Joe Biden has finally declared – but whether he’s the man to take on Trump remains to be seen

It is early days, but it is hard to avoid the impression that the former vice president is promising Americans a better yesterday

Thursday 25 April 2019 17:48
Joe Biden launches his 2020 presidential campaign

After a prolonged period in which he mercilessly teased his party, the media and American voters about his intentions, Joe Biden has finally declared his candidature for the presidency.

It was hardly unexpected, having previously let slip his plans in the past. He has, in fact, run for the presidency, with varying degrees of seriousness, three times before. He is a respected former vice president under Barack Obama, and one of the most experienced players at the top of American politics – including a 36-year stint as a senator for Delaware. British observers with long memories will recall his plagiarism of a Neil Kinnock speech back in 1987: “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?”

Mr Biden has come a long way since that indiscretion, with only some distasteful allegations about inappropriate touching of women damaging his basic electability. His age – at 76 he would be one of the older candidates to run for the highest office – may not be much of a campaign issue when Donald Trump is only a few years younger. Mr Biden’s choice of running mate, if he gets that far, might be more pertinent.

Could he do the job? He is well qualified, not least after his eight years in Barack Obama’s cabinet. Yet in his opening video pitch there was little sense of what he might do with the presidency. He presented himself as a sort of Marvel comics superhero – dragging himself out of retirement to save the nation he loves because of “threat to the nation unlike any seen in my lifetime”, a span that includes the Second Word War, Vietnam, Watergate and the successive struggles for civil rights.

Mr Biden is precise about the moment he sensed this danger. Focusing on the disgraceful scenes in Charlottesville Virginia in 2017, when Klansmen, neo-Nazis and white supremacists converged in a “Unite the Right Rally”, he recalled President Trump’s remark that there were “very fine people on both sides”. Rightly condemning such bogus moral equivalence, Mr Biden reminds his audience of the title of an article he wrote at the time – “We are living through a battle for the soul of the nation”.

As a statement of his values and a statement of fundamental American values, Mr Biden’s broadcast cannot be faulted. No doubt sincerely, he fears that America could be changed forever if Mr Trump secures another term in the White House. Given what we have seen since 2016, it is a plausible claim.

However, Mr Biden is much less ringing in his policy prescription. Indeed, he was silent about what he stands for beyond the pledge to “give hate no safe harbour”. It is early days, but it is hard to avoid the impression that Mr Biden is promising Americans a better yesterday. His very longevity as a Democrat leader tends to place him firmly in the Clinton-Obama tradition, with all the drawbacks that entails. He is probably a more impressive campaigner than Hillary Clinton, but in terms of that association with the past and a broadly centrist agenda, it is not immediately obviously why he would be able to improve on her showing against Mr Trump last time round. Mr Biden is too old a hand not to realise that he will need to erode at least part of Mr Trump’s famous “base” in order to win the electoral college (bearing in mind that Ms Clinton did win the popular vote in 2016).

In many ways, then, Mr Biden is lumbered with the usual problem every vice president or former vice president faces when campaigning for the presidency – the need to project a vision of change and the future, but without trashing their own immediate past record. Many more have failed than succeeded, including Richard Nixon (1960), Hubert Humphrey (1968), Walter Mondale (1984) and Al Gore (2000).

Mr Biden will also find it hard to beat Bernie Sanders, who gave Ms Clinton such a run for her money for the Democratic nomination in the three years ago. Like Ms Clinton, Mr Biden will find himself struggling to combat a left-wing populist to become his party’s choice, and then in what promises to be a brutal scrap with the right-wing populism and nationalism of President Trump – who will now enjoy all the additional advantages of incumbency. Mr Trump has many well-publicised faults, but virtually every American can list his main policy pledges – build the wall, protectionism, and bring back jobs. Mr Biden will need to have the same.

For the moment, Mr Biden seems to be his party’s front runner, if only because the competition is even less likely to be able to overcome to Trump machine. Other than Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, with her radical promise to abolish college fees and write off student debts, is probably the one who will give Mr Biden most trouble; others, such as Beto O’Rourke and Peter “Mayor Pete” Buttigieg lack the political or media experience to attract the votes they will need, either in the primaries or in a federal election.

In fact, the most consistently strong performer in the opinion polls, when set against President Trump is someone called “Hypothetical Democrat”, a figure that the voters would like their next Democrat president to be, but who does not yet conform to any of the existing putative real human beings who’ve declared their interest. When Hypothetical Democrat is made flesh, then America and the world can start to look forward to the end of what Mr Biden thinks of as the “aberrant moment” of the Trump presidency. Until then, though, and with the Mueller inquiry apparently behind him, Mr Trump can look forward to next year with a frightening degree of optimism.

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