WASHINGTON ― Twelve years ago, then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden’s second bid for the presidency began with a gaffe.
The same day Biden made his presidential bid official, The New York Observer published an interview where Biden evaluated the man who would later become his boss. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” Biden said of future President Barack Obama. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Biden held a conference call with reporters to clean up the remarks, saying he “really regret[ted] that some have taken totally out of context my use of the world ‘clean.’” Obama essentially let Biden off the hook, only objecting to the “historical inaccuracy” of not acknowledging prior African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson and Shirley Chisholm.
The gaffe, in the end, didn’t damage his standing within the Democratic Party. Eighteen months later, Obama selected Biden as his running mate. The party’s establishment embraced him as an elder statesman who could cut deals with Republicans and go head-to-head with foreign leaders. Democratic voters turned him into Uncle Joe, a goofy but well-meaning campaigner who could campaign even in the most conservative parts of the political map. As he weighs a third bid for president, he’s one of the two leading candidates in public polling.
Biden, who is under fire for his history of touching women inappropriately, opened his speech to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers with a joke about having “permission” to hug Lonnie Stephenson, the union president who introduced him. The joke generated ripples of laughter among the mostly white, mostly male and mostly older union members gathered in the basement of the Washington Hilton, and frustrated eye-rolls and clenched fists of anger on Twitter.
At the end of his speech, Biden held an impromptu press conference and offered an apology of sorts for his joke.
“It wasn’t my intent to make light of anyone’s discomfort. I realize it’s my responsibility to not invade the space of anyone who is uncomfortable in this regard,” he told reporters as union members yelled “Run, Joe, Run” and “We need you!” in the background. “I literally think it is incumbent on me and everyone else to make sure if you embrace someone, you touch someone, it’s with their consent regardless of your intentions.”
Apology or not, Biden’s comments during his 40-minute speech to the union and his brief back-and-forth with reporters made it clear the the 76-year-old Biden, who was an elected official for 47 years, doesn’t plan on changing his unscripted style or center-left ideology, and is willing to bet that the party around him hasn’t changed much either. It’s a strategy that makes sense for an official with Biden’s deal-making instincts and long, frequently problematic voting record.
“If you look at all the polling data and you look at the results, the party has not moved,” Biden said. “The fact of the matter is that most of the members of the Democratic Party are liberal-moderate Democrats in the traditional sense.”
He noted he campaigned for 65 Democrats during the 2018 election. “Show me the really left, left, left-wingers who beat a Republican,” he challenged a reporter. “The idea that the Democratic Party has sort of stood on its head, I don’t get it.”
Asked what type of Democrat he was, Biden quickly identified himself with the party’s most popular figure: “I’m an Obama-Biden Democrat, man. And I’m proud of it.”
Biden’s political analysis has merit: Not a single candidate endorsed by the Bernie Sanders-backed Our Revolution or the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-backed Justice Democrats defeated a GOP incumbent in 2018. And while the party’s voters have moved to the left on immigration, guns and race in recent years, progressives have struggled to make support for “Medicare for All” or abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency a must-pass litmus test for voters.
In Gallup’s polling, about 46% of Democrats identify as liberal, up from 32% around the beginning of the new millennium. In the same time frame, the percentage identifying as moderate has dropped from 42% to 35%, and those identifying as conservative have fallen from 23% to 17%. Those changes are significant, but not overwhelming.
And while Democrats increasingly rely on college-educated voters, young people and people of color to supply their margins of victory in general elections, the party as a whole remains 56% white and 48% over the age of 50. Sixty-five percent of Democrats don’t have a college degree. All of those demographic attributes, in Gallup’s polling, are more associated with moderate and conservative Democrats than with liberal ones.
His speech to the IBEW demonstrated how Biden plans to use a message of nostalgia and not-especially-liberal populism to win these voters over. Biden talked about a smattering of specific policies ― he wants to make community college free and continue his Obama-era “moonshot” to “end cancer as we know it” ― but focused more on rhetoric designed to evoke the political phrase of the moment, “the dignity of work.”
“We’ve gotten so damn sophisticated. We’ve gotten so damn elitist,” he said, before oddly choosing to specify a time period where he served as a powerful member of the Senate and as vice president: “I hate the way things have changed over the last 15 to 20 years.”
“How have we got to the place where people like you” ― Biden went on to list nearly every single conceivable union job, from plumbers to firefighters to nurses ― “how the hell did we get to place where a lot of you don’t think the rest of the country sees you, or hears you, or knows you, or maybe most importantly, respects you?”
This type of rhetoric drew multiple rounds of applause from the IBEW crowd, even as Twitter denizens were more focused on their disgust with Biden’s joke. That gap could be instructive. Last week, the Democratic centrist group Third Way released polling show a significant ideological gap between Democrats on the social media service and those who don’t use it. While non-tweeting Democrats preferred a candidate who appealed to a broad coalition versus one who moved to the left by a 57 percentage point margin, the preference was just 27 percentage points among Twitter users. On the question of abolishing ICE, voters who didn’t use Twitter opposed it by a 34 percentage point margin. Those on Twitter supported it by 3 percentage points.
Biden, who has a questionable progressive record on everything from bank regulation to criminal justice to the Iraq War, was never going to win over the far-left. But his speech on Friday seemed to make clear that despite his recent boast that he was the “most progressive” candidate in the field, he’s not actually going to try. He’s aiming at a different cohort of Democrats ― older, less ideological and perhaps more male ― than candidates like California Sen. Kamala Harris or former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke. The strategy, if it is one, is already working: A recent Quinnipiac University poll found Biden leading the crowded Democratic field with 29% of the prospective vote. The two groups he performed best with? Voters over 50, and those identifying as conservative or moderate.
There’s plenty of reason to be skeptical of Biden’s approach. Biden is counting on the Democratic Party remaining static, but earlier iterations of the party have already rejected two of his presidential bids. The party has undoubtedly moved to the left in recent years, and even if voters find his ideology acceptable, they may object to his preferred tactic of befriending and cajoling Republican politicians into cutting deals.
“Joe Biden doesn’t want to acknowledge that the winds have shifted in the Democratic Party away from compromising with the Republican Party and corporate donors and toward the grassroots progressive movement,” Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, wrote on Twitter. “It’s because ‘centrists’ like him are the last to shift with the winds.”
And the demographics Biden is counting on are shrinking. While white voters are still 56% of the Democratic Party, that’s down from 68% during the last decade. The percentage of the party with a college degree has risen from 27% to 35%. Even other unions are likely to be more skeptical of Biden. While the IBEW and other trade unions are receptive to his pitch, diverse labor groups like the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers will want to hear more about immigration rights and expect a more aggressive approach to dealing with the GOP.
Standing outside the Hilton, gabbing with reporters, Biden acknowledged his success was an open question.
“We’ll find out whether I can win in a primary,” he said.