Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign is, in a way, an atonement for 2016: He believes he could have stopped Donald Trump from ever becoming president and now he believes he is the best chance for Democrats to get Trump out of the White House.
Ever since Biden declined to challenge Hillary Clinton, he has said he came to believe he would have won. “I thought I was the correct candidate,” Biden said in May 2017. He has reportedly told friends that in 2020, it’s too big of a risk not to run.
This marks the third presidential run for the former Delaware senator, who has spent his entire professional life in public office. He started his run at the top of a very big pile of presidential contenders on the Democratic side, placing first in most early polls. One-third of Democrats pick him as their preferred candidate when asked. But this time, Biden is in for a very different campaign compared to the two he’s run before.
While America’s 76-year-old “Uncle Joe” enjoys early frontrunner status, the challenge for Biden is he no longer fits the rapidly changing party that nominated a young black senator over Clinton a decade ago.
The Democratic Party is evolving — not just in ideology, though Biden has always been a little more populist in his rhetoric compared to his policies — but also in identity. The party is starting to look younger and more racially diverse. It’s more driven by women voters than ever before. And Biden is a white man who would hit 80 in his first term.
He’s running in a moment when the public is changing its views on what is acceptable male behavior. Over the years, the press has jokingly covered Biden’s public antics with women, from handsy photos to borderline comments to overly affectionate embraces. That’s not the approach media would take with a candidate today. Biden also chaired the Anita Hill hearings that sent Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court; he’s had to repent for how he handled them.
Still, Biden should be taken seriously. He knows what it takes to campaign for president, even though his previous runs were miserable affairs, ending in scandal and obscurity. He can credibly claim the legacy of Obama, who is still universally popular with Democratic voters. Biden is also overwhelmingly popular with voters who look back fondly at the Obama years, and he’s gained a foothold with the older and more moderate members of the Democratic base.
He’s been quietly building a campaign for two years. He’s arguing he’s the guy who can take the White House away from Donald Trump. And Democratic voters might believe him.
Joe Biden doesn’t exactly look like the future of the Democratic Party. He’s also failed before.
Biden knows he has problems. Interviews like this one with Vogue, in which he says he should apologize to Anita Hill for his role as Senate Judiciary Committee chair during the Clarence Thomas scandal, make that clear. He knows he’ll have to answer these questions; that’s the curse of a long public record.
His story starts with tragedy, the death of his wife and daughter in a 1970s car crash. He became a well-liked senator from Delaware. He married Jill. Joe got the White House itch in 1988 and really started to establish some momentum in the Democratic primary. But then it surfaced that he’d plagiarized speech material. He pulled out of the race.
In 2008, his nominal campaign barely registered. Yet as an established and well-regarded senator, he was the perfect partner to a greener Obama, who picked him as vice president. He had a substantive role in the White House, overseeing stimulus programs and serving as a respected adviser on foreign affairs. He was an active presence in the Obama presidency in a way some vice presidents have not been.
But Biden’s long record and his admittedly superior credentials for the job he seeks are both an asset and liability. Times have changed and forced Biden to change with them. He has some things in his past that disqualify him in the eyes in the young, active Democratic base.
First of all, we all know what Biden is like. He is an extraordinary extrovert. It’s why he’s so broadly popular. But he does put his hands on people. I interviewed the vice president in his last year in office, and he gave my foot a squeeze to emphasize his point. There are videos like this one, in which he puts his hands on women at official photo ops. The most generous reading is the veep is old-fashioned. But more recent stories, like that of Lucy Flores, reveal Biden as intrusive and disrespectful of women’s personal space in a way that goes beyond a generational disconnect.
Before announcing his run, Biden said he would try to do better. There have still been cringe-worthy moments already on the campaign trail, however, like when he called a 10-year-old girl “good looking.” It’s hard to drop old habits.
Biden is running in a party that just nominated and elected a record number of women to Congress. He faces an open question about whether he is the candidate for those suburban women who drove so much of the Democratic gains in the midterm elections.
It’s not just his behavior that will turn off some voters. His record as senator has some stains when it comes to gender, race, and other issues important to the party’s progressive base.
What are Joe Biden’s policies?
As Vox’s Matthew Yglesias reviewed, Biden shares many of the same weaknesses Obama and Bernie Sanders drew attention to when they ran against Hillary Clinton in their Democratic primaries. He voted for the Iraq War as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the “tough on crime” era of the 1990s, he voted for mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and for increased funding for federal prisons — both of these policies have contributed to mass incarceration.
His long record underlines how much has changed since Biden first entered public life. Already, his comments from the 1970s regarding school busing to combat segregation have come under scrutiny. “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers,” Biden said in 1975, remarks the Washington Post resurfaced in March.
On abortion, too, Biden’s history has been put under the microscope. He voted in 1981 for a bill that would have allowed states to overturn Roe v. Wade, as the New York Times recently reported, and once said he didn’t believe a woman should have the “sole right to say what should happen to her body.” In June, his campaign initially said he still supports the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding for abortions, but then reversed his position after blowback from a Democratic base that is prioritizing abortion rights.
Biden has changed his stance on many issues, bringing himself more in line with the Democratic Party of today. But some voters might still find it difficult to dismiss the senator he once was.
While Biden seems to connect with blue-collar workers, he’s not a lefty populist in a field that has a few of them. He’s pretty mainstream, friendlier to corporate interests and more in favor of free trade compared to candidates like Elizabeth Warren. He was known in the Senate as a friend of banks. From Yglesias:
He spent his whole career in the Senate representing Delaware, a major center of the consumer credit side of the banking industry. He was so close to the local banking giant that he was jokingly referred to as “the senator from MBNA” (which has since been bought by Bank of America).
This made him, among other things, a champion of mostly GOP-supported legislation in 2005 whose aim was to make it more difficult for hard-pressed families to discharge their credit card debt in bankruptcy.
The man is not without admirable policy achievements. He spent his last months as vice president securing more than $1 billion in new funding for a cancer research initiative, personally invested in its success after his son Beau’s diagnosis and death from brain cancer. The project was so popular that the Trump administration and the Republican Congress kept it going after they took over.
In the 2020 campaign so far, Biden has released only two notable proposals of his own:
- tripling federal funding for low-income schools
- a climate action plan that borrows thematically if not always substantively from the Green New Deal
The climate plan is more limited in targeting oil and gas exploration. It also endorses nuclear power and emphasizes carbon recapture and sequestration, priorities for blue-collar union interests. Biden isn’t running on Medicare-for-all either; instead he’s embracing the Affordable Care Act and a more limited public option proposal.
It adds up to a candidate who seems well behind the leftward winds driving his party. He personifies a return to the past when the progressive grassroots might be looking for a new direction for the future.
Then again, for a broadly popular candidate openly courting older and more moderate Democratic voters, a more reserved, less ideologically fervent platform is surely by design.
Biden is still a popular, universally known Democratic candidate
Joe Biden is a hard guy not to like. Authenticity is a tricky thing in the show business of 21st-century politics, but it’s hard to really hate Joe Biden.
Eight in 10 Democratic voters like him. He’s currently a lot more popular than Donald Trump, and he’s beating the president in hypothetical 2020 polls. His argument is principally an electability argument: He thinks he can beat Trump. He’s not sure anybody else could, as the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns reported recently:
In one of his calls over the holidays, Mr. Biden repeated a variation of a line he has used publicly: “If you can persuade me there is somebody better who can win, I’m happy not to do it,” he said, according to the Democrat he spoke to, who shared the conversation on condition of anonymity to discuss a private talk.
But then Mr. Biden said something he has not stated so bluntly in public: “But I don’t see the candidate who can clearly do what has to be done to win.”
Biden may see himself as somebody who could rumble with Trump on the debate stage like no other nominee could. Then again, he may underestimate how other candidates would fare. His somewhat light campaigning schedule has also already attracted some sideways glances, but it is after all the summer of 2019 and Biden doesn’t have to introduce himself to voters in the way other less-known candidates do.
He might also have benefited from being viewed as a nonpolitical figure. Now that Biden has entered the presidential campaign, he’ll be the subject of attacks from the right and left. He has no real record of success as a presidential candidate without Barack Obama on the ticket.
But for now, he’s still polling well ahead of Bernie Sanders and his other closest rivals; older voters are putting him in the lead. The upcoming debates will be the first opportunity for his Democratic challengers to confront him face to face in front of a national TV audience.
The former vice president views himself as the last unifying figure in the Democratic Party, the torch-bearer for the most successful Democratic presidency of a generation. But a lot has changed in the past two years. Joe Biden will have to prove he can keep up.