international analysis and commentary

Hanging on: Joe Biden and the 2020 presidential challenge


Joe Biden’s candidacy for the White House has been a long time coming. He first ran in the Democratic primaries in 1988, and then joined the race in 2008 as well, before being picked as the vice presidential candidate by Barack Obama. He was also tempted to run in 2016, but ultimately sat out as Hillary Clinton quickly emerged as the preferred candidate of the Democratic establishment. Given Clinton’s loss, and the view of Biden as a “regular Joe” friendly to working-class voters, he immediately put his name into circulation as the Democrats’ best hope to prevent the re-election of Donald Trump.

Sen. Joseph Biden during his first run for president, in 1987


Like with most of the leading Democratic candidates, there are competing views of Biden’s candidacy, which touch the issues at the heart of the 2020 campaign. The central questions are: should the Democrats focus solely on the lowest common denominator, beating Donald Trump? Or is it time to aim high, generating excitement among voters for big ideas? And which approach will actually give the Democrats the best chance to win? A return to normalcy and decency, or aiming to satiate the desire for change expressed by the population in recent years?

Joe Biden’s candidacy is predicated on the assumption of “electability”, the notion that he is most likely to reconstruct the coalition that allowed Barack Obama to win twice. He constantly reminds people of his connection to the 44th president, still among the most popular figures in the country. This certainly helps him with various constituencies, including among African-Americans where his support far outpaces that of his rivals, but it’s telling that Obama himself hasn’t endorsed Biden, and is actually reported to have discouraged him from running. This contributes to a widespread perception that despite leading in the polls, Biden has weaknesses that would make him a risky candidate for the general election.

Biden’s poll numbers have been remarkably stable though; his support of 29% is exactly the same as it was when he got started, with mostly minor oscillations over the past year. This is both high enough to lead the field, but low enough to indicate that in addition to a floor of support, he may have a ceiling as well. Time will tell, in particular as we see how the battle among Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren plays out, but the key question is one of substance: are Biden’s faults enough to doom him?

The former vice president’s weaknesses have been evident since at least the beginning of 2019: first of all, his age is starting to show. It took pundits a few months to realize this, but it’s now common to hear people say that Biden “isn’t as sharp as he used to be”. So far, it doesn’t seem to be hurting him much. He has always spouted off a bit, and is famous for his gaffes; and on the other hand, he sharpened up his debate performance at the end of the year, dampening concerns about the risk of his appearing incoherent.

The second weakness – which Biden thinks is a strength – is more serious: he represents the past. The rationale for his candidacy is that “I’ve been around a long time and I know more than most people know, and I get things done”. He’s not betting on change, but rather that people are so tired of Trump that they simply want to go back to the more stable and civil world associated with America under the presidency of Barack Obama.

Vice President and President of the United States, 2008-2016


This is where things get complicated though, because 2016 – and 2008 as well – show that the American voters are quite capable of voting for big change, and turning their backs on those who remind them of the things they don’t like: corruption, endless wars, and inequality. A candidate who is saddled with any of those labels is in trouble, as both Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney found out.

This is where Ukraine comes in. Much of the media rushed to Biden’s defense when Trump suggested Biden’s intervention to obtain the firing of Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin in 2015 and 2016 was aimed at benefitting the gas company that was paying his son Hunter handsome sums of money to sit on its board. There is “no evidence” for Trump’s claims, we have been told repeatedly, and Biden himself claims that the attacks simply prove that he is the candidate whom Trump fears the most.

Yet the impact of “fact-checking” and “debunking” isn’t nearly what the media expects. Saying that there was nothing illegal about Hunter Biden profiting off his last name while his father ran American policy towards Ukraine doesn’t remove the impression of systemic corruption, which may be allowed by law, but provides considerable fuel for anti-establishment sentiment. Candidate Biden hasn’t provided a very effective response on this point, and has even contradicted his son’s account of whether they ever discussed the matter. It hasn’t knocked him from his post as the leader in the primaries, but the Trump campaign certainly won’t shy away from using this to paint Biden as a return to the “swamp”, regardless of how much Democratic commentators howl about the president’s contradictions.

For the Biden campaign, winning is everything, and for now a plurality of Democrats seem to agree, although it’s not unreasonable to think that if progressives were to consolidate behind one candidate, they could take the lead. Yet even for those who oppose Trump, the larger question is looming: is beating Donald Trump enough? If the current president is removed from the equation, are things good enough that a pragmatic, centrist approach will do? Downplaying the need for major change is often presented as simple pragmatism, but it also sends a message that the real problem is Trump’s personality, not the direction of the country as a whole. This brings us to the nature of Joe Biden’s career, and his role in the Obama presidency.

Barack Obama was competent, intelligent, and often timid as president. This, from someone who on most issues was decidedly further to the left than his vice president. Indeed Biden voted for the 2003 Iraq War, perhaps the single most important issue used by Obama to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2008; Biden voted for NAFTA, which isn’t exactly popular among the famous “white working class”, and he often preached caution to Obama while in the White House, for example on healthcare reform, where Obama’s abandonment of his more progressive promises remains a sore spot for many Democrats. In addition, Biden’s career is one of an economic centrist who worked hard to protect the privileges of large corporations in his home state of Delaware, leading him to a famous clash with then-Professor Elizabeth Warren over a bankruptcy reform bill to help consumers.

To some, this may seem relevant only within the Democratic Party. If the centrists win out, then the progressives will have to come along, because any Democrat appears better than Donald Trump. Yet this ignores the realignment in the country’s political geography over recent years. For example, the leadership of the Republican Party may still be pro-free trade, but the President often goes in the other direction, seeking to build on his anti-globalization brand. The ranks of voters who respond to this approach, on both the left and the right, have undoubtedly grown.

In many ways, Joe Biden is hanging on to the past. He evokes his decades of experience, his history of bipartisan cooperation, and his role in the Obama administration. Yet the “populist” revolt across the West represents a demand for structural change. Treating this demand as a secondary issue, less important than saving the country from the terrible Donald Trump, may or may not get Joe Biden to the White House, but it will ensure that the underlying problems won’t go away any time soon.