The campaign announcement began with promise. It featured a young upstart who could usher in generational change. He could replace the incumbent Republican president, at the time the oldest in American history. He could talk without cue cards and teleprompters.
“In 1988, the clarion call for my generation is not ‘It is our turn,’ but rather ‘It is our moment of obligation and opportunity,’ ” Joe Biden, then a 44-year-old senator from Delaware, declared at the Wilmington, Del., train station in June 1987.
Biden’s supporters underscored his theme, pointing to his young children on the stage. One of the party’s elder statesmen, Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, introduced him by noting, “Joe Biden’s a young fella.”
Nearly 32 years later, Biden, 76, is now the old fella. Announcing his third presidential campaign Thursday, he’s running on a lengthy résumé built over decades in public life. From the distant end of the generational arc, he’s hoping to become the oldest president in American history. And often as he speaks these days, he’s the one carrying a set of notecards.
A tour through a trio of announcements spanning more than three decades shows the evolution of his politics, from a candidate seeking the dawn of a new day to one arguing to reclaim the country’s old spirit. They reflect the gradual shift of the Democratic Party and Biden’s place in its modern-day version.
The various announcements show the same old-school pol at different moments in history, his recognizable speaking cadence and brash tone tailored to sets of issues that change over the decades. His speech launching his 1988 campaign was long-winded and aimed at showcasing that he had substance beyond his years. In later years, he’s a man in a chair, speaking directly to a camera.
The consistent through line is Biden pitching himself as ready to bring America back from the ills of a Republican predecessor. But this time around, he has one of the cleanest contrasts to draw. While he argued against Ronald Reagan’s economic approach, the country was largely feeling the benefits of those policies. He pilloried George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq War, but he himself had voted in favor of the war.
Now, he is framing his candidacy as a clear rebuttal of President Trump’s politics of racial and ethnic division — and he’s done it in a clearer way than most of the other 19 candidates who have preceded him in the 2020 primary. He starts this race at the top of the polls, while in previous races he was the struggling underdog.
Although Biden’s launches have similarities, with broad promises of national unity, it is an open question whether this campaign will have a different ending from previous efforts that quickly faltered. A fundamental question for Biden’s campaign is whether he — who in many ways still sounds in 2019 like he did in 1987 — can win over a party that has undergone fundamental shifts over the past few years.
During the 1987 announcement speech at the Wilmington, Del., train station, Biden spoke passionately about passing a better nation to his children — not, as he often does now, to his grandchildren.
The way some disparage 280-chacter tweets these days, Biden lamented how the art of politics had turned to messages “skillfully crafted to squeeze into 30 seconds on the nightly news.”
His sister introduced the half-dozen congressmen in the crowd. There was the governor of Mississippi, the former senator from Minnesota, the Democratic National Committee members from New Hampshire.
Some of his themes on that day have remained constant, cemented around the middle class, railing against free-trade policies, and around restoring confidence in public institutions — and, more than anything, about how the nation is at a turning point and needs to turn toward him.
“America is a nation at risk,” he said in 1987.
“America’s leadership among the world’s nations is at stake,” he said in 2007.
“Everything that has made America America is at stake,” he said Thursday.
His first and third campaigns have been dominated by larger-than-life Republican incumbents, first Reagan and now Trump, both of whom he accused of being swept away by self-interest and self-aggrandizement. Both, he said, have a distorted view of the country’s core values, whether in international affairs or domestic politics.
“Ladies and gentlemen, something is wrong in Ronald Reagan’s America,” he said in 1987. “In Ronald Reagan’s America, we have honored not the valiant but the victors — not the worthy, but the winners.”
He compared Reagan to President Richard M. Nixon, in much the same fashion as now he speaks about Trump.
“The current Administration has earned the dubious distinction of having more officials under indictment, more officials under attack, and more officials forced to resign in any in our history,” he said of Reagan. “Discontent over the failure of our political system is rampant throughout our citizenry. And bluntly, it’s in this gathering of discontent that my candidacy intends to find its voice.”
His campaign would end less than four months later, after he was accused of lifting someone else’s voice and plagiarizing, among others, a British politician whose forebears and Biden’s shared working-class sensibilities.
There would be no splashy train station speech in 2007, when he announced his second presidential campaign. This time, the move was announced in a five-minute video — which, at the time, was seen as an innovation.
No longer the young upstart, Biden looked into the camera, a fire burning in the background and a white lily visible beside him, and talked about the ills facing the country after nearly eight years under Bush.
The recent onset of the Iraq War brought foreign policy, rather than the domestic issues he focused on during his previous campaign, to the forefront of the middle Biden campaign. He called Bush’s handling of the Iraq War perhaps “the greatest foreign policy disaster of our time” — although he had been among the majority of senators who voted to give the president the authority to wage it.
“As we’ve seen over the past few years, this president refuses to listen, even as he’s proven wrong time and time again,” Biden said. “Above all else that’s why I’m running for president of this great country.”
He spoke then, as he does now, about restoring respect for the United States around the world.
“This is no time for the divisive politics George Bush has practiced in America,” he said. “We have to unite our states around a community of goals, a unifying vision; we have to restore America’s place in the world.”
In the end, few remember the video, or his presidential announcement. The day was filled instead by Biden’s attempts to clarify his comments published that day in the New York Observer, in which he called Barack Obama “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
He held a contentious conference call with reporters, he called Obama to express regret, and he released a statement. Then he closed out the day with an appearance on “The Daily Show.”
His announcement video this time was largely devoid of any policy proposals. There were little of the biographical details that other candidates have used to launch their campaigns. He didn’t walk through various policies like he did in prior announcements, avoiding any clash with party activists who have turned left in recent years. The feeling overall was more dramatic, with images from the Charlottesville protest in 2017 by neo-Nazis marching with tiki torches.
But it hewed to Biden’s earlier announcements in its efforts to further a lofty sense of America and what it should be. It was Biden much as he had been twice before, idealizing the nation and the dignity of those who work hard and pursue the American Dream, this time against grainy pictures of the Statue of Liberty, the women’s suffrage movement and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“We haven’t always lived up to these ideals,” he said of the values espoused by Thomas Jefferson and the nation’s founders. “But we have never before walked away from them.”
He focused most of the video on the spasm of violence in Charlottesville, saying it illustrated more than anything else the need for a change. He quoted Trump as saying at the time that there were “very fine people on both sides.”
“I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden said. “But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation — who we are — and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
Shortly after the video went online, Biden boarded an Amtrak train in Washington, emerging in Wilmington at the same station where he announced his campaign 32 years earlier.
At the time, the redbrick station was already iconic, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s now named after him.