Former vice president Joe Biden opened his third campaign for the presidency on Thursday, efforts that have spread over 32 years, taking direct aim at President Donald Trump and declaring that “we are in the battle for the soul of this nation.”
In a video posted on social media, Biden recounted the deadly clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters at a 2017 gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia, after which Trump said there were “some very fine people on both sides.”
“In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had seen in our lifetime,” Biden said, adding: “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.”
The entry of Biden, 76 and for eight years the second-in-command to the last Democrat to successfully seek the presidency, is certain to shape the early months of the 2020 Democratic primary fight, given his early lead in national polling.
Biden made his announcement hours before a major campaign fundraiser was to take place in Philadelphia. His first campaign event, union-themed, is expected to be held Monday in Pittsburgh, a Democratic city whose suburbs and exurbs are filled with the sort of voters who abandoned the Democratic Party to side with Trump in 2016.
A Democratic force for nearly five decades, Biden built his career as a campaigner on his connection with working-class voters, including white voters he has sometimes called “the ethnic vote” — Midwestern Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics, or South Florida Jews. His campaign style tends toward the populism of Franklin Roosevelt, railing against those with money and power who he claims work against the needs of middle-class Americans.
“They don’t understand us middle-class folks,” Biden thundered repeatedly from the stump in 2012, when he was campaigning against then-Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
After Trump’s election in 2016, Biden made clear that he believed the cause was a failure by Democrats to connect with working voters.
“You didn’t hear a single solitary sentence in the last campaign about that guy working on the assembly line making 60,000 bucks a year and a wife making $32,000 as a hostess in [a] restaurant,” he said in a 2017 appearance at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the same time, Biden also is expected to play up — and benefit from — his tenure as vice president to the nation’s first black president. In early polling, Biden has been popular among black voters, who make up a dominant Democratic voting bloc in many states. Former president Barack Obama has indicated, however, that he will not make an early endorsement in the race.
As he finalized his run, Biden was buffeted by scrutiny for a wide range of positions that, in some cases, were in line with Democratic orthodoxy long ago but are now out of step — a circumstance that may presage what awaits him in the campaign.
Those include support for antibusing legislation in the 1970s, his role handling the Anita Hill hearings during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s nomination process, and his arm-twisting on behalf of a crime bill in the 1990s. He has attempted to address some of those issues in recent weeks but has often stumbled.
“To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved,” Biden said last month of the hearings on Thomas’ nomination, which he directed as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He has also come under criticism in recent weeks for his hands-on style. Several women have said made he them feel uncomfortable with hugs, pressing his forehead against theirs, or, in one case, smelling a Nevada politician’s hair.
Biden posted a video saying that “social norms are changing” and that he would be “much more mindful.” Two days later, however, he twice joked about the complaints during a speech to union workers.
For months, a tight group of current and former advisers has been knitting together a campaign plan to prepare for a run, talking with him as he has vacillated on his desire to throw his hat in the ring. They include Steve Ricchetti, a former lobbyist who served as his last chief of staff in the White House; former senator Ted Kaufman, D-Delaware, a longtime friend whom he helped appoint to his vacant Senate seat after the 2008 election; and Mike Donilon, a longtime aide.
A broader network of friends and former aides have signaled for months that they have hoped Biden would enter the race so they can join his campaign, an advantage his aides hope will allow him to quickly pull together a large organization. An underwhelming fundraiser in his first two campaigns for president, he is likely to be aided this time by deep-pocketed donors he got to know during the Obama years.
“We need to get more pragmatic and understand that Joe Biden is the only real chance to win in 2020,” said Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party. “My concern is our nominee has to be able to carry Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan — and I don’t see that in any of these other folks.”
Biden considered a late entry into the 2016 Democratic nomination fight, as a challenger to former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but decided against it as he mourned the death of his eldest son, Beau, from brain cancer at age 46. He later wrote a book explaining his decision as a personal one based on his emotional turmoil after his son’s death.
Biden’s earlier presidential races were disappointments.His first run, in 1988, was derailed by scandal when it was revealed that he had lifted parts of his stump speech from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock, among others. Two decades later, Biden cast himself in his second presidential run as the most experienced Democratic candidate in the field, especially on matters of national security.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have forgotten more about how to fight terror than Rudolph W. Giuliani will ever learn,” he said in one of his last rallies before the Iowa caucuses, referring to the former mayor of New York. “The test for this presidency is clear, it is crystal clear: Who can take these guys on, and who is ready from day one?”
Biden won less than 1 percent of the delegates in the 2008 Iowa caucuses, however, and dropped out of the race shortly afterward. Seven months later, Obama selected him as his running mate, a credit both to Biden’s experience as an inside player in Washington and to his perceived appeal among Midwestern voters.
In the White House, he was a constant presence in decision meetings, weighing in with Obama on a broad range of issues. He was also given special briefs, including the implementation of the 2009 stimulus bill, a failed effort to change gun laws after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and as a lead White House negotiator with congressional Republicans during budgetary standoffs.
Obama, who has remained a close friend and frequent booster of Biden, has spent the years since leaving the White House focused on developing “the next generation” of Democratic talent. Advisers say that has not been intended as a signal for Biden not to run, though Biden has written that he believed Obama tried to indirectly discourage him from entering the 2016 election during their private conversations.
At one point, the vice president met with an Obama pollster who argued, Biden wrote, that “I had no real path to the nomination” in a contest against Clinton.
First elected to the U.S. Senate by Delaware voters in 1972, at age 29, Biden went on to six re-elections, serving as the chairman of the Judiciary Committee during contentious confirmation battles over Supreme Court nominees Thomas and Robert Bork, and as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Like Clinton, he voted as a senator in 2002 to authorize the use of force in Iraq, which cleared the way for a war launched by President George W. Bush. Biden later said he regretted the vote. During the 2012 campaign, Biden praised Obama for overlooking his objections to approving a secret raid that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 2001 attacks. He later said he privately encouraged Obama to move forward with the raid in a separate conversation.
In recent months, he has been less aggressive than other presidential hopefuls in recruiting staffers, building an email list or reaching out for support in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
He did travel the country in the run-up to the midterms, campaigning for Democratic candidates with a message that is likely to pop up in his presidential campaign.
“We have to make clear that Democrats, Democrats choose hope over fear. Democrats choose unity over division, and most importantly, we choose truth over lies,” Biden said. “It’s time to get up. Remember who in the hell we are. This is America.”
Washington Post writer John Wagner contributed to this report.