One of the first events for the campaign will be a high-dollar fundraiser Thursday night, sponsored by a group of supporters including Comcast senior executive vice president David L. Cohen. Biden over the next week or so is expected to travel to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Biden will enter the race in an unfamiliar position, generally at the top of polls nationally and in early states, following campaigns in 1988 and 2008 that ended in failure. His challenge this time will be to wrestle control of a party that has been energized by many demographics to which Biden does not belong — liberals, millennials, women and minorities.
But it is also a party that is consumed, above all else, with trying to defeat President Trump, and Biden is planning to make the case that he is best positioned to win back key blue-collar swing voters in states that Trump carried in 2016.
His advisers and supporters have watched with dismay as the Democratic primary discussion has been dominated by liberal positions on questions such as whether to launch impeachment hearings and, separately, debates over reparations. They said Biden is planning to introduce a message that is far more centrist and focused on the economy.
“If we’re going to be pragmatic about this as a party, there’s only one person who can beat Donald Trump and can go toe-to-toe with him in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin and take it to him on his own terms. And that’s Joe Biden,” said Dick Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator from South Carolina and a longtime Biden supporter.
“This should not be a primary election about whether or not you’re for Medicare-for-all or the green plan. or whatever it is,” he added. “It’s about who can stop the pain. Who can beat this guy in November?”
Biden’s allies believe that his long tenure in public life — one that dates to 1973, when he entered the U.S. Senate as a 30-year-old representing Delaware — has endeared him to voters.
But in a field suffused with new faces and a broad spread of experience, he is either the elder statesman or the old-school politician past his prime. His references tend to skew older, with quotations from Adlai Stevenson and decades-old war stories about the Senate. The 76-year-old has been in elected office longer than some of his rivals have been alive.
He is likely to lay claim to the Obama legacy, touting his eight-year partnership with the nation’s first black president, in a way few others can fully claim. And that in turn may prompt newly public discussion about whether the Obama administration’s policies suffice in a party that has rapidly moved to the left in recent years.
Obama has been largely absent from the Democratic debate. Some candidates have subtly — or not, in the case of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who shares Biden’s strength in early polls — distanced themselves from a more centrist, corporatist approach to politics that attempts to unify red and blue states.
Although Obama is not planning to make an endorsement, he has talked about trying to encourage the next generation of political leadership, one pointedly younger than his vice president. Nonetheless, Biden is likely to embrace their connection and project that he would return the country to a more conventional era. One example: In speeches made in recent months, he has talked up his ability to work with Republicans, which has triggered some criticism from those in the party who embrace a more confrontational style.
“We seem to be at each other’s throats. Extremism is on the rise in this country,” Biden said in a recent speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters. “Mean pettiness has overtaken our politics. Sometimes it seems like we can’t govern ourselves or even talk to one another. . . . Folks, it’s not who we are.”
There are few modern-day analogies for Biden, who has been considered a top-tier presidential candidate over a span of more than four decades.
In September 1987, facing allegations that included plagiarizing a speech from a British politician, he dropped out of the 1988 election contest less than four months after he entered it. Twenty years later, he lasted only until the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, before dropping out following a 1 percent finish.
New Hampshire state House Speaker Steve Shurtleff (D) worked on that campaign and has been in touch with the Biden team. But he remains undecided.
“I have a lot of respect for him both as an elected official and as an individual. He’ll add a lot to the dynamic, but for myself, I’m going to keep my options open,” he said. “I’m like every New Hampshire voter. You’ve got to see each candidate three times before deciding. We’ve got a long way to go.”
Some of Biden’s advisers say there has been little introspection by his team over the causes of his past two losses. Biden and his team believe the 2020 race is much different than the earlier contests and that Biden, as a former vice president who had had years to build ties with influential party members, is in a much stronger position.
Biden considered running in 2016 but decided against it because he was still mourning the death of his son Beau. Later, he said he regretted not getting into the race.
His decision to run this time concludes a months-long process in which announcement deadlines have come and gone with no decision. Biden said earlier this month that his goal has been to be the last candidate in the race. (A few other lesser-known would-be candidates have said they are still contemplating a campaign.)
For months, his advisers have kept a list of potential staffers they want to hire, updating the list as some have been nabbed by other campaigns. They believe there is still plenty of talent left to supplement a core group of veterans, some of whom have been with Biden for decades.
American Possibilities, a political action committee Biden has used to raise money and support other candidates, sent out an email to supporters on Tuesday urging them to prepare for an announcement.
“We’ll cut to the chase,” the message said, providing a link for supporters to sign up. “There has been a lot of chatter about what Joe Biden plans to do. As one of Joe’s top supporters, we want you to be the first to know!”
Biden’s announcement will come hours before the Philadelphia fundraiser. Comcast executive Cohen, along with former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell and former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, has been drumming up support for about a week. One level of tickets costs $2,800, the maximum primary campaign donation. There is also a second tier for young professionals, at $250, according to a person familiar with the event.
Cohen is also chairman of the board of trustees at the University of Pennsylvania, where Biden has worked since early 2017 as a professor and then leader of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.
With his late entry into the race, Biden faces a major challenge to match some of his rivals who have tapped into small-dollar online networks. Biden, never a prolific fundraiser, has not been alone on a ballot since 2008, and the extent of his fundraising prowess is unknown even to his team.
A Biden spokesman did not respond to a question of whether Biden will attend the fundraiser.
As he begins his campaign, Biden will face scrutiny for a wide range of positions that, in some cases, were in line with Democratic orthodoxy long ago but are now out of step. Those include support for antibusing legislation in the 1970s, his role handling the Anita Hill hearings during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s nomination process, and his arm-twisting on behalf of a crime bill in the 1990s. He has attempted to address some of those issues in recent weeks but has often stumbled.
“To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved,” Biden said last month of the hearings on Thomas’s nomination, which he oversaw as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He has also come under criticism in recent weeks for his hands-on style. Several women have said made he them feel uncomfortable with hugs, pressing his forehead against theirs, or, in one case, smelling a Nevada politician’s hair.
Biden posted a video saying that “social norms are changing” and that he would be “much more mindful.” Two days later, however, he twice joked about the complaints during a speech to union workers.
Michael Scherer contributed to this report.