Washington, D.C.

Biden announces 2020 run for president

Former vice president avoids almost any talk of policy or ideology
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference in Washington in April.
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers conference in Washington in April.

Former Vice President Joe Biden announced Thursday that he would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020, casting the election as a national emergency and asking Democrats to put the task of defeating Trump above all their other ambitions.

In a 3 1/2-minute video that focused on excoriating Trump, Biden presented himself as a steely leader for a country wracked by political conflict. Unlike the wide field of Democrats competing for the affections of the left, Biden avoided almost any talk of policy or ideology, signaling that he believes voters will embrace him as a figure of stability and maturity even in a partisan primary election.

In doing so, Biden, 76, is making a bet of sorts that the Democratic Party’s leftward shift in recent years has been greatly overstated, and that the moral clarity of his rhetoric and his seeming strength as a general election candidate will overpower other considerations for Democratic voters who tend to prize youth, diversity and unapologetic liberalism.

Laying out for the first time why he wanted to run for president, Biden invoked the white supremacist march through Charlottesville, Virginia, that ended in bloodshed in 2017 and Trump’s comment that there were “very fine people on both sides.” In that moment, Biden said in the video, “I knew the threat to our nation was unlike any I’d ever seen in my lifetime.”

“We are in the battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden said, warning that if Trump is re-elected, “He will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

Biden elaborated on his opening argument at a fundraising event in Philadelphia on Thursday evening, again decrying Trump’s response to the Charlottesville march. He rebuked what he described as Trump’s “embrace of dictators and oligarchs” and “the onslaught and constant attack on the courts, the constant attack on the press, the constant attack on even the Congress,” according to a recording of his remarks.

Trump did not respond to Biden’s video assailing his comments about Charlottesville, responding instead with a taunt, calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” and deriding the Democratic field as having “demented ideas.”

Biden enters the Democratic race as something of a front-runner, albeit one beset by challenges from all flanks and looming questions about his long political record. Allies of Biden believe he must take steps in short order to explain to voters his political evolution on a range of issues, including ones as elemental as criminal justice, abortion rights and the Iraq War.

In a sign he may recognize the urgency of that task, Biden recently spoke privately with Anita Hill, who in 1991 was questioned harshly by a Senate committee led by Biden after she accused Clarence Thomas, now a Supreme Court justice, of sexual harassment. Biden expressed regret, according to an aide, but in an interview Hill said she left the conversation feeling deeply unsatisfied and did not describe Biden as having apologized.

Biden’s long-awaited entry effectively completes the list of Democratic candidates, a cast of 20 characters that is the most diverse presidential field ever. Atop it, for now, are two white men in their eighth decades of life — Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Biden’s position as the leading Democratic candidate is an unfamiliar one for him. His two previous presidential bids, in 1988 and 2008, failed to catch on. Though he campaigned twice as former President Barack Obama’s running mate, Biden has never been the starring actor in a major political production of his own inception.

The overarching question of Biden’s campaign is whether he can fill that role with sufficient competence and imagination to both dispel Democratic concerns about his personal discipline and inspire younger voters for whom he is a relatively distant figure.

He gave a brief preview Thursday evening of how he might talk about issues besides Trump, telling the fundraising gathering that he would focus on “economic dignity” as an organizing concept.

“My North Star of what we’re going to talk about, in terms of the economy, is restoring the middle class, but looking at dignity, not just the GDP,” Biden said.

Biden is seen by most Democratic voters as a sympathetic figure, a trustee of Obama’s legacy whose life has been touched repeatedly by grievous tragedy. He has spoken frequently about the death of his first wife, Neilia, and his infant daughter in a 1972 car crash; the death of his son, Beau, in 2015 became an occasion of national mourning.

But Biden differs in profound ways, in his identity and political orientation, from the rising generation of voters and activists that has increasingly come to define the Democratic Party.

Biden is a white man who became a senator during Richard M. Nixon’s presidency, in a party seen as prizing youth and diversity. He is a centrist and a determined champion of bipartisanship, vying to lead a coalition that views the Republican Party as irretrievably malignant. And he plans to finance his campaign chiefly through large contributions from traditional party bankrollers, in an age of grassroots hostility to corporations and the very wealthy.

Biden has appeared alternately eager to campaign as Obama’s natural heir and also wary of subsuming his candidacy entirely in nostalgia for an earlier administration. He did not mention Obama in his announcement video, and he told reporters, in a brief exchange Thursday at the Wilmington, Delaware, Amtrak station that bears his name, that he did not want Obama’s backing at the outset.

“I asked President Obama not to endorse and whoever wins this nomination should win it on their own merits,” Biden said.

A spokeswoman for Obama issued a statement Thursday praising Biden warmly but not endorsing him, and over the last year Obama has quietly encouraged a range of other candidates to pursue the presidency.

The dividing line in Democratic politics around Biden’s candidacy was immediately apparent Thursday morning. He was instantly endorsed by a number of prominent moderates, including Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Doug Jones of Alabama, and the International Association of Firefighters is expected to back him early next week. In the crucial early state of New Hampshire, a popular former governor, John Lynch, agreed to help lead Biden’s campaign.

“I think he’s right that we need to restore the soul of America,” Lynch said, adding, “I think somebody in the middle has a better chance of beating Donald Trump.”

At the same time, a number of vocal liberal activists and advocacy groups offered blunt criticism of Biden. One of the more influential groups on the insurgent left, Justice Democrats, issued a scathing statement rejecting Biden as an option in the race and describing him as a symbol of the Democratic establishment that was unable to stop Trump in 2016.

“The old guard of the Democratic Party failed to stop Trump, and they can’t be counted on to lead the fight against his divide-and-conquer politics today,” said Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director.

Biden is poised to embark on an ambitious and highly visible campaign schedule. After a fundraising event in Philadelphia on Thursday evening, Biden is scheduled to appear Friday on ABC’s “The View,” in his first television interview as a candidate.

Biden plans to visit a Pittsburgh union hall Monday to make remarks on the economy, before embarking on a multiweek tour of the early primary states and California, culminating in a May 18 speech in Philadelphia about “unifying America,” his campaign said.

Facing intensifying scrutiny of his long record, Biden has yet to allay concerns about the most contentious aspects of his career. In recent months, he expressed remorse — without quite apologizing — for having supported draconian tough-on-crime measures in the 1980s and 1990s, and said he wished the Hill-Thomas hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee had gone differently.

Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for Biden, said Thursday that Biden had gone somewhat further in a personal conversation with Hill, voicing “his regret for what she endured and his admiration for everything she has done to change the culture around sexual harassment in this country.”

But Hill told The Times on Thursday that she could not support Biden, and told a reporter that he should “give an apology to the other women and to the American public” because of the wide-reaching social impact of the hearings. Biden is certain to have to address the issue again.

Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, said Biden would bring a unique set of political strengths to the race, but would also need to address aspects of his record that make progressives uneasy.

“I think it’s important that Biden perhaps help people understand that, as a 40-year member of Congress, his views have evolved,” said Morial, who suggested Biden might be well-equipped to make an explanation: “He is one of the few guys who is probably as comfortable talking to a group of truck drivers as he is in an African American church.”

A number of Biden’s competitors have already had months to find their footing in the race. The field includes muscular fundraisers like Sanders, Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas; intriguing underdogs, like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; and policy-minded liberals like Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, who have helped frame the race as a contest of ideas.

Biden’s rivals avoided criticizing him Thursday and several sent out fundraising appeals professing confidence in their own prospects. Harris praised Biden’s “wealth of knowledge,” before affirming, “I intend to win.” O’Rourke wrote that the primary was “wide open.”

As the race proceeds, other Democrats are expected to take on Biden’s record more bluntly, including his background as a Delaware senator loyal to the state’s credit card industry and his 2002 vote to authorize war in Iraq.

Biden’s private endeavors could also become political targets. He has earned millions of dollars through paid speeches and book deals since leaving office, and has created a network of nonprofits and academic centers that employ many of his trusted aides. He intends to shut down the most prominent of those groups, the Biden Foundation.

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