This content is not available in your region

Biden bets big on fear of Trump

Access to the comments Comments
By Jonathan Allen  with NBC News Politics
Image: Joe Biden speaks at a conference in Washington on March 12, 2019.
Joe Biden speaks at a conference in Washington on March 12, 2019.   -   Copyright  Win McNamee Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Hope and change were luxuries of the past. Joe Biden is running on fear.

"If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation, who we are," the former vice president said in a straight-to-camera video declaring his long-awaited entry into the 2020 presidential race Thursday.

"The core values of this nation our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America is at stake," he said. "That's why today I am announcing my candidacy for president of the United States."

That message is starkly at odds with the sentiments of a raft of Democratic hopefuls heralding a new era of ultra-progressive policy-making. But it is deeply in line with the antipathy the party's voters feel toward a president whose rhetoric and policies have often left minorities feeling targeted by their government, threatened the Constitution's balance of powers and shaken long-standing American alliances around the globe.

Without saying it, and without all the baggage of President Warren Harding, Biden is pitching himself primarily as a return to normalcy — a candidate who can reset the American calendar to 2016 and continue the work of President Barack Obama as if the Trump era never happened.

It thrilled his supporters but left many progressives wondering why Biden had declined to offer a more ambitious vision for the future of the country as he focused instead on painting a picture of four more years of Trump.

Minority voters, in particular, are likely to play a key role in determining Biden's fate in the primary, and he opened his announcement with a recollection of the violent clash between white nationalists and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Noting that Trump had said there were "very fine people" on both sides of that confrontation, Biden slammed the president for "assigning moral equivalence" to agents of hate and those who stood up to them.

"In that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any other I had seen in my lifetime," Biden said. "We are in the battle for the soul of this nation."

Biden's friends were enthusiastic about the direction of his rollout.

Robert Wolf, a leading Democratic donor who had already given money to five candidates in the race, told NBC News he contributed the maximum $2,800 online to Biden Thursday and credited the former vice president for understanding that, for primary voters, "the number-one issue is beating Trump."

Biden also enters the race as both the clear front-runner — at 29.3 percent, he's six points ahead of second-place Bernie Sanders in the Real Clear Politics average of national polls — and something less than a favorite in a field with enough strong candidates that some veteran Democratic strategists think the slugfest could continue into the party's convention next summer.

With 20 candidates in the race, Biden is trying to re-create as much of the Obama political coalition as possible and perhaps add some new voters. His brand is unabashedly establishment, and his rhetoric always has been aimed squarely at working-class voters.

Perhaps his biggest challenge will come in the form of fighting for the support of a major share of the African-American voters in Deep South states and major northern cities, where the black electorate can make or break candidacies. Obama and Hillary Clinton won the 2008 and 2016 primaries, respectively, on the strength of their ability to run up the score with black voters.

Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J., both of whom are black, have already been on the campaign trail in South Carolina, where African-American voters are likely to constitute a majority of the primary electorate.

Several African-American political operatives told NBC News they believe Biden will have a chance to compete heavily for black voters over the course of the primary. Biden did not secure Obama's endorsement, but his role as the wingman and attack dog for the first black president is seldom far from his lips.

"Both Cory and Kamala are friends, but I think he [Biden] offers exactly what the country needs right now today and he is the perfect foil," said Marcus Mason, a Washington lobbyist who is on the board of the Congressional Black Caucus Political Action Committee. "If this were a stage play, every hero needs a villain and vice versa. A perfect foil to the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue."

But progressives were quick to criticize Biden for concentrating on Trump.

"Our Democratic nominee can't just be against Trump," said Charles Chamberlain, chair of the group Democracy for America. "What we need to do is we need to make it clear is what it will mean if Democrats are in power."

And, he added, "A message of hope would have made a lot more sense than a message of fear."