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17 Jun 2019 10:32
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  •   Home > News > International

    Joe Biden firms as the Democrats' top hope to remove Donald Trump from the White House

    Joe Biden felt like old news when he announced plans to contest the US presidency but he has emerged as one of the freshest faces in a crowded field, writes Micheline Maynard.

    Former American vice president Joe Biden waited so long to enter the Democratic race that some people forgot he might become a candidate.

    But now that Australia has finished with its own national election, it's time to look again at US politics: Mr Biden's campaign is now far from forgettable.

    As soon as he posted his video announcement to YouTube last month, pundits began dismissing his chances.

    He was too old (76 now, and nearly 78 by Election Day in 2020). He had too much baggage, from his handling of the Supreme Court nomination of controversial Justice Clarence Thomas while head of the US Senate Judiciary Committee, to his overly affectionate treatment of women, to his insistence on praising some Republicans.

    He had already served his time — 36 years in the Senate, eight years as vice president alongside Barack Obama.

    Biden morphs from old news to fresh face

    The consensus, at the starting gate, was that Mr Biden was old news.

    Instead, in less than a month, he has become the freshest face in the crowded race.

    A survey conducted by Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll showed him with a 30 point lead over independent Vermont US Senator Bernie Sanders, who is running again as a Democrat.

    Of course, some observers dismissed Mr Biden's performance as simply a bounce, or the favourable reaction among voters when a new name enters the race.

    Yet, Mr Biden's mere presence in the race prompted a flurry of insulting tweets from President Donald Trump, a sure sign that the Republican was rattled.

    Mr Trump has left no doubt who he sees as the likely front runner, repeatedly tweeting about Mr Biden. He's also given him a nickname, a regular practice for the US president when it comes to those he disdains.

    But pundits like attorney Laurence Tribe say the Democratic field is full of attractive candidates and no one should call the race so far before the election.

    The endorsements keep coming

    The President was angry that the International Association of Fire Fighters gave Mr Biden his first significant union endorsement — never mind that Mr Biden has repeatedly courted union members for decades.

    Mr Biden's base came to bat for him with their chequebooks, too. On his first day of campaigning, the former vice president collected $6.3 million.

    And, Politico reported that Mr Biden planned to open all his big-money fundraising events to the media.

    He's already had one in Philadelphia, and planned a private one at a donor's home in South Carolina, a state that looms large on the primary election schedule.

    Journalists love access, and it's often the case that the more access they get to a candidate, the more favourable the coverage, or at least the more voluminous.

    But access alone is not going to be enough to guarantee a Biden nomination.

    In a crowded field, Biden must find a way to stand out

    First, he has to make a case that will help him break away from a field crowded with candidates from all ages and backgrounds.

    That was a reason why Mr Biden may have been initially dismissed. He seemed too gaffe-prone, too politically incorrect in an era of #MeToo, and simply not as cool as Pete Buttigieg, the gay intellectual mayor of South Bend, Indiana, or as savvy as Kamala Harris, the black California senator.

    But, as Mr Biden has sparred with Mr Trump, and drawn enthusiastic support, it's become clear that he may have a valuable asset: the guts to take on the president.

    To be sure, Mr Sanders doesn't shy away, either, from confronting Mr Trump, while other candidates have called for impeachment hearings.

    Richard W Painter, a University of Minnesota professor who served as an ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, presented the situation as clearly as I've seen it summed up.

    He added that the poll numbers made it clear why Mr Trump and his associates would lambast Mr Biden, so early in the race.

    Grass roots appeal

    Yet, it's not just money or grit that makes Mr Biden a force. It's the voters to whom he appeals.

    As with the fire fighters, Biden has always seemed comfortable with Americans who work old-school jobs for a living.

    That could be a key factor if Mr Biden is to win back states that went for Mr Trump in 2016, specifically Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.

    All those states have both self-made business owners and union members who gravitated to Mr Trump in 2016. And Mr Biden seems like the kind of candidate who can literally roll up his sleeves, as he often does at appearances, and talk directly to them.

    This is, after all, a man who rode America's often unreliable train network between Wilmington, Delaware, the largest city in his state, and Washington DC.

    Those years riding Amtrak made Mr Biden seem approachable — and he also got the opportunity to approach his constituents and others and ask what was on their minds.

    Mr Biden, nicknamed Uncle Joe, seems like a more-successful version of the town council member in someone's home city, who would take time to meet with a constituent for coffee or show up at a school performance.

    And Mr Biden doesn't have to win these states big in order to take their valuable electoral college votes, which are the ultimate key to victory.

    In 2016, Hillary Clinton won more votes that Mr Trump nationwide, but she failed to win the electoral college votes of states like Pennsylvania, Mr Biden's home state, the three Midwest states and Florida.

    That is where Mr Biden's campaign is likely to concentrate. And all are places where his down-to-earth approach will resonate.

    There's an authenticity to Mr Biden that seems purely unscripted, and sometimes backfires on him.

    His willingness to be cordial about long-time Republican colleagues harkens back to a bipartisan era where lawmakers would criticise each other on the Senate floor, then go for drinks after.

    That isn't sitting well with everyone at a time when the United States is so divided. "I know I get criticised by the new left" of the Democratic party, he said at a dinner before he announced plans to run.

    Some Democrats also were nervous that Biden appeared to have the support of the late Republican Sen John McCain's widow, Cindy, and his daughter, Meghan, who appears on the American talk show, The View.

    Mrs McCain quickly dismissed the prospect of actively backing Mr Biden in a Tweet.

    A difficult reputation among women

    There is still "the women problem" which is not yet going away.

    Anita Hill, now a college professor, accused Justice Thomas of sexual harassment during the hearings on his nomination.

    Many feminists, including the incoming mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, feel that Professor Hill was given short shrift for her allegations.

    Although Mr Biden called Professor Hill recently to try to make amends, she believes he needs to do much more.

    Mr Biden's wife, Jill, also a college professor, has done her best to deflect the lingering resentment: "It's time to move on," she said in an interview on NPR.

    That may be hard to do in an era when cable television, conservative commentators and social media can keep issues going for days, weeks and months.

    Still, Mr Biden may be America's best chance to bring back a much-missed political time, where Democrats and Republicans don't simply espouse public disdain, but actually work together on common causes.

    That will be a sharp contrast to the way Mr Trump has governed. And that could be Mr Biden's greatest advantage in the race.

    Micheline Maynard is an American author and journalist.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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