WASHINGTON — After months of hinting and deliberation, after endless will-he-or-won’t-he stories, and after a potential campaign announcement in Charlottesville, Virginia, was leaked to the media and then scrapped, Joe Biden has made it official: He’s running for president.
The former vice president and Democratic senator from Delaware announced his candidacy in a three-and-a-half-minute video released Thursday morning. His first rally as a presidential contender is scheduled for Monday at a union hall in Pittsburgh. “We are in the battle for the soul of this nation,” Biden said in the video. “I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time. But 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, and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”
A fixture in American politics for nearly 50 years, and a wingman for two terms to Barack Obama, Biden joins the field of nearly two dozen Democratic contenders in the unfamiliar position of frontrunner, having led most polls of the 2020 race so far. He will likely be able to raise tens of millions of dollars, given his extensive network of donors, and draw on some of the same supporters that twice elected President Obama. But his official roll-out follows several rocky weeks of public reckoning, in which he apologized for his role in mass incarceration, expressed regret over his handling of the Anita Hill hearing and faced criticism by numerous women who said they found his hair-kissing and shoulder-rubbing inappropriate and invasive. (Biden stopped short of saying sorry, but has vowed to change his style to respect personal space.)
Biden’s big pitch is that he can win back white, working-class voters in Midwestern states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He rarely misses a chance to tout his blue-collar hometown of Scranton, and aides believe he is one of the few candidates in the race who could claw back rural counties that Trump won in a landslide in 2016. Recent polls by Harvard-Harris and Monmouth University showed Biden with the strongest support among voters without a college education in the Democratic field.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Biden has sought to secure commitments for large-dollar donations in the weeks before his announcement. His plan, the Journal reported, was to announce a similarly large fundraising haul as candidates like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Beto O’Rourke, without the small-dollar donor network of some of his rivals.
Biden has some progressive cred. He famously backed same-sex marriage in 2012, getting ahead of the Obama White House and helping to shift the national debate. But his profile — a 76-year-old straight white man — could prove a liability as he joins the most diverse Democratic presidential field ever. There is a growing sense that today’s Democratic Party should nominate a woman, a person of color, or both, and that it should invest in winning bellwether or traditionally Republican states with burgeoning minority populations such as Georgia, Arizona and Florida.
Well before Biden declared himself a candidate, critics sought to cast him as out of sync with the modern Democratic Party. A Washington Post story resurrected objectionable comments he made in the mid-1970s about school integration and busing programs. “I don’t feel responsible for the sins of my father and grandfather,” Biden told a local weekly newspaper in 1975. “I feel responsible for what the situation is today, for the sins of my own generation. And I’ll be damned if I feel responsible to pay for what happened 300 years ago.”
Seeking to get ahead of his detractors, Biden embarked on a pre-candidacy apology tour, of sorts. In January, he called the mass incarceration spurred by the 1994 crime bill he championed “a big mistake.” In March, he came close to apologizing to Anita Hill for the treatment she received during the nomination hearings led by Biden for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, whom she accused of sexual harassment. “I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved,” Biden said.
He has also been walking back more recent gaffes. In February, he faced blowback for calling Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy.” Biden quickly apologized for the comment after ex-New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon slammed him on Twitter for speaking kindly of an avowed opponent of LGBT rights.
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.
But there is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) February 28, 2019
This is Biden’s third run for the presidency. He was a promising, effusive 45-year-old senator from Delaware in 1988, running on a platform of fighting against “materialist values, declining industries, drug abuse, inadequate schools and kids abandoned to poverty.” But Biden dropped out of the race after it emerged that he’d lifted passages from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey for his own speeches.
Two decades later, he ran in the crowded 2008 Democratic primary but dropped out after a disappointing finish in the first primary contest, the Iowa caucus. Then Obama picked Biden as his running mate, a source of amusement (The Onion: “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway”) that eventually grew into a strong partnership. President Obama referred to Biden as his “brother” and, in the final days of the administration, awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
By that point, Biden had already considered — then ruled out — a third presidential run that would have pitted him against Hillary Clinton for the party’s nomination. In an October 2015 press conference in the White House Rose Garden, he told reporters that he and his family had run out of “the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination.” Biden’s son Beau — who had urged his father to run — had died after a battle with brain cancer earlier that year, and a grieving Biden would have entered the race at a major disadvantage to Clinton, who had been running for six months at that point.
In interviews and public appearances, Biden has called Trump “a joke” and the president’s criticism of the FBI and the Justice Department “a disaster” and “everything Putin wanted.” He slammed Trump on the campaign trail last October for “trashing American values.”
As for his own chances in a presidential race, Biden has said he’s “the most qualified person in the country to be president,” as he put it during a December speech in Montana. “The issues that we face as a country today are the issues that I’ve worked on my whole life — the plight of the middle class and foreign policy.”
Biden will now find out whether he is the candidate that an angry, anxious and motivated Democratic base wants to champion those issues — but more than that, to defeat Trump.