Like a modern-day Hamlet, Joe Biden has made a Shakespearean drama out of his drawn-out decision about whether to enter the race for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
It is a role the former vice president has played before, publicly vacillating over a potential candidacy during the 2016 presidential campaign, and ultimately choosing not to run so soon after the death of his son Beau from brain cancer. Twice before, in 1988 and 2008, Biden ran unsuccessfully for the nomination.
As The Washington Post recently described it, “Over nearly four decades — from the time he was a young senator until now, as a septuagenarian former vice president — he has engaged in a process of prolonged angst about whether to run. Or not to run.”
Now, by many informed accounts citing people close to him and familiar with his thinking, Biden will announce within the month that he’s running for president.
Speculation that he is very close to announcing mounted as Biden spoke Tuesday at the International Association of Fire Fighters meeting, a perfect setting for him to pitch himself and a potential campaign as a fighter for the common, middle-class American household.
“I appreciate the energy you showed when I got up here,” he said to the cheering crowd, some wielding posters with the words, “Run Joe Run.”
“Save it a little longer,” Biden joked. “I may need it in a few weeks. Be careful what you wish for. Be careful what you wish for.”
Should Biden decide to run, he would enter the field as a behemoth, upending the race as the putative frontrunner and potentially dwarfing most other competitors before the contest really gets going. Several recent polls suggest he’s the favorite of about one-in-three Democrats in early caucus and primary states to win the nomination, even though he has yet to announce his candidacy.
According to the Real Clear Politics survey of national polls released earlier this week, Biden is the clear frontrunner in the Monmouth, Emerson, and Des Moines Register/CNN polls of Iowa caucus-goers. Similarly, he is the preferred choice in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, besting a dozen or so announced candidates. His closest competitor in most polls is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who garners support from one-in-five Democrats surveyed on average.
But all the horse-race jockeying means little at this point, especially since Biden has yet to make his intentions known.
In much the same way that it takes hardline enthusiasts to monitor a golf leaderboard on the Friday morning of a weekend tournament, only Washington insiders, pundits and campaign nerds care about the horse race of presidential politics almost a year before the first primary ballot is cast.
Biden’s advantage in early-stage polling only means that he has name recognition one would expect would be afforded a long-serving senator from Delaware who served eight years as the vice president to popular Democratic President Barack Obama.
He has been in the political game longer than all the other candidates — a double-edged sword that cuts in Biden’s favor, but also gives a wounding advantage to his critics. His record of nearly 40 years in public life is a banquet of votes, speeches, interviews, and statements that supporters and opponents can use in equal measure to attract and repel voters.
Clouds of doubts about Biden’s political past already are forming on the horizon of his yet-to-be campaign, and there’s plenty for reporters and campaign opposition teams to chew over.
There is, of course, that still-embarrassing matter of Biden’s conduct as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Commitee in 1991, during the confirmation hearings for the-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. In the current “Me Too” era of awareness of sexual harassment, Biden remains haunted by his failure to call witnesses before the committee who certainly would have backed up Anita Hill’s accusations against Thomas.
Toi Hutchinson, president of the National Association State Legislators and an Illinois Democratic state senator, said Biden will have to answer repeated questions on the campaign trail about the Thomas hearing. “It’s not going to be something he can charm out of,” Hutchinson said in an interview with Politico. “I think in 2018, you can’t just smile it away. I think what [Biden] does best is when he goes straight up the middle, takes it on directly. I don’t think there’s any other way.”
The Thomas hearing is one of many past missteps that Biden will have to correct. Matt Viser at The Washington Post noted recently that as a freshman senator in the mid-1970s, Biden fought against sending white kids to schools in black neighborhoods to achieve desegregated education. Worse, he argued forcefully that racism wasn’t at play in school segregation and that the federal government shouldn’t get too involved in desegregating schools.
Viser dug up this doozy of a Biden quote from a Delaware-based weekly newspaper. The article was published in 1975 as debate raged across the country over the viability and necessity of busing to overcome racially segregated public schools:
I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race. I don’t buy that.
Similarly, Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times offered a shrewdly critical assessment of Biden’s public career that foreshadowed some of the arguments that political opponents may use to undercut his self-promotion as a pragmatic, centrist who can heal warring factions in the nation.
Bouie pointed out that, far from being as progressive as he might claim on the 2020 campaign trail, Biden’s past positions bear the faint whiff of the white resentment that fueled Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign. As Bouie writes:
For decades Biden gave liberal cover to white backlash. He wasn’t an incidental opponent of busing; he was a leader who helped derail integration. He didn’t just vote for punitive legislation on crime and drugs; he wrote it. His political persona is still informed by that past, even if he were to repudiate those positions now. Biden could lead Democrats to victory over Trump, but his political style might affirm the assumptions behind Trumpism. The outward signs of our political dysfunction would be gone, but the disease would still remain.
On the other hand, Democratic voters seem to have short memories and an eagerness to forgive past transgressions. In Biden’s case, his current popularity stems from his eight-year term as vice president to the still-popular Obama and his willingness to aggressively push back against the hollow and abusive rhetoric of the current president.
Harry Enten at CNN noted as much in a recent column, arguing that Obama is Biden’s “not so secret weapon.” Biden would do well to wrap himself in all things Obama, pledging to bring back the aura of those pre-Trump glory days for Democrats, Enten said.
“Obama is still a rock star to Democrats throughout the nation,” Enten wrote. “His favorable rating stood at an astounding 97 percent among Democrats in a CNN poll taken last year…Biden’s best chance of winning is not to run from his record. It’s merely to focus on his most recent record. Biden should point voters to his time as Obama’s number two. It’s far from a guarantee that it will work, though it really could help ameliorate the potential flaws of his past record in the Senate.”
To be sure, Biden’s longevity in politics has blessed him with a deep roster of powerful friends in high places, especially among Democratic party activists around the nation.
“Nobody knows what Joe Biden is going to do, at least, I don’t,” Don Fowler, a key and influential Democratic voice in South Carolina, said in a recent interview with Think Progress. “But I can tell you that he has a lot of friends in South Carolina.”
Many of those friends in South Carolina, a key early primary state that may foretell the ultimate victor in the nomination race, are black Democrats.
“He has been very, very much endeared to the black community in a number of ways,” said Dot Scott, the president of the Charleston branch of the NAACP, told McLatchy newspapers in a recent interview.
“The fact that he served as vice president for the first African-American president and was able to form the kind of bond that seems to have existed between the two of them, that’s another signal to the black community that there must be something special about that man.”
Meanwhile, potential campaign aides are issuing talking points that suggest Biden is soon to hit the hustings.
CBS News reported it obtained documents that with apparent campaign talking points that stressed how Biden “has spent his entire life dedicated to trying to make life easier for hardworking people in this country. He is passionate, he is emphatic, he is trustworthy — and voters know these things about him. It’s why he’s atop so many polls — it’s not because voters know his name, it’s because they. know his character. They know who he is.”
That sounds like the clearest possible evidence that Biden has reached his decision.
But still, there’s been no official announcement from the candidate himself, and the wait for Biden to make up his mind — to be or not to be — a 2020 candidate continues.