Joe Biden, Take 4.
The first time Joe Biden announced a campaign for the White House, 36 years ago, he portrayed himself as the candidate of youth. At the train station in Wilmington, Del., his son Hunter, then 17, held his sister Ashley, then five, in his arms. Later, at the Savery Hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, Mr. Biden stood with his strategist, John Reilly, and his pollster, Patrick Caddell. (Both are now dead.) Public-opinion surveys put him at 1 per cent, and he conceded that “no one knows me.”
That is no longer the case. And when Mr. Biden launched his fourth presidential campaign Tuesday, his remarks were not remotely like the ones he delivered all those years ago in Des Moines, when he said, “In 1988, the clarion call for my generation is not ‘It’s our turn,’ but rather ‘It’s our moment of obligation and opportunity.’”
Though both campaign announcements featured “our moment” language, the contrast between the two reflects the differences between the man, the message and the two moments.
The formal entry Tuesday was on video. It had a controlled atmosphere – no risk of an unscripted moment. There was an opportunity for a media mulligan; if he hesitated or stammered, he could start again.
He first sought the presidency by portraying himself as part of the advance guard of a new breed of Democrat, and his early campaign was full of generational-transformation rhetoric – distant enough (28 years) from the “time for a new generation of leadership” of John F. Kennedy yet recent enough to stir the heartstrings of older Democratic voters who might be lured to the renewal of the idiom. (Mr. Reilly was a JFK campaign aide in 1960, worked in the Justice Department in the Kennedy administration and was marked deeply by his association with Robert F. Kennedy. Mr. Caddell was 13 when JFK was killed.) Now, at age 80, Mr. Biden offers himself as a repository of wisdom.
He set out with his first White House drive as a jolt to the governing order. He has portrayed himself in this campaign not as a challenger but as a curator. Tuesday morning’s video asserted quite plainly, “There should not be a revolution.” He adumbrated a campaign on behalf of democratic values and institutions that were not under assault in 1987, when he ran against Democratic rivals who, apart from civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson, were the very personification of established political practice (the straight-man governors Michael Dukakis and Bruce Babbitt) and Republican contenders who in retrospect are so bland as to be unimaginable GOP leaders today (the starchy Vice-President George H.W. Bush and Senator Bob Dole).
Tuesday’s announcement combined gauzy images of Americans at work and at play – a clear borrowing from the successful 1984 re-election campaign of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” TV ad – with “Nightmare in America” glimpses of the 2021 assault on the Capitol. In saying “I know we’re good and decent people,” some voters may have heard Jimmy Carter’s 1976 pledge to create a “government as good as the American people” – a campaign Mr. Caddell helped script.
Mr. Biden’s likely opponent, Donald Trump, seemed to widen the difference between the two senior-citizen candidates when, hours before the Biden announcement, he released a fundraising appeal that asserted, “You could take the five worst presidents in American history, and put them together, and they would not have done the damage Joe Biden has done to our Nation in just a few short years.”
Mr. Biden took one risk: he suggested that Mr. Trump would assail Social Security. Even though Mr. Trump has repeatedly vowed not to undermine the retirement income supplement that is so beloved by Americans.
An NBC News poll this month found that 70 per cent of Americans felt Mr. Biden should not run for a second term. (That includes 51 per cent of Democrats, whereas a majority of Republicans believe Mr. Trump should run again.) But Mr. Biden possesses one signal advantage: for all his drawbacks as a candidate, he is widely perceived as the Democrat with the best chance of defeating Mr. Trump in November. The latest Wall Street Journal poll gives the President a three-point lead – 48 per cent to 45 per cent – over the former president.
“Incumbency is the most powerful predictor of election results,” said Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political scientist, after viewing the Biden video. “The question is which of the two old guys Americans think is less dangerous.”
There was no real political reason for Mr. Biden to make a formal declaration of candidacy this early in the election cycle, but there is a financial one: he aims to raise more than US$1-billion and needs to begin that process as soon as possible. He has a session with top Democratic donors scheduled for Friday.
“When you do this earlier rather than later you set the terms of the campaign,” said Victor Menaldo, a University of Washington political scientist. “You’re the first mover, and folks are reacting to you rather than being in the position of reacting to events.”