Joe Biden Keeps Bringing Up Obama In South Carolina — And It's Working

Other Democratic presidential contenders find Biden's ties to Barack Obama tough to overcome with Black voters.

COLUMBIA, S.C.  — On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Joe Biden went to church in Barack Obama country.

Sitting in the front, Biden was a newcomer here at Bethlehem Baptist Church. But Rev. Anthony McCallum, an early endorser of Obama’s in 2007, had already called him family. On Sunday he told his congregation that he sees in Biden what he saw in Obama, to roaring cheers.

“I saw the same thing about 15 years ago, and then all of a sudden he walked into the office,” McCallum said in his sermon. “This young man by the name of Barack Obama said, ‘Yes we can.’ I’m here to say we will.”

The roads around Bethlehem Baptist Church are lined with signs promoting Obamacare. The gas station around the corner from the church is named Obama Gas, its sign emblazoned with a portrait of the 44th president. 

In his speech at the church, Biden told a story he would repeat throughout the holiday weekend: that not too long ago a Black man picked him up at the train station in Wilmington, Delaware, and took him to the steps of the Capitol in Washington to be inaugurated as the vice president of the United States. That man, of course, was Barack Obama. 

Joe Biden's strategy for winning the Democratic presidential nomination hinges in part on a convincing win in South Carolina'
Joe Biden's strategy for winning the Democratic presidential nomination hinges in part on a convincing win in South Carolina's Feb. 29 primary. Here, he campaigns at an oyster roast event on Sunday in Orangeburg, S.C.

At an oyster fry in Orangeburg, South Carolina, that same night, Biden would invoke Obama’s name 13 times in a speech that lasted just shy of 20 minutes.

As South Carolina’s Feb. 29 Democratic primary approaches ― the nomination race’s fourth contest in a state where Black voters make up the majority of the party’s base ― Biden’s lead in polls has not wavered. It’s the state that was hailed as having solidified Obama’s path to the nomination in 2008, and this year’s primary comes just days before Super Tuesday, when voters in many of the big states — including Texas and California — go to the ballot box.

Speculation in November and early December, captured in national headlines, questioned the strength of Biden’s frontrunner status in South Carolina, but the most recent survey showed him with a comfortable lead. The Fox News poll conducted in early January showed him 21 percentage points ahead of runners-up billionaire Tom Steyer, who has been investing heavily in the South Carolina primary. Close behind Steyer were Sens Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Most of the Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination marched in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally on Monday i
Most of the Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination marched in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally on Monday in Columbia, South Carolina.

Despite Biden’s strength at the grassroots level among Black voters, groups that represent Black activists and other minorities haven’t lined up behind him. The Florida-based racial justice group Dream Defenders endorsed Sanders, as did Center for Popular Democracy Action, a network of progressive community organizers looking to mobilize Black and Latinx voters. The Center for Urban and Racial Equity gave Biden an “F” rating on its 2020 scorecard, saying the most of Biden’s plans “do not explicitly mention race or racial inequity.”  

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) who ended her presidential campaign in December, took an early shot at Biden’s record on race, attacking the former vice president on his stance on integrated busing in the 1970s. But Biden appeared to have weathered that attack. 

In South Carolina, Black voters don’t need to be pressed hard to say what draws them to Biden. It’s Obama. 

“He’s close to Obama and he believes in the same traditional things Obama believed in and that’s my number one priority,” said Jermaine Edwards, 36, of Orangeburg.

Another Orangeburg resident, Mary Hampton, 58, said that she can “trust” Biden for standing strong with Obama. 

“I am half-Black and President Obama was half-Black and I know when I see a Black person and a white person who can genuinely get along with one another,” she said.

To be sure, such attitudes aren’t persuasive for everyone.

“I’m not going to vote for him because he and Barack are friends,” said Phyllis Pelzer, 53, of Orangeburg. “A lot of Black people see Biden as a good guy because he was Obama’s guy, but I don’t care nothing about that. All of em’ got some Black friends somewhere. You can’t win because you have a Black friend.”

Don Polite, 28, of Columbia, said he was supporting Warren after seeing her policy team emphasize Black women. Early in the campaign, several Black activist communities praised Warren’s plans for addressing racial inequality head-on.

Still, Biden’s ability to cite the first Black president as his close personal friend poses perhaps the biggest challenge to the other candidates in South Carolina. To make inroads in the state, Biden’s competitors have to effectively pull the former vice president away from Obama. On paper, it’s not difficult to make that point by noting Biden’s long record in government  — one that was far more conservative than Obama’s on issues like criminal justice reform, health care and national security. 

As vice president, Biden was reportedly reluctant to pursue Obamacare. As a senator, he played a key role in writing and passing policies, such as harsh penalties for drug possession, that led to today’s criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes minorities. And he backed the Iraq War, while Obama’s opposition to the invasion was a key issue that propelled him ahead of Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. 

The other campaigns know what they are up against.  

What we have found is not that people are so crazy about Joe Biden. It’s that they really love President Obama. Shaun King, a civil rights activist and surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

“I have met with people whose first position is that they support Joe Biden but when I asked them kindly, warmly, please share with me some policies of his that you support ...they don’t know,” said Shaun King, a civil rights activist and surrogate for Sanders’ campaign.

King, along with Sanders campaign co-chair and former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and activist Philip Agnew, spent this past weekend going to barbershops and universities to rally Black voters for Sanders. 

“What we have found is not that people are so crazy about Joe Biden. It’s that they really love President Obama,” King said.

Overcoming this reality has proven difficult. Hampton offers a perfect example. She works in the health insurance industry, and health care is her biggest priority. Her policy preferences more resemble Sanders and Warren’s vision of a government-run health insurance system than Biden’s proposal to expand a public option within a private system.

“I think the government should pay the doctors instead of putting that money in an insurance company,” she said.

But, she’s “99%” committed to Biden. 

Scott Huffmon, a pollster with Winthrop University in South Carolina, emphasizes the importance of “trust” among Black voters in South Carolina. 

“What someone promises to do doesn’t mean a whole lot,” Huffmon said. “Now primary voters tend to be more educated on the issues, and more passionate, but a lot of voters do retrospective voting. In the past they judged Obama as good, and that’s who they trusted and Biden is linked to him.” 

Some polling shows younger Black voters have been more receptive to the policy message from candidates. A Washington Post/Ipsos poll in early January showed Biden polling at 48% with Black voters and Sanders second with 20% support, driven primarily by supporters under the age of 35. But even that poses its own electoral hurdle; in 2008, a year known for its focus on young voters, voters under the age of 29 made up just 14% of the electorate in the South Carolina Democratic primary.

At Bethlehem Baptist Church, and later at the oyster fry in Orangeburg, Biden’s remarks only touched on one policy issue: criminal justice reform. Notably, his platform is an attempt to backtrack his legacy on the issue. He said he would end mandatory minimum sentencing, and expunge criminal records stemming from marijuana convictions.

It was enough to pique the interest of Pelzer, the voter unswayed by the Biden-Obama connection.

“I’m going home to do my research,” she said after Biden spoke.