Joe Biden is seen by many in the US as the common-sense face of the Democratic Party who has a dazzling ability to connect with disaffected working-class voters in ‘middle America’. Given this, it will be easy for the Democrats to believe that a repeat of Hillary Clinton’s crushing defeat to Donald Trump in 2016 is near impossible, but the Obama-era sweetheart has a mountain to climb, and his path to the White House is infinitely more difficult than some on the left are prepared to admit.
On 3rd November this year, the people of the United States of America will go to the polls as they have done every four years for over two centuries to elect a new president. It is in these final months of the campaign that all will be lost or gained, and the result is by no means certain. Bernie Sanders, along with other Democratic candidates including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg, have dropped out of the primary race, leaving one man left to face President Donald Trump in November: Joe Biden.
Mr Biden is best known among people of my age for being President Obama’s Vice President, but less commonly recognised, particularly in the UK, is his other experience in US domestic politics for the best part of 50 years. Elected to the US Senate in 1972 to represent his home state of Delaware (a position in which he stayed for 36 years), Biden was one of the Senate’s youngest ever members. The minimum age to be a senator is 30, and with Biden entering office just six weeks after his 30th birthday, he quickly became a fresh-faced rising star in the party.
Biden’s Senate career was high-profile but not always plain sailing and with its fair share of ups and downs. His opposition to policies of ‘bussing’ in the 1970s – by which African American children were integrated into all-white state schools – was recently criticised by fellow Democratic candidate Kamala Harris in a televised primary debate. In his defence, Mr Biden claims that he was not opposed to bussing in principle, but rather its forced implementation by the federal government, saying he favoured it being a state-level decision. On the other hand, he has been widely praised for his Senate role in advocating for the Violence Against Women Act 1994, which became a landmark piece of anti-domestic violence legislation.
Biden is certainly not short of ambition with 2020 being his third attempt to win the presidency. First for the 1988 election he ran an unsuccessful and largely clumsy campaign in which he, ironically today, sold the quality of being the youngest president since JFK as a major advantage, and eventually dropped out as Michael Dukakis won the nomination. Then again in 2008 his chances at winning the nomination looked strong at first, but he was simply drowned out by the dramatic clashes between the two frontrunners: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. For months during the primaries, it looked as if this year’s election might go the same way for Biden, however the demise of Bernie Sanders at the polls in February all but confirmed that this was finally Joe’s year.
There’s no doubt that he has achieved a great deal in politics, not just in the Senate but also as Obama’s right-hand man. As Vice-President Biden had a hands-on responsibility for the peaceful US withdrawal from Iraq, allowing him to gain a foothold on the world stage. Furthermore, it is said that the unlikely partnership between Obama and his VP was what inspired some of the most progressive policies of the administration; Biden went off-script in 2012, saying he was “absolutely comfortable” with same sex marriage – not a policy of the Democrats at the time. Whilst Obama had been “evolving” his position on the issue up until this point, his friend proclaiming public support for the controversial issue before himself inspired Obama to shift policy and actively support same sex marriage becoming legal in the US.
With this extensive experience in politics, the Democratic Party all-but united around him, and an opponent who has torn up every rule in the book when it comes to national and global leadership, it seems to most outside observers that Joe Biden will breeze through the election this November. This is not the case. I do not intend to make a habit of giving political predictions, but I am relatively confident in the following two assertions. Firstly, if the presidential election were to be held tomorrow, I think Joe Biden would win by a relatively small margin. Secondly, Donald Trump is nevertheless on the path to victory in the 2020 election.
Let me be clear, this second statement is not one of perfect science, and is a judgement at this point in the race rather than an actual prediction of what will happen – there is a key difference. This belief is informed by a combination of current polling, patterns of previous presidential elections and old-fashioned gut feeling. On polling, Biden has a consistent lead in national polls (around 10 percentage points) as well as in virtually all local polls for ‘battleground states’ such as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan (percentage leads of between 1 and 8 points).
Despite this setting up the Democratic nominee well for the race, there will be a significant shift in the tone and pace of the election that will begin this summer and bring more volatility to the race that could potentially turn the polls upside down. In addition, President Trump is the incumbent and history tells us that, more often than not, Presidents get re-elected. Judging not just by the standards of the 2016 campaign, but also the self-evident tactics of Trump’s team whilst in office, Joe Biden must prepare himself for the most almighty tsunami of hatred and anger from Donald Trump and his loyal supporters.
This will come in the form of a character assassination that puts to one side Mr Biden’s substantive arguments and policies, shifting the focus to him as a person and the threat he apparently poses to the American way of life; as an Obama-loving globalist who won’t put America first. The campaign will have the sole purpose of plainly demolishing his personal credibility and enforcing the belief he is both unfit and unworthy of the Office of the Presidency. Remember ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘lock her up’? If Biden wishes to beat Trump, he will have to give as good as he gets, something which I am not yet convinced he is either willing, or capable, of doing. Like all my observations, there is a possibility – a likelihood, even – that this assessment of Biden’s capabilities will change in the coming months based on his performance.
I look forward to keeping a close eye on the US election up to November. Covid-19 will mean the race is different from that in 2016; perhaps campaign rallies will be a sea of face masks; maybe health policy will be more important than ever; the campaigns will consider restricting visits to only ‘essential’ swing states. However, if you’re hoping for a more mature, polite and composed election campaign, you’ll probably be disappointed.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr