnati on Monday, declaring that “there will be no blue states and red states with me.”
At an autoworkers union hall in Toledo, he underlined his commitment not to raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year. And he offered a version of the economic populism that Trump touted in Ohio four years ago.
“A trade strategy that fights for every American worker and every American job and actually gets results,” said Biden. “Not Trump’s chaotic trade war, erratic tweets and bluster that’s only stiffed American workers and consumers, including farmers. He’s let you down. He’s let us down. I promise you: I will stand up to China’s trade abuses, and I will invest in the American worker.”
In many ways, Biden’s plan is the culmination of a political blueprint for the Trump era that Democratic leaders started writing early in the president’s term. Do not run on divisive ideas and focus instead on “kitchen table” topics that affect the daily lives of voters in both major parties. Capitalize on organic anger with Trump to deliver votes in purple areas. Run as a safe alternative, not an ideologue.
This was a strategy Biden saw up close as he helped campaign for Democrats in 2018, and it helped inform his thinking, said his advisers, who noted that it was also a natural fit for him because he has long positioned himself as a moderate Democrat. Another motivator, according to Biden’s advisers, is an urgent need to rebut the fusillade of attacks from Trump and his allies suggesting that Biden is an extremist in disguise.
“For my district, there is a real interest in just getting to some stability, some practicality,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), who in 2018 flipped a Republican district that includes suburban areas around Detroit. “Highlighting the comfort that Joe Biden provides with the stability, I think, is important, especially for like suburban Republican women who can’t stand Trump but are worried that Joe Biden may be bad, maybe, for their pocketbooks.”
In one respect, Biden recently created some wiggle room on a divisive issue, repeatedly refusing to say whether he would expand the Supreme Court after coming out against the idea in the primaries. “You will know my opinion on court-packing when the election is over,” Biden told reporters in Phoenix last Thursday. But on Monday he told WKRC-TV in Cincinnati that he was “not a fan of court-packing,” a position that aligns him closer to the political center than the left.
With a major address last Tuesday in the throes of a race rocked by the pandemic, a Supreme Court vacancy, historic economic turmoil and bitter attacks that have created enmity on both sides, Biden sought to amplify his moderation by laying the foundation of his final pitch to voters — that he is the remedy for the divisions Trump has sown.
“The closing argument is that we need to unify the country,” said Mike Donilon, Biden’s chief strategist and architect of the speech. “He won’t represent just Democrats or Republicans, he’ll represent everyone.”
After Trump told a violent far-right group to “stand back and stand by” during a televised debate, Biden and his top aides discussed an idea that had long been on their to-do list, Donilon said: a speech in the rolling hills of Gettysburg, Pa., the bloodiest battlefront of the Civil War.
Trump’s comments added an urgency to schedule it, aides said, and a week after that debate, Biden spoke on the lawn of a scenic Gettysburg lodge, drawing parallels to the forces that ripped the country in two in the 19th century. “Today, once again, we are a house divided. But that, my friends, can no longer be,” said Biden, invoking Abraham Lincoln. Biden advocated bipartisanship, cooperation and a “spirit of being able to work with one another.”
There are indications that Biden’s approach is working, with polls showing him opening up leads over Trump in key battlegrounds.
“I do believe, because I am one of them, that it appeals to moderate Republicans,” said Cindy McCain, speaking of Biden’s platform. McCain, the widow of GOP senator John McCain, crossed party lines to endorse Biden and campaigned with him in Arizona. She said that his campaign reached out to her to arrange their appearance and that Biden has assured her Republicans will have input if he is elected president.
“I’ve had this very discussion with him and he’s absolutely going to not only work with Republicans, but bring them into the administration,” she said.
Biden’s confidence that Republicans will be more willing to work across the aisle if Trump is no longer in power has drawn criticism from liberals. “The best-case scenario is Biden wins big and we gain seats in the House and take back the Senate. The worst-case scenario within that is Biden looks at all these big Democratic wins and decides that his first order of business is to find compromise with Republicans,” said Rebecca Katz, a liberal strategist. “The other side caused a lot of damage. We have two years to get bold policy through. We can’t waste it.”
Still, there are signs that Biden will face fewer defections from the left on Election Day than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. There has been less grumbling from liberal leaders and activists, and third-party candidates have gained less traction with them compared with 2016. The cost of the Trump presidency can be counted in lives, and he must be defeated, say these activists, who also don’t want to be blamed if Biden loses, as they were after Clinton’s defeat.
Steve Doelder, the chairman of the Walworth County Democratic Party in Wisconsin and a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the primaries, voiced concerns about the recent spike in coronavirus cases in his state. “We know what to do, we know the science. We’re just not doing it. We don’t have the leadership. And Biden would provide that,” he said in a phone interview between putting up Biden signs.
The pandemic has been the central focus of Biden’s attempt to draw a contrast with Trump and the issue his aides say will be the dominant topic on voters’ minds. In commercials and speeches, Biden has seized on evidence that Trump mismanaged the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Democrat has made a point of underscoring his commitment to wearing a face mask, while Trump, who contracted the virus, often refuses to put one on.
The outbreak has been a major element of Biden’s calls for unity. “Don’t politicize the race for a vaccine, Mr. President. Just have a plan for safe and equitable distribution. On the economy, bring the Congress back together to pass real relief,” he said in Nevada on Friday.
So has the racism Trump has stoked. Biden launched his campaign with a video focused on Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville that took place just months after he took office. Trump’s suggestion during the debate that the far-right Proud Boys “stand back and stand by” — the next day, he told them to “stand down” and insisted he didn’t know who they were — moved Biden and his team to plow ahead with the appearance in Gettysburg, which they had talked about for a while, Donilon said. He noted that they even considered launching the campaign there.
“There’s no more fitting place than here today in Gettysburg to talk about the cost of division — about how much it has cost America in the past, about how much it is costing us now,” Biden said at that speech. He later added, “I will send a clear, unequivocal message to the entire nation: There is no place for hate in America.” He did not mention Trump by name.
Seeking a careful balance on a polarizing topic, Biden also said that America did not “have to choose between law and order and racial justice in America. We can have both.”
Biden was one of the more conservative candidates in the Democratic primaries, if further left than any previous Democratic nominee. He is running on expanding the Affordable Care Act, and he has vigorously opposed Medicare-for-all. He said at the debate that he does not support the Green New Deal, but he has put forth a liberal alternative. And he proudly boasted of beating Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist. In the wake of recent street protests, Biden has repeatedly rejected calls to defund the police.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who in 2018 flipped a Republican-held seat in an area where voters had shown strong support for Trump, was an early indicator of the success of this model. These days, Biden is asking him for advice, he said. He says Biden’s positions resonate.
“If you’re trying to help people, it makes an awful lot of sense to listen to them about what their problems actually are and what they want your help with,” said Lamb. “In an area like this, people don’t ask for Medicare-for-all. They don’t ask you to do the Green New Deal. They ask you to help them keep the health insurance that they have. And if you can do anything to make it cost a little bit less or make their drugs cost a little bit less, great.”
Trump has repeatedly sought to cast Biden as a captive to his party’s liberal wing, misrepresenting Biden’s views on health care, socialism and environmental regulations. “Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left,” Trump said in June.
Those charges largely haven’t stuck. “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?” Biden asked with disbelief in August.
Polls show the president’s campaign has run into resistance. Biden led Trump by nine points among suburban voters and 28 among suburban women, according to a Washington Post poll released Sunday. Trump had a narrow three-point advantage among White women.
While Trump led seniors by seven points in 2016, recent polls show that Biden is leading among them by an average of seven points. Biden has also chipped away at Trump’s advantage among White voters without a college degree, who make up half or more of voters in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all key to Trump’s 2016 win.
In the final stretch, Biden is seeking to use the record sums of cash he has raised to ensure that Trump does not reverse these gains. He recently released a new round of commercials, including one portraying Trump as a threat to Medicare and Social Security and another featuring a farmer who said he regretted voting for Trump.
“I’ll be the first to tell you I made a mistake,” the man says.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.