5 questions that will determine if Joe Biden can succeed

Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, The New York Times

Posted at Apr 26 2019 10:26 AM | Updated as of Apr 26 2019 12:33 PM

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Parma Heights, Ohio, on Nov. 3 2018. Biden announced Thursday, April 25, 2019, that he would seek the Democratic nomination to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020, marshaling his experience and global stature in a bid to lead a party increasingly defined by a younger generation that might be skeptical of his age and ideological moderation. Maddie McGarvey, The New York Times

WILMINGTON, Delaware — Former Vice President Joe Biden’s entry Thursday into the sprawling Democratic primary has immediately reshaped the race, giving definition to a contest that has been defined mostly by uncertainty. Biden offers voters a household name, nearly a half-century of political experience and the implied promise of restoring the country to a less polarized, pre-Trump era.

But perhaps more than any other presidential front-runner in modern history, he begins his bid confronting deep skepticism from friend and foe alike that he can capture his party’s nomination.

Here are five questions looming over Biden’s candidacy, the answers to which could determine whether he becomes America’s 46th president or concludes his career by losing his third bid for the White House.

How will he handle the onslaught?

Most casual voters, even in the primary, know Biden as President Barack Obama’s vice president. But he was a senator from Delaware for 36 years before he entered the West Wing, and his record from a decidedly earlier day in Democratic politics is where his rivals for the nomination will focus their fire. He opposed busing to integrate schools, wrote a hard-line criminal justice bill and supported the Iraq War.

Most immediately, Biden will have to decide how to respond to new critical comments by Anita Hill, the law professor who in 1991 accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Biden recently called her, according to an aide, to express regrets that he did not do more for her when he presided over her appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But she told The New York Times that the call left her deeply unsatisfied, and that she did not consider it an apology. She said she was not convinced that Biden truly accepted the harm he caused her and other women.

It remains unclear what his broader strategy will be for handling scrutiny from the press and bombardments from his Democratic opponents along with a legion of left-wing critics who want to defeat his candidacy and ward off any return to a more moderate brand of liberalism.

Biden’s supporters hope Obama offers him something of a halo. Many in Biden’s orbit hope that rather than litigate every criticism about his Senate record, he restrains himself and focuses on his partnership with the country’s first black president.

Can he stay above the fray?

The message from Biden’s announcement video was urgent and unmistakable: President Donald Trump’s tenure amounts to a national emergency, and defeating him is essential to America’s survival. Framing the campaign this way does not just make 2020 a referendum on the president, it also offers Biden a rationale for why Democrats should put forward a septuagenarian in the winter of his political life. This is not, he is arguing, yet another nomination clash in one more presidential campaign.

But so far, it has sure seemed that way. Even the candidates who believe that Trump should be impeached are not eager to discuss the president or why he should be removed from office. The race has mostly focused on their policy ideas, biographies and how to accommodate a party drifting left. Before Biden’s announcement, the campaign was animated this week by a debate over whether prisoners should be allowed to vote.

Many Democratic strategists believe that Biden should resist tangling with his intraparty rivals and avoid the temptation to prove that he is just as progressive as they are. “Don’t let the agenda stray from the argument that he can deliver us from Trump,” said Paul Begala, the former Bill Clinton adviser.

But when Biden appears before reporters and voters upon arriving in Iowa next week, that may prove easier said than done. Never known for his discipline, the former vice president is entering a media environment unlike that in his first two presidential campaigns; now his every misstep will immediately pinball across the internet. And he is stepping into a race filled with candidates who could lift their profiles by baiting the front-runner into a back-and-forth that would quickly erase memories of Biden’s high-minded call to arms.

What’s an "Obama-Biden Democrat"?

Biden this month played down his party’s leftward turn, pointing out the success of moderates in last year’s midterm elections and telling reporters he was a proud “Obama-Biden Democrat.” But less clear is what exactly that means in 2019.

Biden has not sketched out any vision on health care, criminal justice, education or the environment. He has said he has the most progressive record of any candidate, but then amended that to indicate he was alluding to his stances on social issues like LGBT rights.

Biden may be too tenuous a front-runner to alienate any of his party’s core constituencies, but he could risk just as much by portraying himself as anything besides a mainstream liberal. He faces few more important tasks than finding that balance: reflecting the party for what it is today without attempting a cringe-inducing reinvention of what he likes to call his “brand.”

Does he have ideas for the future?

Biden’s announcement video was about one big promise to voters: He would eject Trump from office and lead a country that they could be proud of. Asked by a reporter outside a pizzeria in Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday afternoon about his message for the rest of the world, he said “America is coming back” and said his administration would be “ethical, straight, telling the truth.”

But the traditional American values Biden extolled may only go so far in inspiring voters, both in a primary and a general election. Some of his Democratic competitors already have well-developed signature proposals that have helped to define their candidacies, like Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All Act, Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive student loans and Sen. Cory Booker’s “baby bonds” program. Biden has nothing comparable, at least so far.

Biden may start to fill in this blank space Monday, when he is to visit a Pittsburgh union hall and speak about the middle class and the economy. But it is unclear whether he will be inclined to develop sweeping policy plans, or whether he will stay close to his roots as a moderate who favors political compromise and incremental change.

The risk to Biden, if he takes too long to define his vision for the future, is that he might come to be seen mainly as a figure of nostalgia — a candidate of the past.

Can he raise money, without being defined by it?

So far, the most important fundraising in the Democratic race has happened online. And several of the most prominent candidates, including Sanders and Warren, are fundraising almost exclusively that way.

Biden’s approach will be different, and far more reliant on the largess of the wealthiest benefactors of the Democratic Party. His aides have already spent more than a week encouraging donors to send $2,800 checks — the maximum sum allowed — to his primary-campaign-in-waiting, and a Comcast executive who oversees the company’s lobbying division was hosting a major fundraiser for Biden in Philadelphia on Thursday night.

The financial challenges for Biden are twofold. He must raise an immense amount of money rapidly, without the benefit of a robust online fundraising machine of the kind some of his rivals possess. And Biden must raise that amount without stoking suspicions among Democratic primary voters that he is compromised by his dependency on big money.

The latter danger — that “Middle-Class Joe,” as he styles himself, could come to be seen as a candidate of rich people and corporations — may be especially vexing to Biden because his record on banking and corporate regulation has already drawn sharp criticism from the left. Yet, without having spent years cultivating an online donor base, and lacking the novelty factor that has helped other candidates soak the internet, Biden appears to see little alternative to seeking out the biggest checks possible.

c.2019 New York Times News Service