Joe Biden launched his long-anticipated campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday, ending months of speculation — and, at various points, doubts — about his plans for 2020.
The two-term vice president under Barack Obama announced his candidacy, which he framed as a "battle for the soul of this nation," in a video posted from his social media accounts.
The video begins with Biden speaking straight to the camera about Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists rallied two years ago — "their crazed faces illuminated by torches, veins bulging, and bearing the fangs of racism," Biden says as footage of the riots appears on screen. He then hits President Donald Trump for his response to the protests: "That’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were quote 'some very fine people on both sides.' Very fine people on both sides?"
"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," Biden adds later. "And I cannot stand by and watch that happen."
Trump welcomed Biden to the race in the president's customary way: via Twitter and with a nickname.
A former senator from Delaware, Biden is expected to hold his first public campaign event Monday with union workers in Pittsburgh, a choice that underscores his intentions to heavily court blue-collar voters who backed Trump in 2016. He's then expected to travel to early caucus and primary states. The weeks-long rollout will culminate with a May 18 rally in Philadelphia.
His campaign will be a test on several fronts. Everything from his style (touchy-feely, to the point where he has made women uncomfortable) to his substance (proudly bipartisan, at a time when some on the left demand purity) scans as old-fashioned at a time of political transformation. While the depth of his experience is without parallel in the Democratic primary, he has a long history of votes and behavior that in the context of 2020 require further explanation — if not the kind of apologies that Biden, 76, often can be reluctant to make.
A recent example: After Lucy Flores, a Nevada Democrat, wrote an essay describing how Biden touched her shoulders, smelled her hair, and kissed the back of her head at a 2014 political event, Biden said he did not believe he had acted inappropriately. Alluding to the #MeToo era of women holding men accountable for their misbehavior, Biden also said "men should pay attention" when women such as Flores share their experiences. And then he released a video statement in which he said he would be "more mindful" of personal space going forward.
But a few days later, Biden made light of the accumulating accusations — Flores's and similar, subsequent stories of unwanted touching — by joking at an organized labor conference in Washington that he had received permission to hug a union president and put his arms around a child who had joined the former vice president on stage.
Polls show Biden enters the race as the early frontrunner in a field of at least 20 Democrats, with near-universal name recognition. His principal competition right now, though, illustrates the new political landscape he'll have to successfully navigate to be the nominee. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the democratic socialist from Vermont who has a deep connection with progressives suspicious of Biden, is close behind in some surveys. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are making big plays for progressive voters. And Pete Buttigieg, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has surged into the top tier of candidates with an "intergenerational justice" theme that could clash with Biden.
In spite of these dynamics (or maybe because of them) Biden took his time deciding to run, following another long and public deliberative process, not unlike the one he went through before deciding not to seek the nomination in 2016.
A 2016 run would have been somewhat of a surprise, given how much traction Hillary Clinton already had in the Democratic field, and given the recent tragedy the Biden had endured: the death of his eldest son, Beau, of brain cancer. But with the formation of the 2020 field — larger, more diverse, and more liberal than in past cycles — Biden's indecision had become something of a spectacle.
While his would-be rivals were out campaigning in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, Biden was teasing Democrats with his scattered public appearances in friendly settings such as college campuses and union confabs. As declared candidates were raising money and hiring staff — those who weren't waiting for Biden to make up his mind — Biden was huddling with social media wizards to sharpen his skills in a medium outside his comfort zone.
Advisers, in the run-up to Biden's announcement, had tacitly discussed age as a liability. There also had been signals around his close-knit team that family — from the appetite of his wife, Jill, for a third White House campaign to a divorce involving his youngest son, Hunter — would be a factor in his decision. Biden, though, said his family was on board with a run during a late February appearance at the newly named Joseph R. Biden School of Public Policy and Administration at the University of Delaware. The "most important people in my life ... want me to run."
For Biden, the overarching question now may be: Can he unify progressive factions of the party and more pragmatic Democrats who see Biden or someone who shares his more moderate tendencies as the best option for beating Donald Trump?
The Democratic Party and overall political environment that are much different than they were the last time Biden ran alone as a candidate in 2008. Then, his bipartisan nature and establishment-friendly bona fides were selling points. Now, he can find himself in trouble with merely a casual reference to Vice President Mike Pence — hated by many on the political left for his views on LGBT issues — as a "decent guy," as Biden did in February at the University of Nebraska Omaha. (The occasion allowed for Biden to try out his new social media savvy; he attempted a quick cleanup on Twitter, a rarity for him.)
There's also Biden's handling of Anita Hill's testimony when she accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during Supreme Court confirmation hearings he oversaw in 1991; his championing of a crime bill that has become a source of deep criticism for its handling of drug sentencing and policing in the intervening years; and his 2003 eulogy for segregationist Strom Thurmond. Running for president in 2020 could mean reckoning with all of these. Some Democrats have wondered aloud if it is time for a new generation to move into the fore.
Still, Biden's combination of longtime experience and broader appeal are unique — at a time when some Democrats argue the key is winning back a kind of middle-class, heartland voter who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and later became a Trump voter. He has stronger relationships with many Democrats in Washington than others running for president, something he's expected to try and bank on with a string of early endorsements. (Soon after his announcement Thursday morning, Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania declared his support for Biden.) And he does have a string of progressive accomplishments to bring to the race, from being out front of the Obama administration on marriage equality to his work authoring the Violence Against Women Act.
Although in the wake of Clinton's 2016 defeat some argued he should have run, Biden has run for president twice — and neither campaign went well. In 1988, he left the race after facing accusations of plagiarism. In 2008, he ran again, found little traction, and ended up as Obama's running mate. Biden has signaled in recent weeks that he will align himself closely with the Obama era — even if the former president has shown no intention to endorse his old running mate.
“Joe Biden has been running for president and losing since the ‘80s. 2020 won’t be any different," Republican National Committee communications director Michael Ahrens said in a statement issued after Biden's announcement. "Biden’s fingerprints are all over foreign policy blunders and the weakest economic recovery since World War II. We don’t need eight more years of Biden. Just ask President Obama, who isn’t even endorsing his right-hand man.”