Biden’s appeal: Is being the ‘anti-Trump’ enough?

Washington

In the summer of 1999, law student Michael Migliore was working as a legal aide in then-Sen. Joe Biden’s office in Wilmington, Delaware. While at a staff picnic at the Biden home, he ran into the senator himself in the basement. 

“Sit down!” Mr. Biden commanded. A lengthy conversation ensued. 

“We ended up talking – I’m not kidding – an hour and a half,” says Mr. Migliore, now counsel to the New Castle County Council in Delaware. “We talked about everything under the sun – family, law school, civil rights, legislation he had worked on.”

“Whether you’re royalty or a regular person, he has a knack for really relating to people, which most people don’t have,” Mr. Migliore adds. “He makes you feel special.” 

Sen. Joe Biden, Democrat of Delaware, holds his daughter Ashley for a family portrait as Vice President George H.W. Bush reenacts his administering of the oath of office on Capitol Hill in 1985.

Stories like this about Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, are legion. And if they involve a personal struggle – a loved one lost, a battle with stuttering, as he has had – Mr. Biden is on it. His own stories of loss – of his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash and the death from cancer decades later of his son Beau – have given him a well of empathy and a sense of purpose.

This is the personal Mr. Biden that many constituents and those around him know. To some, he is an everyman, the scrappy champion of the working class from Scranton, Pennsylvania. To others, he’s the ultimate Washington insider, a creature of the Senate who spent 47 years in “the swamp.” 

Supporters see the former vice president as a savvy moderate who knows how to reach across the aisle. Critics charge he’s an aging relic, hopelessly out of step with his own party and even, to some Republicans, a “Trojan horse for socialism.” 

After 50 years in politics, Mr. Biden is, in other words, many different things to many different people. But almost everyone agrees on who Mr. Biden isn’t: President Donald Trump.

Tonight, Americans will get to see the contrast themselves, when Mr. Biden and President Trump go toe-to-toe in a 90-minute televised debate, the first of three. Whether it can shake the dynamic of the presidential contest off its moorings seems unlikely. Mr. Trump has been consistently behind in national polls and in key battleground states, though nobody is counting him out. 

But as the nation faces what may be its most consequential election in generations – a choice made all the more stark amid a sudden, high-octane Supreme Court confirmation battle – the race may ultimately pivot on this question: Is being the anti-Trump enough to win Mr. Biden the White House?

Polls show the former longtime senator from Delaware doesn’t inspire intense passion among supporters so much as a kind of basic comfort. But the flip side is that he doesn’t seem to inspire hatred, either. 

Four years ago, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton engendered such dislike that many swing voters framed the choice between her and Mr. Trump as the lesser of two evils. At Trump events today, anti-Hillary merchandise still abounds, while Mr. Biden seems almost an afterthought.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden greets a parishioner at a Baptist church in North Charleston, South Carolina, on Feb. 23, 2020.

“He’s a 77-year-old comfortable shoe with 47 years of Washington experience,” says Ari Fleischer, who served in the George W. Bush administration. “People have a feel for him. He’s not Hillary – he’s likable enough.” 

Perhaps Mr. Biden’s biggest liability is his age. If elected, he’d be the oldest first-term president in American history – by eight years – and to some voters, he’s not as vigorous as he used to be.

Still, that may be undercut somewhat by the fact that Mr. Trump himself currently holds the record for oldest president ever elected to a first term.

And Democratic hands who go way back with Mr. Biden say he’s up to the task. He would bring his decades of experience, as well as his people skills, to address the challenge of a lifetime – setting the nation and its politics on a path to some kind of normality and sense of unity. 

“By virtue of his personality and his willingness to listen to others, that’s a good way to begin the process,” says Leon Panetta, a former member of Congress and Cabinet secretary in two Democratic administrations. “But that doesn’t guarantee success.”

A party moving leftward

Today, Mr. Biden’s immediate goal is winning on Nov. 3. And regardless of what the polls say, or the multiple crises facing the nation, Democrats know that unseating an incumbent president won’t be easy.

The last to succeed was Bill Clinton, the charismatic young governor of Arkansas who rebranded the Democratic Party toward the center.

That was 1992. Twenty-eight years later, Democratic energy has shifted leftward, as the nation has grown more diverse and party activists focus on income inequality and racial grievances. The pandemic, economic turmoil, urban unrest, and now the high-stakes Supreme Court vacancy all add urgency to the November vote. 

Senators Biden and Strom Thurmond, a Republican from South Carolina and onetime segregationist, chat in the chamber in 1995.

In many ways, the Washington in which Mr. Biden thrived no longer exists. In his presidential campaign, the centrist Mr. Biden has shifted leftward to meet the Democratic base – but not fully. He supports adding a “public option” to the Obama-era health insurance law, but does not back “Medicare for All.” He has plans to address climate change, but did not endorse the Green New Deal. He promises to roll back most, but not all, of the Trump tax cuts. He opposes cutting funding for police. 

By mid-September, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a self-described social democrat and runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, was urging the Biden campaign to do more to excite the left. 

But Mr. Biden clearly favors a bigger Democratic tent, as seen at the party’s August convention, which featured several prominent anti-Trump Republicans. To wit: Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich was given a four-minute speaking slot, while Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a darling of the left, got just a minute and a half. 

The calculation was that anti-Trump fervor would spur liberal Democrats to vote for Mr. Biden anyway – and that appealing to suburban moderates in battleground states was paramount. 

Now, the Supreme Court vacancy has further galvanized partisans on both sides. Mr. Trump’s quick move to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a hero to the left, heralds a reinforced conservative majority for years to come – a source of alarm to liberals and delight to conservatives. 

From abortion and gun rights to affirmative action and health care, the implications are potentially huge. The question is how marginal voters – undecided voters, soft supporters of one candidate or the other, or those unsure if they’ll vote at all – might be swayed by the court battle.

Sen. Joe Biden walks with his wife, Jill, after announcing his first candidacy for president in 1987.

At midsummer, the enthusiasm gap between the nominees was wide. Some 66% of Trump supporters said they backed their candidate strongly, versus just 46% of Biden supporters who said the same of their candidate, according to a Pew Research Center poll. So, while being an acceptable alternative has its advantages, the relative lack of excitement over Mr. Biden could portend danger, too – the possibility that some of his voters don’t bother to turn out. 

Alison Young, a Republican strategist based in Philadelphia, says the enthusiasm gap could be key. Even though Mr. Biden is more conventionally “likable,” she says, Trump supporters like the president’s “bombastic nature, that he goes after people.” 

In the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania, Democrats have special concerns about turnout – specifically that the state’s vote-by-mail rules could suppress turnout by discouraging some people from even trying to vote. 

For Mr. Biden, Pennsylvania has personal meaning. Though he and his family left Scranton amid financial difficulties when he was 10 years old, his “origin story” is very much tied to his place of birth. Out-of-town reporters reinforce the Scranton angle with regular visits, if only to make the city a stand-in for blue-collar America. CNN staged a town hall with Mr. Biden there Sept. 17. 

There may be something to Mr. Biden’s outreach to white non-college-educated voters. In a mid-September Reuters poll, Mr. Trump’s edge among that demographic nationally had shrunk to 12 percentage points, well below his 34-point margin over Mrs. Clinton in 2016. 

Senator-elect Biden and his first wife, Neilia, cut his 30th birthday cake at a party in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 20, 1972.

In Pennsylvania, an electorate that skews older also makes the state a stand-in for outreach to those over age 65. Notably, polls show Mr. Biden beating Mr. Trump among that cohort – a trend that, if it holds, would make him the first Democratic nominee to win voters over 65 in two decades.

But if Mr. Biden’s Scranton roots give him a lift in that part of Pennsylvania, that doesn’t necessarily help in other parts of the state.

“A lot of us see him as a guy from Delaware,” says Bill Werts, an engineer from Greensburg, Pennsylvania. “Most of us see him as a guy from Washington.” 

Mr. Werts voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, but says he plans to vote for Mr. Biden in November, albeit without enthusiasm. 

“Don’t get me wrong, he’s miles away from Donald Trump,” Mr. Werts continues, saying Mr. Biden has preferable values. “But the progress that needs to be made will not be made by Joe Biden. He’s a return to 2008, 2012, 1996. He is not the visionary that is needed.” 

Will young Black voters turn out?

One critical bloc Democrats are eyeing nervously is young Black voters. In a July poll, American University researchers found that in six battleground states – Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia – only 47% of Black voters ages 18 to 29 plan to vote for Mr. Biden, compared with 70% of those ages 30 to 59 and 86% of those 60 and over. 

It’s not that young Black voters are flocking to the president; it’s that many, 21%, won’t vote at all. Another 12% plan to vote for someone else, 12% aren’t sure, and 8% are for Mr. Trump. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden points at Clarence Thomas during Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. Mr. Biden has been criticized for mishandling the hearings, which included accusations of sexual harassment against Mr. Thomas by Anita Hill.

Some Democrats are having flashbacks to 2016, when 4.4 million Obama voters from 2012 stayed home – a third of them Black, according to data analysts. In an election that turned on just 77,000 votes in three states, that shift may have been decisive. 

There’s also a gender gap among Black voters. A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll taken in March found that 24% of Black men approved of Mr. Trump, while just 6% of Black women did. 

Democratic strategist Joel Payne points to younger, less-educated Black men as the “soft place” for Mr. Biden. Mr. Trump, he says, has a certain “cachet” with some in this bloc. 

“There is a machismo that Trump has manufactured that can be attractive to some Black male voters,” says Mr. Payne, director of African American advertising for Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “A not insignificant number of Black men were falsely conditioned to view Donald Trump as a stand-in for success before he was a political figure.”

And what about Mr. Biden’s comments that he could work with anyone in the Senate, even Southern segregationists in his early years? Or his support for 1994 crime legislation that is now considered unduly harsh, especially toward people of color? 

Those were issues, along with busing to integrate schools, that California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris attacked Mr. Biden for during the presidential primaries. Now Senator Harris is his running mate, the first woman of color to serve on a major party presidential ticket, and could help shore up Black support for Mr. Biden. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/AP/File

Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Mr. Biden share a laugh before a candidates forum in Chicago in August 2007.

More broadly, there’s little question Mr. Biden enjoys a deep reservoir of goodwill with many African Americans. Many feel a personal connection to the former vice president that’s about more than his eight years serving alongside former President Barack Obama. He also, they say, exudes a basic humanity.

Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina – the No. 3 Democrat in the House and its highest-ranking African American – swooped in three days before his state’s crucial primary on Feb. 29 and endorsed Mr. Biden. Congressman Clyburn has been credited by some with rescuing the former VP’s candidacy. 

In an interview, Mr. Clyburn insists it was all Mr. Biden. “First and foremost,” he says, “Biden has by and large been very sensitive – and I would say empathetic – to the life experiences of the African American voter.”

After the 2015 massacre at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, Mr. Biden attended services there. And in a Feb. 26 town hall, Mr. Biden had a breakout moment when he reconnected with a pastor whose wife died in the shooting. 

Mr. Clyburn mentions how his wife, Emily, who died a year ago, used to talk regularly to Mr. Biden. “She told me, the party needs Joe Biden to carry the mantle against Trump,” he says. “So when I stood up for Joe, I was really doing what my wife told me to do.” 

Mr. Clyburn recalls how his wife liked campaign billboards, which Mr. Biden apparently knew. A month ago, the congressman got a call from the former vice president: “I want to put some billboards up in honor of Emily,” he said, wanting to make sure it was OK. 

“That’s the kind of guy he is,” Mr. Clyburn says. “He remembers those conversations.” 

Family ties

As in many presidential campaigns, families are an issue. The Biden clan is as tight as they come. His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, has managed or advised all his campaigns from the very start of his political career. When he traveled the world as vice president, he often brought a grandchild along. 

One of the more controversial aspects of Mr. Biden’s candidacy is his son Hunter Biden. If Beau Biden, the former vice president’s older son, was the golden child – attorney general of Delaware and Iraq War veteran – then Hunter is the one best known for murky business deals and a turbulent personal life. “Where’s Hunter?” is a regular Trump barb.

A GOP Senate report released Sept. 23 found that Hunter’s role at a Ukrainian energy company was “problematic,” but didn’t show that it influenced the then-vice president or U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

Of course, Mr. Trump’s own dealings with Ukraine – including an apparent request to get the Ukrainian government to investigate Vice President Biden – lay at the center of the president’s 2019 impeachment. 

And relatives of powerful American politicians on both sides of the aisle have long had business interests that intersect with their family members’ government activities. The Trump family is awash in alleged conflicts of interest.

When asked by reporters last year about the business activities of both his son Hunter and his brothers, James and Frank, Mr. Biden promised “an absolute wall” between the government and his family’s financial interests if he’s elected president.

Richard Painter, former chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, suggests the need for a “firewall” to protect the president.

“You just have very clear instructions,” says Mr. Painter, now a Democrat and law professor at the University of Minnesota. 

Those instructions, he says, need to go to every political appointee throughout the administration: “They’re not to do business with members of the Biden family or people who drop the Biden family name or say that they’re business associates with Hunter Biden or Vice President Biden’s brothers.”

At home and abroad

Biden sightings around Wilmington, before the pandemic, contribute to his everyman image. One resident speaks of running into the former vice president and some grandchildren at Home Depot, buying a lamp at the self-checkout.

Democratic National Convention/AP

Grandchildren of presidential candidate Joe Biden – including Finnegan, Hunter, Natalie, Naomi, and Maisy – lead the Pledge of Allegiance during the virtual Democratic National Convention on Aug. 17, 2020.

“He went about his purchase like any other customer, while also pausing for photos with some of the staff,” says the Wilmington resident, who works for the city and requested anonymity. “Delaware is a unique environment. Folks in power are also your neighbor.” 

Mr. Biden’s profile also extends well beyond U.S. borders, going back decades, as a longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell tells of a trip he took to Bosnia many years ago, after the war there had ended. When he told his interpreter where he was from, she perked up.

“We know Delaware. We know Joe Biden,” she said, according to the former governor, a Democrat. “Joe Biden is the only one who stood up for us.” 

Mr. Biden touts his international connections as a selling point to voters who like his promise to repair ties to allies and restore U.S. leadership on global issues, such as climate change and public health. Trump supporters counter that he’s been on the wrong side of some crucial decisions, including his vote against the Gulf War in 1991 and for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and his opposition to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

As a senator, Mr. Biden also had a habit of turning up in early presidential primary states. Former Republican Rep. Melissa Hart of Pennsylvania recalls running into then-Senator Biden in South Carolina around 2004, at a party at a horse track. 

“He was a friendly guy,” says the former congresswoman, a Trump supporter. “I like Joe, and I think a lot of people like Joe.”

But, Ms. Hart adds, “we never would have gone to him to get something big done. He was very focused on his issues, on what would benefit Delaware.” 

Retro or radical?

As a senator, Mr. Biden was part of the old boys’ network, most vividly on display when he presided over the 1992 confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Mr. Biden is seen by many as having mishandled the accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill, and last year he called Ms. Hill to express his “regret.” At the time, Ms. Hill said the call left her unsatisfied. Recently, however, she said she plans to vote for him in November and would be willing to work with a President Biden on issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Mr. Biden, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, stands with his mother, Jean, at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

And even if Mr. Biden’s long membership in the clubby Senate hurts his image with some voters, others see it as a strength. He has a demonstrated ability to work in a bipartisan fashion and knows how the levers of power work, albeit in a system increasingly ground down by dysfunction and distrust.

The larger point may be that Mr. Biden, on his third and final attempt at the presidency, has slowly but surely moved into the 21st century. And sometimes he’s even been ahead of the game, as in 2012, when he endorsed same-sex marriage before Mr. Obama did. 

“Retro or radical?” the cover of The Economist recently asked. The answer may be neither. 

If he loses in November, conventional wisdom is likely to coalesce around the notion that being broadly “acceptable” is not enough. 

But if he wins, the conclusion might be that in this age of extreme polarization – when partisans at both ends of the spectrum are invoking civil war and even cooler heads are wondering how the American experiment will survive – maybe a president who lowers the temperature offers the best way forward. 

Young voters, in particular, seem skeptical of that idea. 

“With younger millennials, there’s a distrust in Joe Biden,” says Mr. Payne, the Democratic strategist. “But there’s a distrust of everyone in Washington.”

Moe Vela, who advised the then-vice president on Latino and LGBTQ issues, hopes that stories of Mr. Biden’s decency can help break through the cynicism. 

Four years after Mr. Vela left the White House, he got a call from Mr. Biden’s office: “We have something for you.” The vice president, who is Roman Catholic, had just met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and had several sets of rosary beads blessed. He gave one to Mr. Vela. 

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“I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore, but I will be buried with that rosary,” Mr. Vela says. “It’s more than a religious symbol. It’s about personal friendship, faith, and love.” 

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this article.

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