WASHINGTON — It’s been a long, strange trip for Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s former No.2 who officially jumped into the crowded field of Democrats running for president on Thursday morning with a call to defend our “core values.”
Following months of speculation and rumors, the former vice president made his announcement with a short video in which he focused on the violent August 2017 white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Biden noted the ensuing clashes left a woman who came to protest the neo-Nazis dead. He then recounted President Trump’s response.
“That’s when we heard the words of the president of the United States that stunned the world and shocked the conscience of this nation. He said there were, quote, ‘Very fine people on both sides.’ Very fine people on both sides,” Biden said. “With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it. And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
Biden went on to note that, at the time, he said the events in Charlottesville convinced him we were in a “battle for the soul of this nation.” He predicted “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,” Biden said.
Against a backdrop of footage of key moments from American history including immigrants arriving in the early 20th century, soldiers fighting in World War II and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking to a crowd, Biden framed the coming presidential election as a fight for “the core values of this nation.”
“We can’t forget what happened in Charlottesville. Even more important, we have to remember who we are. This is America,” Biden said.
While the former vice president is immediately one of the frontrunners in the 2020 race, Biden has stumbled on his way to the head of the pack.
Biden’s lead in polls of the Democratic primary field has made his every move in recent months closely watched. And Thursday’s announcement was preceded by a series of false starts. On April 19, the Atlantic reported Biden would “make his candidacy official with a video announcement next Wednesday” with potential launch events in Virginia or Philadelphia. Then NBC reported Biden’s first event would be next week in Pittsburgh, and CNN claimed Biden postponed his announcement until Thursday because of concerns about the “poor optics” of double-booking with a Democratic forum focused on women of color. The launch timing and events weren’t the only things that changed. According to the New York Times, Biden scrapped his first announcement video and recorded a second version amid disagreements among his aides. And, of course, there was the moment in March when Biden seemed to accidentally declare his candidacy during a speech in his home state of Delaware.
A spokesperson for Biden did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
One former Biden staffer told Yahoo News they were confused by the campaign’s shaky start — particularly since the former vice president took much more time kicking off his campaign than his rivals. The rocky rollout left them questioning whether Biden had done his homework.
“He took so long. Was he really thinking about the specifics? Or was he just waffling and saying, ‘Well, I really want to run for president. I might do it. I might not,’” the ex-staffer said.
The former staffer also said they were dismayed at how many details of the campaign’s internal processes came out in the lead-up to Biden’s launch.
“Everything’s leaking like a f***ing sieve!” said the former Biden staffer.
A top Democratic strategist who discussed Biden’s launch with Yahoo News agreed that the rollout was turbulent.
“I think that these kinds of organizational glitches are not uncommon to Biden. I mean, it’s one of the reasons why he’s had issues in the past as a candidate,” the strategist said.
The strategist also suggested leaks come with the Biden territory since he has a well-earned reputation for being uniquely outspoken.“You’re talking about the most voluble character in politics, and he talks to a lot of people. So, my guess is, if there have been leaks, a lot have come from him inadvertently because he’s talking about this stuff,” the strategist said.
Still, the strategist argued these issues were the cost of Biden’s charm.
“I mean some of this stuff is just priced into the stock,” the strategist said, adding, “Everyone’s strengths are weaknesses, and he’s a garrulous, genuine guy.”
And his leads in the polls do indicate voters appreciate Biden’s reputation as an authentic advocate for the middle class.
“He has significant strengths as witnessed by the fact he has held up in the pole position for the last six to eight months or so,” the strategist said.
And though the former Biden staffer was worried by aspects of his road to the announcement, they likely would be pleased with the final product. The staffer, who spoke with Yahoo News before the video was released, was concerned about indications Biden gave up on plans to launch his bid with an event in Charlottesville. They were “excited” by the notion he would begin with a focus on the 2017 white supremacist violence.
“He would come right out of the gate going at Trump and saying what he’s done to us is unacceptable,” the staffer said of a Charlottesville campaign kickoff.
But the drama surrounding the launch hasn’t been the only sign of troubles ahead for the ex-veep. Biden’s announcement was preceded by a widely covered controversy surrounding incidents in which women said he made them uncomfortable by being overly touchy. And elements of Biden’s political career have also generated negative headlines in recent weeks, including his opposition to busing programs to integrate schools and his handling of sexual harassment allegations that emerged against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation process. The strategist predicted more contentious moments from Biden’s past are also likely to surface.
“He has a 45-year-old record, and there have already been a bunch of oppo dumps about his record,” the strategist said. “It’s not going to be easy for him.”
Indeed, within less than a half-hour of Biden’s announcement, the Republican National Committee released a statement attacking his record.
“Joe Biden has been running for president and losing since the ’80s. 2020 won’t be any different. Biden’s fingerprints are all over foreign policy blunders and the weakest economic recovery since World War II. We don’t need eight more years of Biden. Just ask President Obama, who isn’t even endorsing his right-hand man,” RNC Communications Director Michael Ahrens said.
And, unlike his well-funded rivals, Biden will be starting the race with zero dollars in the bank. He’s also more likely to rely on major donors, which could fuel backlash amid a climate in which progressives have railed against corporate interests.
However, the lack of a war chest doesn’t seem to have stopped Biden from building an organization around him ahead of his launch. The senator has long been known as someone who has an inner circle of close advisers, and he seems to be drawing on that network for his campaign. Multiple sources told Yahoo News that Greg Schultz, a former adviser to Biden who had been the executive director of his PAC will lead his campaign. Sources also said Mike Donilon, another longtime Biden confidante will be on his team. Donilon and Schultz did not respond to requests for comment. A source also said Biden drew at least one staffer from the Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement that he launched in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania last year.
Biden is out in front after his wobbly start. Time will tell whether he is able to stay there.
“One should not presume that he’s going to be the nominee,” the strategist said of Biden. “Nor should you exclude him, he’s got genuine support and affection.”