Joe Biden finally drops other shoe — on President Trump

Jules witcover

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden in announcing his candidacy for president yesterday took dead aim at Donald Trump, declaring “we are in the battle for the soul of this nation.”

Citing the president’s observation on the violent 2017 demonstration in Charlottesville, Va., by “alt-right” activists that there were “some very fine people on both sides,” Biden cast Trump as a defender of white supremacy and made clear he intends to sell himself as the Democrats’ best vehicle to defeat him in 2020.

“In that moment,” Biden said in a novel video launch of his campaign, “I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had seen in our lifetime. The core values of the nation, our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America America, is at stake.”

At this point, the former vice president clings to a narrow lead in most polls over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and a flock of other Democratic hopefuls posting single digits, including a surprising newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind.

Biden plans to visit Pittsburgh Monday, followed by key Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, where Trump secured decisive electoral votes in 2016 while losing the national popular vote. That focus could be central to Biden’s 2020 prospects.

Despite his residual support in the early polls, Biden’s campaign begins under a cloud of two previous presidential defeats and the question of whether his age and old-school liberalism are now out of step with growing progressivism in the party.

He insists he is the most progressive candidate in the field, while focusing on reviving the party’s identity as champion of the American working stiff. He stands with one foot planted on each plot of ideological turf, while being a tough political in-fighter for all his celebrated conviviality, ready and able to take on the bombastic Trump.

From the outset, much speculation about Biden has focused on his age; if elected, he’d take office at age 79, which would make him the oldest American president. Sanders is a year older, and looks it, but his age hasn’t been treated as a handicap for him.

A prominent strategist and aide to Democratic and Republican presidents, David Gergen, has suggested that Biden might be wise to declare that if elected he will serve only a single term. He would commit himself to applying his wide experience of 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president as a calming and unifying influence in the wake of the chaotic first Donald Trump term, and then step aside. But others note that such a gesture would only make Biden, if elected, a premature lame duck president.

If he has any clearly discernable advantage over the other contenders on issues, it is his wide and personal connections and experience with the major world players and controversies in foreign policy. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a globe-trotter, and then as vice president, he was Obama’s point man coping with the most difficult world crises.

This experience uniquely prepares him to debate his Democratic opponents in a series of scheduled televised events in June, sponsored by the Democratic National Committee. By the same token, Biden will be a target based on a mixed record of successes and stumbles.

Still, he brings to the challenge the same indomitable spirit and feistiness that has convinced many Democratic loyalists that he could be the country’s most able challenger, by experience and temperament, to end the Donald Trump era.

The president has already amply demonstrated his willingness to go toe to toe with Biden, who once said he’d like to meet Trump “behind the gym.” To which Donald replied that he’d “love it.” But much more is at stake than which of these two septuagenarians (neither of whom walks softly) carries the bigger stick.

If Joe Biden as a strong voice in the Democratic conversation can somehow contribute to what should be a bipartisan effort to return normality back to American politics, his decision to run will have been the right one, whether he wins the presidency or not.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.