After months of speculation, former Vice President Joe Biden will officially kick off his 2020 presidential bid on Thursday. Now comes the hard part.
Biden enters the campaign as the immediate front-runner, with a lead in early national polling as well as in a number of key early-voting states. He’s got a deep reservoir of goodwill from Democratic primary voters who fondly remember the Obama years, decades-long ties with a number of powerful national unions, and near-universal name recognition. He currently holds larger leads in head-to-head polling against President Trump than any other Democratic candidate in a year where polls show many Democratic voters prizing electability over all else.
But neutral Democratic strategists — including many who personally like Biden — have wondered for months whether the 76-year-old Biden will fare any better in his third run for the White House than he did in 1988 and 2008.
He has nearly a half-century of votes and comments for opponents to pick through, and he’s taken some stances on economic, race and gender issues that may be out of line with the modern party. While his advisers are confident his standing will buoy him through the race — “he has a not-insignificant relationship with Democratic primary voters from his decades in politics,” one Biden adviser told TPM on Tuesday — it’s unclear how he’ll hold up under more intense scrutiny.
Here are four questions the former vice president will have to sufficiently answer if he’s going to win the Democratic nomination next year.
Is Biden ready for a 21st-century campaign?
Biden’s 2008 campaign sputtered out after he failed to gain any serious traction in the crowded Democratic field, and his 1988 bid for the presidency fell apart in a (now almost quaint) plagiarism scandal. He hasn’t run in a competitive race for his Senate seat in decades. Many of his closest advisors are on the older side by campaign standards, and while he was a top surrogate for other Democrats over the past decade, he hasn’t had to campaign for himself in some time.
He’s also far behind some of his erstwhile rivals in setting up a web-focused fundraising apparatus. And while Biden’s team is already pushing for big donor checks, it remains to be seen whether he can compete with the likes of Bernie Sanders or even Pete Buttigieg in online grassroots fundraising.
That backdrop made strategists wonder whether Biden and his team would be up for the challenge of a 2020 race. That concern has ben fueled by repeated delays in Biden’s campaign launch — originally floated as possibly occurring at the beginning of April — the latest minor shift of the campaign launch day from Wednesday to Thursday, internal disagreements over the content of his campaign launch video, and uncertainty around the time and place of his opening rallies.
Can he handle scrutiny of his bankruptcy bill?
Biden was the leading Democrat on a bill pushed by his home-state credit card industry that made it significantly harder for people to discharge debt when going into bankruptcy.
That bill took years and many tries to pass, originally failing because Hillary Clinton convinced Bill Clinton to veto it before it became law during George W. Bush’s administration.
The person who convinced Hillary Clinton to initially oppose the bill was none other than Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of Biden’s 2020 rivals and someone who has both policy and political reasons to make sure he faces a reckoning over the legislation. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) sharp-elbowed adviser David Sirota has also attacked Biden over the bill in years past.
Biden’s son Hunter was also a lobbyist for MBNA, a major credit card company.
The law and other legislation friendly to the credit card industry that Biden backed threaten his “Middle Class Joe” brand and standing with populist-leaning Democrats. How he explains his work on these issues could play a central role in whether he can garner enough support for the nomination.
Will black voters stick with Biden?
The vice president is polling especially strongly with black voters, a key constituency and a crucial path to the nomination since so many early-voting states are southern and dominated by African American voters in Democratic primaries.
It remains to be seen whether those numbers hold up. Biden has already apologized for his leading role in passing the 1994 crime bill that helped fuel the U.S.’s current sky-high incarceration rate. He’s also faced questions about his rhetoric during that period, as well as his forceful attacks on school busing desegregation programs.
Hillary Clinton faced some similar problems and still carried black voters by a huge margin en route to the nomination (though her struggles to turn out African Americans in the general election may have cost her the presidency). Biden has deep ties with some major African American politicians and civil rights leaders, but in a new era, he’ll have to convince black voters — younger ones especially — that he’s the candidate to support.
Can Biden survive in the #MeToo era?
Biden has already faced accusations from multiple women that he violated their personal space and touched them — though not sexually — in a way that they found patronizing and inappropriate. He said he was sorry if he made them uncomfortable, but proceeded to crack jokes about the behavior while defending his actions.
That’s not the only question Biden faces about his treatment of women. Biden has already expressed regret for how he handled Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and accusations from Anita Hill that he’d sexually harassed her.
Polls show Democrats mostly shrug at Biden’s handsy approach to politics, and he polls strongly with older female voters in early surveys. But it remains to be seen how he’ll handle questions on the trail.
Biden remains the front-runner for now, and his allure with working-class voters, union members, moderates and those most concerned about electability could help carry him to the nomination. His allies admit that these are all problems — but say other candidates will also have to handle their own problems, and argue Democrats are more sensitive to intraparty attacks this election after the 2016 bloodbath.
To write him off would be foolish. But it remains to be seen how Biden fares once he’s actually a candidate come Thursday.
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