Joe Biden kicked off his campaign for president on Thursday by criticizing President Trump’s response to the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The clear intent was to highlight the president’s shortcomings and perceived unfitness for office.
Trump has responded predictably, praising the skills of Robert E. Lee and maintaining that he answered the question “perfectly.” But Biden’s critique of Trump was not just about the Civil War or what happened in Charlottesville. It was an attempt to bring American civic religion into the campaign, wielding it as a weapon against the sitting president.
In this sense, this opening statement as a presidential candidate was a bold one, offering a sharp and specific rebuke of Trump. The former Delaware senator and vice president used this strategy again in a speech on Monday, stating, “Donald Trump is the only president who has decided not to represent the whole country.”
In one respect, this approach is direct and addresses what many social scientists have concluded was a central theme in 2016: race and identity. An important book about the 2016 election is aptly named Identity Crisis. Study after study suggests that different types of identities drove the election result. Despite Trump’s victory, these findings don’t necessarily spell a winning strategy for Republicans in perpetually exploiting these divisions. By highlighting an event where the president’s worst — and quite unpopular — political instincts were on display, Biden dove right into a key issue. These questions became even more painful and relevant in the days after he entered the race: An anti-Semitic shooter killed one person and injured three others at a San Diego synagogue.
But in another sense, Biden made a high-stakes play that he’s likely unable to sustain. By starting his campaign with a video that juxtaposed Trump’s August 2017 remarks with the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson, Biden invoked the civil religion of the United States — the idea of national identity rooted in ideals. Immediately after introducing the central ideas, documents, and historical figures, we have to face the fact that the country hasn’t “always lived up to them,” in the language of the video. In other words, it’s a complicated and risky place to land in a presidential campaign.
Contemporary narratives about race and civic ideals often carry the idea that the country has been striving in a linear fashion toward living up to our values, impeding only by outdated institutions and evil people. The real story is more complex, and often devastating. Racism is rooted in society and institutions, and leaders who have sought to really change things have paid steep costs. The assassinations of major figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln — to say nothing of less well-known activists who paid for their convictions with their lives — did not come out of nowhere. Making social equality and freedom for all a reality is a very difficult process, beyond well-chosen words and videos with stirring music. The treatment of civic religion as a point of national consensus and a political rallying cry isn’t totally true to that history.
At a time when the Democratic field is especially fractured, Biden’s choice of issue to lead with presses on both a potential fissure and a weak point for his own candidacy. While the two parties are less internally divided about race issues than at many points in the past, race and identity still have great potential to turn partisans against each other. We’ve seen this a few times, as the candidates have answered questions about racial inequality, voting rights, and reparations. To put it bluntly, some of the candidates have been called to acknowledge white privilege, a question made more complicated by other identities (gender, sexual orientation, religion) at play.
Still, it’s not entirely about the identities of the candidates — Kamala Harris, the most prominent candidate of color, has come under fire for her record as a prosecutor in California. Democratic candidates and voters might be in broad agreement that racial inequalities are a problem, but figuring out how to address them and reconcile new ideas with past records remains difficult.
Racial equality is also an issue that’s rife with liabilities for Biden, and his announcement didn’t sit well with some observers. (He also didn’t talk to the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed in Charlottesville, before making the video.) Biden has a long record of statements, positions on issues like busing, and leadership on policies like the drug war that no longer fit with the Democratic Party’s mainstream positions. He runs a real risk of looking like he’s trying to gain political capital using issues where Trump can be cast as a clear villain, while neglecting to take on the difficult questions that divide his own party and failing throughout his career to show political courage when the well-being of African Americans was at stake.
In other ways, Biden’s choice might have been an apt way to audition for the role he seeks. His polls this week look good, especially among African American voters. Presidential rhetoric has been a way for ideas about American national identity to spread. This task is especially important and difficult because of the diversity of the country, and the next president will have to deal with a fragmented, frustrated nation in which identity has great political salience. It’s possible that by jumping into the campaign on a complicated and controversial note, Biden is demonstrating that he understands what that entails. But his record — and the country’s — suggests that the task he’s laid out won’t be straightforward or easy.