Biden, emerging from basement, declares ‘If we can’t unite America … democracy is dead’

Do the presumptive Democratic nominee's supporters like him, or do they just hate Donald Trump? Biden says it's the same thing, since he's the anti-Trump.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the William Hicks Anderson Community Center, on July 28, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden delivers a speech at the William Hicks Anderson Community Center, on July 28, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. –Mark Makela/Getty Images

Joe Biden was asked by a reporter Tuesday a question that has been hovering over the campaign: Do his supporters actually like him and what he stands for — or do they just hate President Donald Trump?

He answered, essentially, that it’s the same thing, since he’s the anti-Trump. “Many Americans — those who don’t like me and those who do — view me as the antithesis of Trump, and I believe that I am,” Biden said. He added, “People know me. They know me warts and all.”

Biden had traveled the short distance from his home to a community center in Wilmington, Del., for a rare event in this strangest of campaigns — an in-person speech, followed by actual questions from real reporters standing in the same room.

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Amid any number of online campaign events and virtual fundraisers, Zoom meetings and digital gatherings, Biden appeared in a local gym, as he might in a normal campaign. Perhaps in part for that reason, he turned the session into a rumination on why he’s running, what kind of president he would be and the bizarreness of the current moment.

He defended his decision to appear so often from his own house. “All this stuff about hiding in the basement? Well, over 340 million people have watched what we’ve done like this on television,” Biden said. “That’s as big as the American population. So I’m learning that the way people are viewing the news and absorbing the news these days is totally different than it was before.”

And he responded in personal terms to the attacks levied by the Trump team, suggesting he’s paying close attention to what’s being said about him during the campaign. He seemed especially bemused by campaign ads suggesting the country would erupt in violence under a Biden presidency, as the forces of chaos and anarchy overwhelmed tottering police forces.

“You see some of the ads — you see cities burning, ‘Call 911,’ and they have my picture in the background, and ‘If it’s a rape, dial one, and if it’s anything else, it could take seven days’ — I mean, come on,” said Biden, who has rejected protesters’ calls to defund police departments. “That is all about trying to come up with a bizarre law-and-order 2020 campaign to try to scare the devil out of the American people.”

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The moment was striking in part because Trump and his supporters have spent months portraying Biden, 77, as confused and even senile. They are gambling that under the hot lights of the presidential debates, the former vice president will wilt and stumble, exposed as someone who has deteriorated to the point that he cannot handle the presidency.

But Tuesday’s talk suggested that while Biden may not be as eloquent as Barack Obama, his former boss, he can speak cogently about the purpose behind his candidacy and the goals of a Biden presidency. And he did so at a time when Trump has on occasion struggled to articulate what he hopes to accomplish in a second term.

Many Democrats believe that this turbulent moment calls for a more inspiring candidate than the former vice president, and they have not been shy about saying so. Biden’s comments Tuesday were in part a response to those Democrats, admitting that his strengths “aren’t always the most relevant qualities needed in a president” but arguing that in this case they are in fact exactly what’s needed.

His long experience in foreign affairs is critical, he said, at a time when Trump has destroyed U.S. relations with the world, noting that he knows many foreign leaders personally.

“Those who don’t like me respect me, and those who do like me respect me,” Biden said. “I know how to get things done internationally. It doesn’t mean I can solve every problem, but I understand national security and intelligence issues.”

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Equally crucial, Biden said, is his ability to unify political adversaries. He acknowledged that he has been criticized — “understandably,” he said — for being naive on that score, for not grasping that this is a far more bitterly polarized country than when he started in the Senate in the 1970s.

“It’s going to be a lot harder. Things have changed — a lot harder,” Biden said. “But depending on the outcome of the election, in terms of the Senate and House races, it could become very much within reach.”

He added: “I don’t expect anybody to voluntarily agree to be the second edition of “Profiles in Courage.” I try to recognize the limits of where they can go and still find a principled compromise.”

The 2020 campaign is undoubtedly unfolding in a way no one foresaw. As the country buckles under the coronavirus outbreak and an economic meltdown, badly damaging Trump’s poll numbers, his campaign has taken on a belligerent, almost dystopian tone, suggesting that Biden would destroy the suburbs, unleash anarchy and court socialism.

At other times, Trump supporters — and the president — suggest Biden would be merely a “Trojan horse” for a radical running mate and the leftists who, they say, truly run his party, from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

So Biden has tried to redirect attention to his opponent’s outrageous statements and unconventional actions. He was at pains Tuesday to defend himself simultaneously against the accusations that he is a wild-eyed socialist and an insufficiently transformational figure.

It’s precisely his conventional qualities, he suggested, that would enable him to push through a far-reaching agenda.

If so, he added, “I’m going to go down as one of the most progressive presidents in American history. But none of the things I’m talking about are inconsistent with a free market, not inconsistent with capitalism.” In an apparent reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt, he added, “It’s like the old thing: It took a capitalist to save capitalism.”

And he sought to project a voice of reason, decrying Trump’s actions like his march across Lafayette Square through protesters and flanked by officers, to hold up a Bible beside a church.

“That wasn’t about being able to walk across and hold up the Bible,” Biden said. “It was about dividing the country, preying on it. When you have a president who, on almost the same day the State of Mississippi takes the Confederate flag off of their flag, and he’s defending the Confederate flag . . . This is about division, this is about trying to split the country.”

Drawn-out ruminations are rare amid the frenzy of a campaign. But for all its ferocity, the 2020 contest, ironically, is somewhat slow-paced, with a lack of candidate travel and an absence of rallies and similar events. Remarkably, the campaign is arguably the fourth-most urgent news story of the moment — after the pandemic, the racial justice protests and the economic collapse.

On Tuesday, that seemed to open up for Biden a small space for reflection.

“The thing I got most criticized for, and understandably, was I said we have to unite America,” Biden said. “And they said, ‘That’s just a pipe dream. We used to be able to do that, Joe, but everything’s changed.’ Well, if we can’t unite America, we’re gone. We’re dead. Democracy is dead.”

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