Can Biden’s Washington Experience Propel Him to the White House?
Former Vice President Joe Biden announced Thursday he will seek the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, instantly catapulting him to the top of an increasingly crowded Democratic field vying to challenge U.S. President 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. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for President of the United States," Biden said in a message posted on Twitter.
The veteran Delaware senator and two-term vice president in the Obama administration has rivaled Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and other Democratic presidential aspirants in recent polls, although there is some question of whether he will be able to match their fundraising prowess. Biden’s experience in the areas of foreign affairs, criminal justice and domestic policy is unmatched by other presidential candidates.
But the 76-year-old politician’s old-school style of glad-handing and pressing the flesh recently came back to haunt him, when at least seven women, including a one-time candidate for lieutenant governor in Nevada, accused him of inappropriate touching, hugs and kissing at public events. While Biden has defended his past behavior as consistent with his lifelong effort to make a “human connection” with women and men alike, he pledged in a recent video to be “mindful” of people’s boundaries going forward.
“I get it, I get it, I hear what they’re saying, and I understand,” Biden said in the online video, although he subsequently twice made jokes about the recent criticism during a speech to a labor group.
Biden, who was born in Scranton, Pa., and later moved to Delaware, has a quality that many of his challengers lack — more than a half of century of experience in government and a long record of political decision-making — some of it at the highest echelons of government. He served for nearly four decades in the Senate, rising to chair the Judiciary Committee and Foreign Relations Committee. And then he served as President Barack Obama’s trusted vice president for eight years.
He gave his support to several U.S. foreign interventions, including the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and was instrumental in passing gun control legislation as well as a major overhaul of the criminal justice system.
However, through the prism of time and changing partisan values, some of Biden’s decisions and actions are highly suspect among more liberal-leaning Democrats and independents. He has had to answer for what many say was the Senate Judiciary Committee’s shabby treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, as well as the fact that the criminal justice reform he championed in 1994 condemned many black men to long prison sentences.
While some in the Democratic Party think Biden’s career in Washington will help him convince voters he can beat Trump next year, others argue the party needs a fresh face, someone who, like Trump, has experience outside Washington. Whether Biden’s record will be seen as an asset or a liability is the “$64,000 question,” said Jim Kessler of the Third Way, a center-left public advocacy group.
Early years and heartbreak
Biden has been in national politics almost his entire career. When he was 29 years old, he launched a long-shot Senate race against Delaware Republican Caleb Boggs, a war hero who had never lost an election. Biden edged out Boggs by a percentage point. His victory in 1972 made him, at that time, the second-youngest senator in U.S. history.
That victory was followed a few weeks later by unimaginable heartbreak: His wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash a week before Christmas while shopping for a Christmas tree. His two sons, Beau and Hunter, suffered serious injuries but survived the accident, and Biden took the Senate oath of office at Beau’s hospital bedside in 1973.
Biden wrote in his memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” that his sons “saved my life” after the accident with their emotional support.
More than 40 years later, Biden, who was by then remarried, was again touched by an unexpected tragedy — the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer at the age of 46. Biden has cited his family’s grief following Beau’s death in May 2015 as a reason he did not enter the Democratic presidential primary that year against Hillary Clinton.
In his memoir, Biden said he wrote in his diary the night after Beau’s death: “May 30. 7:51 p.m. It happened. My God, my boy. My beautiful boy.”
Joel Goldstein, of Saint Louis University School of Law, the author of two books on the vice presidency, told VOA the way Biden handled the tragedies “says something about his resilience, character and strength.”
“You get the sense that he, as someone who having suffered those tragedies, is very empathetic with other people. He is a comforter,” Goldstein said.
After Biden won his Senate race in 1972, he spent the next 36 years in the chamber, commuting by train most days more than 100 kilometers from Wilmington to Washington.
Biden has always advocated for bipartisanship, something his supporters view as a strength, but his challengers see as a potential liability to exploit in a hyper-polarized political environment.
In March, Biden described Vice President Mike Pence as a “decent guy,” but then had to backtrack from the remark after drawing criticism on the left because of Pence’s position against gay rights. Biden later tweeted, “There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights and that includes the vice president.”
“The fact that he needed to reverse himself on that is telling” as to what Democrats are looking for in their candidates, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.
Earlier this year, Biden told a conference of mayors in Washington, “I read in The New York Times today that one of my problems is, if I ever run for president, I like Republicans. OK, well, bless me Father, for I have sinned.”
Biden went on to say that the state of political polarization is hurting the country.
“It’s like we’ve divided the country into pieces. How can we be one America if we continue down this road? I don’t care what your party affiliation is,” he said.
Biden has expressed regret for parts of his Senate record, including support of the sweeping 1994 crime bill with its tougher sentencing requirements and his vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
He has also apologized for his treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearing, saying in March, “To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved.”
For all of the political retribution Biden faces for his past actions, he also boasts major successes, such as sponsoring the Violence Against Women Act, which made it easier to prosecute domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. Biden was also instrumental in helping to pass the Brady Bill, which required background checks for the purchase of most fire arms.
“It is fair to be criticized for the things that don’t hold up to history, but [Biden] should be credited on the things that do,” Kessler said.
Biden has twice before run for president, seeking the nomination in 1988 and 2008, but failed to gain much support from voters either time. He was forced to drop out of his first presidential race over a plagiarism scandal when he quoted the British politician Neil Kinnock verbatim during a debate at the Iowa State Fair, but did not cite him. He dropped out of the 2008 race after coming in fifth place in the Iowa caucuses, capturing less than 1% of the vote.
During his second campaign, Biden was known for his propensity to make verbal gaffes, including when he described his then-Democratic rival, Barack Obama, as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Biden has more recently said he believes his verbosity would not necessarily hurt him if he ran for president again, writing in his memoir, “Promise Me, Dad,” that by 2016, “The voting public was tired of careful and carefully packaged candidates.”
He added, “My reputation as a ‘gaffe machine’ was no longer looking like a weakness. The public could see that I spoke from the heart and I meant what I said.”
Obama, who went on to win the Democratic nomination and later the presidency, chose Biden as his vice presidential running mate in large part because of Biden’s long experience on the international stage, which Obama hoped would balance his own lack of resume in that area.
When Biden assumed the vice presidency, he was put in charge of many large projects, including the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the distribution of hundreds of billions of federal dollars to state and local governments to help the economy recover from the Great Recession. He also became the point person to work with Republicans in Congress to avoid government shutdowns and debt defaults.
“He was instrumental in every deal between Congress and the White House,” including Obama’s signature health care bill, Kessler said.
Obama surprised Biden in 2017 with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama described him as “the best vice president America’s ever had.”
The two men were famously affectionate, chronicled in countless internet memes, and their families were also close, including a friendship between first lady Michelle Obama and second lady Jill Biden as well as friendships between Obama’s daughters and Biden’s granddaughters.
After serving in Washington for nearly a half-century, Biden has been in public life longer than some of his Democratic challengers have been alive. He once defied his age in 1972 to become one of the youngest senators elected, and is again in an election where his age is front and center — this time, he would make history if elected by becoming the oldest person ever to enter the presidency.
While Biden is likely to be seen as the Democratic Party’s elder statesman and standard-bearer, he still has his work cut out to prove he is the best representative of the party, which has shifted considerably left even in the two years since Biden has been out of the vice presidency.
Despite the challenges, most national polls showed Biden at or near the top of the pack just before he entered the race for the Democratic nomination.
The fact that he is “doing well in the polls does show something — a genuine affection among Democrats for Biden, not just name recognition,” Kessler said.
However, Kondik, the University of Virginia analyst, noted it is also “possible that his polling numbers are now a high watermark. Everything is great until you become a candidate.”