Former Vice President Joe Biden, a product of the working class who became a key adviser in the Obama administration following a long career in the Senate, officially entered the Democratic race for president Thursday by declaring “we are in a battle for the soul of this nation.”
Biden’s entrance comes four years after his son’s death led him to decline the opportunity to take on then-candidate Donald Trump.
“The core values of this nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America, is at stake,” Biden said in an announcement video.
He also released a video in Spanish that focused on health care and college affordability.
The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native did not mince words in the video, which launched shortly after 6 a.m. In it, Biden focused on Trump’s response to a 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which culminated with the killing of 32-year-old counter-protester Heather Heyer.
“That’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the nation,” Biden said of Trump’s comment that there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
“In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike like any I had seen in my lifetime.”
Trump welcomed Biden to the race in a tweet that referred to him as “Sleepy Joe” but didn’t touch on Biden’s attack: “I only hope you have the intelligence, long in doubt, to wage a successful primary campaign. It will be nasty – you will be dealing with people who truly have some very sick & demented ideas. But if you make it, I will see you at the Starting Gate!”
Biden, who chased the presidency twice before, enters the 2020 primary as the front runner after leading most polls in the already-crowded field of Democratic candidates. But his decades of political experience could double as ammunition for his critics.
The 76-year-old joins a field filled with younger and more diverse candidates. He recently came under fire over allegations of inappropriate, though nonsexual, touching of women and then for joking about that behavior to a room filled, largely, with white men.
Whether Biden can appeal to an increasingly progressive Democratic party remains a big question going into the 2020 election.
The former six-term U.S. Delaware senator could provide voters the choice of a more middle-of-the-road candidate than others from the left wing, like Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
But Biden would be among the oldest candidates running for president. Only Sanders, an independent running as a Democrat, is older.
Speaking recently to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in D.C., Biden evoked his Scranton roots and his ability to attract moderate voters disillusioned by a chaotic Trump administration. Perhaps not coincidentally, IBEW was the first organization to endorse Biden when he ran for Senate in the early 1970s.
The speech was his first since several women accused Biden of making them uncomfortable with his characteristic, yet uninvited, touchy behavior. He acknowledged the accusations, saying in a video posted online that he’s spent his career trying to make human connections but that he understands that “social norms began to change” and that he will adjust to them.
A popular vice president under former President Barack Obama, Biden hinted in several interviews this year that he considered running four years ago but ultimately stepped aside in favor of Hillary Clinton after his son, Beau Biden, died from brain cancer in 2015.
In January 2016, he told NBC Connecticut of the decision that, “I regret it every day, but it was the right decision for my family and for me.”
On Thursday, Obama wasted no time showing his support for Biden, though he stopped short of offering an official endorsement. Biden told reporters on Thursday that he asked Obama not to endorse him in order to keep a level playing field heading into the primaries.
“President Obama has long said that selecting Joe Biden as his running mate in 2008 was one of the best decisions he ever made,” an Obama spokesperson said in a statement.
Obama and Biden “forged a special bond” during their shared time in the White House and remain close friends, according to the statement. Obama relied on Biden’s insight, knowledge and judgment throughout his entire presidency and two campaigns.
Biden will appear in Pittsburgh next week and will hold a rally in Philadelphia May 18. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won a solid victory in Philadelphia but failed to secure the statewide vote. Trump, on the other hand, zeroed in on Pennsylvania early into his candidacy and has visited the Keystone State several times since taking office.
Democrats appeared to have learned a valuable lesson in the last election. A group of prominent party leaders in Pennsylvania, including Sen. Bob Casey, former Gov. Ed Rendell and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, are scheduled to throw a fundraiser Thursday for Biden in Philadelphia.
The fundraiser will be hosted by seven Democratic members of Congress from Pennsylvania, and will take place at the home of David Cohen, former Rendell chief of staff and senior executive vice president of Comcast Corp., the parent company of NBC News and this website.
Biden advisers recently said they were working to build out a robust campaign staff, including operatives in Iowa and South Carolina, states that are seen as key to his path to the nomination. Women are being considered for key roles, including senior strategist and deputy campaign manager, according to advisers, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the planning publicly.
Trump said publicly that he is not threatened by a Biden candidacy, but the president asked his close advisers whether he should be worried about going up against the former VP, CNBC reported in March. One source for the story cited Biden’s more moderate viewpoints. In an interview with Fox News in January, Trump called Biden “weak” and said that Obama “took him off the trash heap” when he chose him as his vice president in 2008.
Yet Biden’s ties to his hardscrabble hometown of Scranton made him a compelling messenger for workers whose jobs and livelihoods remain under threat by globalization and outsourcing. His role in an Obama administration that poured billions of dollars into rescuing the U.S. auto industry from the 2008 financial crisis also gives him a unique opportunity to connect with Midwestern voters.
“It’s a mantle that is open to be grabbed by people who are willing to talk to these voters in an authentic way, in sharing their frustrations,” Tom Russell, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist who aided the party’s successful effort to topple GOP Gov. Scott Walker in 2018, told The Associated Press.
“Biden has a history of being able to do that,” Russell said.
This is Biden’s third run for president. His first in 1988 was derailed by charges that he plagiarized a speech by Neil Kinnock, leader of the British Labor Party — though he had cited it in earlier appearances — as well as passages from Robert F. Kennedy, John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.
In 2008, he struggled to get attention against Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton but got to know Obama and in the end joined the future president’s ticket.
Biden led the pack in a field of 24 contenders in a Monmouth University Poll out Tuesday. It said he has the support of 27% of Democrats voters leaning towards Democrats, followed by Sanders with 20% and Sen. Kamala Harris of California and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg with 8% each.
While he would be the oldest U.S. president ever elected, toughness has never been an issue for Biden. He watched his family slide from economic prosperity into hardship during their time in Scranton, and he credits the experience with his ability to overcome great tragedy, including the losses of a wife and two children.
Biden first entered politics in 1970 as a member of the New Castle County Council after graduating from the University of Syracuse law school two years earlier. He started working as a defense attorney in Wilmington and launched his own law firm in 1971.
By 1972, Biden was 29 and a U.S. senator-elect. But one month after the election, and just a week before Christmas, his first wife, Neilia, and daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash.
Nevertheless, Biden went on to serve 30 years in Congress. He credited his dad with teaching him how to cope with insurmountable loss.
“The measure of a man is not how often he is knocked down, but how quickly he gets up,” his father used to say, according to Biden’s biography.
In 1977, he married his current wife, Jill, and they had a daughter, Ashley. Biden had two other sons from his first marriage.
But in 2015, tragedy struck again. Biden’s oldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer, which prompted Biden to step away from a 2016 presidential run despite pleas from close friends, including Obama.
In his memoir, Biden wrote that Beau, a veteran who served as Delaware’s attorney general, made him “promise” to persevere despite the loss. Three years after Beau died, Biden set off on a book tour. “Promise Me, Dad” documented Beau’s diagnosis and how those events shaped Biden’s final years in the nation’s second-highest office — and ultimately his decision not to seek the top job in the last election.
His son’s death “left a hole in the heart of everybody in the family,” Biden wrote in his memoir. “It takes time to come back. I’m surprised how much time it took, because I’ve been through this before.”
To recover from the shock, Biden leaned on his aides to keep him busy with official duties, according to his book.
“The only way I’m going to get through this is if you just keep me busy. Schedule me,” he recalled directing his chief of staff Steve Ricchetti.
Perhaps because he has lost so much, Biden maintains a close-knit group of advisers comprising Valerie Biden Owens, his sister; longtime consultant Mike Donilon; former Sen. Ted Kaufman and former communications director Kate Bedingfield, NBC News reported.
Any blueprint the group builds for 2020 would likely closely resemble what they readied for 2016, but with an added emphasis on Biden’s potential to unify the party and ultimately the country after a turbulent Trump era.
The North Star for Biden would be revitalizing the middle class, a plan Biden touted in a speech last year at the Brookings Institution. He called for a more progressive tax code, free tuition at community colleges and state universities, stronger labor protections and expanded skills training for American workers and a major infrastructure package.
“Folks in the middle class are in trouble,” he said in the speech, in which he quoted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in decrying the “phony populism” that fueled Trump’s rise.
“If we have a weak middle class, we become a fractured country,” Biden said. “When opportunity fades, people feel left out. … And it’s the lack of hope, the lack of opportunity that’s driving so much of what’s happening today.”
Biden would also likely highlight decades’ of relationships with Republicans and foreign leaders and promote his record on civil and women’s rights.
During his time as vice president, Biden declared his public support for same-sex marriage before Obama. According to a 2014 POLITICO story, Biden was shut out of insider meetings for months as a result of going off-script.
Indeed Biden’s decades in public life that he portrays as an asset also carry challenges. The Washington Post, for instance, reported that he opposed busing children in the mid-1970s as schools sought to further integrate classrooms.
Similarly, in 1993, he warned of “predators on our streets” in a speech about crime a day before the U.S. Senate voted on the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, CNN reported. Former President Bill Clinton signed the act into law.
“We have predators on our streets that society has, in fact, in part, because of its neglect, created,” Biden said.
“They are beyond the pale many of those people, beyond the pale,” he said. “And, it’s a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society.”
Two years earlier in 1991, Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing into Anita Hill’s accusation of sexual misconduct against Thomas.
Biden was criticized for his handling of the hearing and the grilling Hill received, though he later said he believed her and that he owes Hill an apology.
The gaffes continued to follow Biden well into the current phase of his public life. He recently angered some in the LGBTQ community when he called Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy.”
The comment was quickly criticized by fellow Democrats, including actress and activist Cynthia Nixon, who tweeted that Biden had complimented “America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader.”
“You’re right, Cynthia. I was making a point in a foreign policy context, that under normal circumstances a Vice President wouldn’t be given a silent reaction on the world stage,” Biden tweeted in response. “But there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”
The episode showed just one of the challenges the Biden will face. In promoting his relationships with Republicans, Biden also risks alienating the Democrats he would need to win a primary.
Like McCain, Biden comes from a generation of politicians accustomed to touting their ability to reach across the aisle. Whether the strategy will work in 2020 remains to be seen.
In his book, Biden ends with a passage characteristic of his political approach.
“How do I want to spend the rest of my life?” he asks. “I want to spend as much time as I can with my family, and I want to help change the country and the world for the better. That duty does much more than give me purpose; it gives me something to hope for. It makes me nostalgic for the future.”