The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden’s message to Donald Trump: I’m no socialist

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks Tuesday at the Veterans Memorial Building in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

DUBUQUE, Iowa — For months, President Trump and his allies have tried to cast his Democratic challengers as radical socialists bent on yanking the country much further to the left than most Americans might find comfortable.

Joe Biden, in the opening days of his presidential campaign, is getting in the way of that argument and getting under Trump’s skin.

Nearly six dozen times on Wednesday morning, Trump retweeted support for him among purported firefighters, whose union has endorsed Biden and whose members have surrounded the former vice president at all of his opening events. For days, Trump has ignored his advisers and repeatedly criticized Biden at a rate that has exceeded his reactions to the other 19 candidates in the Democratic field.

Biden has attempted to thwart the president with a frontal assault on Trump’s morality, particularly his defense of some of the protesters at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where white supremacists chanted anti-Semitic slogans as they marched through the streets. But Biden also is representing himself as Trump’s opposite in another way: as an incrementalist throwback to the days before the president began upending the country’s institutions — hardly a socialist, but a candidate well within the norms of both capitalism and politics.

Biden’s implicit argument to Democrats, in the meantime, is that he has embraced enough of the policies animating the party’s ascendant left to make him acceptable as the standard-bearer — but not enough to alienate the working-class voters the party desperately wants to win back in 2020.

He has embraced raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, a posture that advances on Hillary Clinton’s stutter-step approach to raising wages in 2016, and he has touted a plan to allow anyone to go to community college free.

He also has spurned others, calling for improvements to the Affordable Care Act but declining to back a Medicare-for-all plan supported by many of his party’s 2020 candidates. Rather than railing against the wealthy, he takes pains to point out that they, too, are good people. While he has talked about the need to address climate change, he has yet to embrace anything approaching the Green New Deal.

He has almost entirely avoided his Democratic rivals — and the specific policy proposals they are pushing. He also has ignored their criticism of his willingness to raise money from corporate lobbyists, his support of free-trade agreements or his vote in favor of the Iraq War.

On Tuesday night, Biden stood before a crowd of several hundred here in a ballroom on the banks of the Mississippi River and draped himself in the legacy of former president Barack Obama, the party’s most popular figure.

“They talk about, there’s a division in the Democratic Party,” he said. “We agree on basically everything, all of us running. All 400 of us.”

That was not true, but it appeared intended to position Democrats as a unified bloc opposing the president, with Biden at its head.

Biden’s campaign advisers feel the president has played into their hands, effectively defining him for the moment as the candidate to beat. That is helpful to Biden, because it seems to confirm what Biden and his supporters are positing: that he is the Democrat most able to take on Trump.

Some Trump campaign officials believe Biden’s nomination will blunt the heightened excitement among Democratic voters and that he will have a difficult time rekindling the coalition that pushed Obama to victory twice.

But others see Biden and, to some extent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as the biggest threats to Trump because of their appeal to working-class voters, particularly in the upper Midwest.

Those officials are concerned that Trump’s visible reactions to Biden will give Biden political ammunition and fundraising opportunities. They are eager to have Trump instead lump all Democrats together as radicals. But Trump pays close attention to television coverage and polls, both of which Biden has dominated over the past few days.

While Trump’s team initially saw a rough rollout for Biden — with heavy focus on criticism about his Senate record and smaller crowds than other candidates have attracted — Trump was annoyed by Biden’s focus on Charlottesville and could not resist going on the attack.

For his part, Biden seems to go out of his way to embrace the era before Trump, even to the extent of complimenting people who others in his party demonize.

“Let’s get something straight. This country was not built by Wall Street, bankers, hedge-fund managers,” he said, in rhetoric that mimicked Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). But, he added, “They’re not necessarily bad.”

He is eager to pitch himself as the one carrying out Obama’s legacy, often talking about “finishing the job.”

“Folks, I want to stop here and say something that I don’t think is said often enough,” Biden said. “President Obama has extraordinary character — no, really I mean it — extraordinary integrity and is a man of absolute decency. When he was president, our kids had someone to look up to. I was proud. Every day, every day, as I stood next to him as his vice president.”

At least at the start, Biden’s strategy seems to be working. An initial wave of polls has him far ahead of the pack, gaining strength since announcing his campaign and illustrating what Biden’s advisers have been saying for months: His support could be more durable than many believe. In a CNN poll released Tuesday, 39 percent of voters sided with Biden, 20 points higher than Sanders. A survey done for the Boston Globe in New Hampshire had him at 20 percent, 8 points above Sanders.

Yet the passionate, even angry, appeals of Sanders, Warren and other candidates have sparked enthusiasm among Democrats that was not evident during Biden’s initial campaign foray, which began in Pittsburgh on Monday before moving through Iowa Tuesday and Wednesday.

During former congressman Beto O’Rourke’s first days in Iowa as a presidential candidate, he held a half-dozen events a day, in rooms that were packed so full it was hard to move. Biden has held two events each day, often not starting until noon, with crowds that are respectable but far from overwhelming.

His schedule seems on pace with his campaign’s effort to stay relentlessly on message. His first few speeches have contained familiar anecdotes, rarely breaking new ground. He has not taken a single question from voters. Instead, his campaign has attempted to use scripted moments, and well-crafted videos, to get his message across.

Biden brushed aside reporters after one event, engaging a question about distinctions in the Democratic field for only a few moments while stopping for ice cream.

“I’m not going to get into a debate with my colleagues here,” Biden said. “There’s plenty of time on the stage. And I’m proud of my record.”

He made clear, though, he did not want to continue talking, turning to a chocolate and vanilla swirl and saying, “I’m a free ice cream eater.”

Biden, however, has not been able to fully avoid being Biden. During his rallies, he is at moments the wonky lifelong politician, quoting German philosopher Immanuel Kant, talking about arcane tax laws or pausing to say: “Excuse me for, as we said in the Senate, a point of personal privilege.”

That can accentuate his age, 76. He spoke at one point about putting in a nickel to borrow a bicycle. He talked about the 1981 tax bill, for which he voted. He spoke about driving his 1951 Plymouth.

He has lingered after events, putting on full display an affectionate style some women have said in recent weeks made them uncomfortable. Voters often come up to him to give him hugs, or as he clasps their hands or shoulders, thrusting his finger into someone’s chest to emphasize a point.

He has largely avoided specifics by telling crowds that have been waiting for hours to hear him that he did not want them to stand any longer to hear him talk about his policy proposals. He will be back, he told them, and he will be sure then to outline his positions in detail.

“I’m going to talk to you a lot,” he assured the crowd in Dubuque. “You’re going to hear me a lot when I come back in specifics.”

Catherine Basile, a 72-year-old retired teacher from Cedar Rapids, said she is a bit ambivalent about Biden running, worried that a third loss atop two earlier humiliating ones would taint his legacy. But she also sees him as perhaps the best candidate to challenge Trump.

“A woman? An African American? A gay person?” she asked. “All of those would be fine with me. But how does everyone else think? Have we stirred up so much muck?”

Colleen Kersch, a 51-year-old librarian from Dubuque, came wearing a sweatshirt that read, “A woman’s place is in the House and the Senate.” Biden, seeing it as he shook hands in the crowd, told her he agreed with the sentiment.

Kersch said she has been shaken since 2016, when she voted for Clinton. Her priorities have changed, and she is strongly in Biden’s camp and eager for whatever she thinks it takes for Trump to be defeated.

“I don’t really want a woman to run against Donald Trump,” she said, quickly adding, “Not that I don’t want a woman president.”

Her sentiment was echoed at Biden’s first public campaign event in Pittsburgh during his introduction by the head of the international firefighters union.

“Let me shoot straight with you, and this might not be popular in parts of the Democratic Party,” said union president, Harold Schaitberger. “We can’t have a nominee that’s too far left. It’s just that simple. A candidate that has high-minded ideals, maybe honorable ideas, but little chance of winning.”

Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.