/ 27 April 2019

Joe Biden: Popular, seasoned Democrat with a cumbersome past

Joe Biden
Joe Biden (AFP)

He’s engaging, boasts a sterling resume, and appeals to blue-collar Americans.

Joe Biden sat out 2016 while mourning his late son, but he is now mounting a White House bid as a Democratic senior statesman, grappling with a recent storm over his notoriously tactile approach with voters that could suggest a man out of step with his modernizing party.

The former vice president ended the speculation Thursday by jumping into a crowded Democratic field as an immediate frontrunner in the battle to oust President Donald Trump in 2020.

But the question that swirled as Biden mulled his political future still remains: Will the 76-year-old Democrat’s greatest strength, his knack for connecting with voters, emerge as a crippling liability in the #MeToo era and damage his credibility to challenge Trump on issues like the treatment of women?

Biden joins the race as its predominant centrist at a time many in the party’s progressive wing, including rivals for the nomination, have embraced policies like universal health care.

Several strategists see Biden as the down-to-earth Democrat with star power who connects with working class voters such as those who abandoned Hillary Clinton for Trump three years ago.

His retail politicking skills, honed during two previous presidential runs, are peerless; he can flash his million-watt smile at college students, commiserate with unemployed Rust Belt machinists, or deliver a fiery admonishment of rivals.

“Uncle Joe” often presents a reassuring side of America, a reflection of the “hope” that brought a nation together to elect its first black president in 2008.

His intimate acquaintance with grief is a soothing balm for many, as it was last September when Biden delivered an elegant eulogy for Republican Senator John McCain.

And his fire and passion — he said in 2018 he could “beat the hell out of” Trump — could tap into the country’s fractious energy and bolster the case that he is best positioned to defeat the president.

But critics dismiss Biden, who is four years older than Trump, as too old and out of step to carry the flag for an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.

In recent months, his longstanding political style of hugging friends and strangers alike, and lavishing affection particularly on women and girls, has come under scrutiny, as several women accused him of touching them years ago in ways that were inappropriate or made them uncomfortable.

Biden responded in early April by acknowledging the women’s concerns and society’s changing social boundaries.

“I get it… and I’ll be much more mindful,” he said.

‘Happy warrior’

Over eight years as vice president, Biden proved himself an essential deputy to Barack Obama, who declared him “America’s happy warrior.”

When talks to avert a fiscal crisis collapsed in 2012, it was Biden who got things back on track.

When 20 children were slain in a school shooting in Connecticut, Biden crafted the response.

As vice president he handled foreign policy crises in Ukraine and Iraq, and pushed gay rights to the fore by publicly supporting same-sex marriage.

Biden brings substantive experience from Capitol Hill, where he served for 36 years in the Senate representing tiny Delaware.

But while he appears hale and hearty, even he admitted age is a “legitimate” issue to raise in presidential vetting.

Known as much for his personal warmth as his memorable public gaffes — and, like Trump, a lack of fidelity to script — Biden’s verbosity has landed him in trouble.

He embarrassed himself in 2007 by calling Obama the first “articulate, bright and clean” African American candidate.

He may face a reckoning among Democrats for some of his Senate votes, including his role in pushing the 1994 crime bill, which many Democrats believe drove up incarcerations disproportionately affecting African Americans.

He voted to weaken longstanding banking regulations, a move that experts say helped trigger the 2008 financial crisis. Biden in 2016 called it “the worst vote I ever cast.”

Blue-collar roots

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, part of an Irish-Catholic family far from financial privilege. His father was a car salesman.

Growing up, he was hampered by a stutter so bad he was cruelly nicknamed “Dash.”

Biden, who overcame the condition by reciting poetry in front of the mirror, came to see it as a blessing.

“It gave me insight into other people’s pain, other people’s suffering,” he said in a speech to the American Institute for Stuttering in 2016.

He was first elected to the Senate in 1972, at just 29 years old.

Shortly afterward, he lost his wife and baby daughter in a car crash that also left his two young sons, Beau and Hunter, badly injured.

Biden took his Senate oath of office at the boys’ hospital bedside, then for years commuted by train daily from Washington so he could be home each night with them and, from 1977, his second wife Jill.

The family’s heartache was thrust into the public eye in 2015 when Beau Biden, himself a rising Democratic star, died of cancer.

The tragedy derailed Biden’s expected presidential bid. But after four years of reflection, Biden has re-entered the political fray.