PITTSBURGH—Joe Biden wants to be the front-runner, but he still wants to come off as scrappy.
He wants all the attention from being a former vice president and from leading primary polls, but all the credit for beating expectations and raising more money in his first 24 hours than the records set by a socialist senator from Vermont and a former congressman who couldn’t win statewide. He wants the attention that led the national media to descend here on Monday afternoon, but maybe doesn’t want them pointing out that the crowd he drew skewed older, scattered with people who sat on the floor to rest during breaks in the program.
He wants people to be impressed that the room at the teamsters’ hall was packed, but not linger on the campaign picking a room that could fit only about 600 (with 100 of those spots taken by reporters). After all, he was never going to be able to compete with the 6,500-person crowd that Bernie Sanders drew three weeks ago to a park a few blocks away on a Sunday afternoon.
The crowd that showed up, though, was just who Biden wanted: full of people who know who the firefighters’ union president is, Harold Schaitberger, and who would cheer loudly as Schaitberger built up the former vice president as the Cincinnatus out of Wilmington, running for the job he’s always wanted, but this time out of dignified obligation. “We want Joe,” Schaitberger said. “We need Joe more than Joe needs to be president. This country needs Joe.”
Then, after another 20 minutes of waiting and more introductions, Biden came out. He has this move he often does when he walks out onstage: As the people applaud, he steps back and puts his arms out like he’s surprised by the reception. He did it on Monday. Then he walked to the podium, looked out at the room—the crowd was given campaign signs and American flags—and smiled. Locked in. Whether the beginning of an upstart or field-clearing campaign, this was it.
The speech included lines Biden says nearly every time he opens his mouth: People in Washington used to call him “Middle-Class Joe,” he said, and they didn’t mean that as a compliment; his father always told him that a job is about more than a paycheck. Some parts represented the shiny memories of Barack Obama, whom he’s been using as both a shield and a weapon—from coming out onstage to the former president’s 2012 campaign theme song, “We Take Care of Our Own” by Bruce Springsteen, to leaning hard into a defense of the Affordable Care Act. There were also some updates for 2019, such as taking an old Obama proposal for free community college (which was championed by the second lady and community-college professor Jill Biden) and explaining that he was going to pay for it by closing a specific loophole in the capital-gains tax that allows rich families to pass on massive wealth.
Biden wants voters to think that he’s earned the White House, but also that he’s working to earn it; to see him as the most electable right out of the gate, but also to give him time to build his campaign into something competitive. No one before Biden has ever run for president in three different decades, but then again, there’s no precedent for much of anything in the 2020 race. There’s never been a primary field this big, and there’s never been an incumbent whom Democrats have seen as such an existential threat to who they are and what the country’s future will look like.
“People should lower their expectations,” said a Biden friend who talked to him last week and requested anonymity because they didn’t want to speak publicly about conversations with the candidate. Biden hadn’t quite made it official then, and though he was upbeat and confident, he was also already chafing at being held to a Hillary Clinton–level standard, the friend said. Biden’s reasoning was that she’d been preparing to run for years by the time she got in the 2016 race, and he’d only gotten fully serious in the past few weeks.
Jennifer Palmieri, who was a senior adviser to Clinton’s campaign and worked with Biden as one of Obama’s White House communications directors, isn’t buying the idea that Biden can back away from being a front-runner. “I understand not wanting to be held to a higher standard than other candidates, but that is a curse of a front-runner, particularly when experience is your calling card. Particularly when you’re running against Donald Trump,” Palmieri told me. “No matter how much experience you have, voters expect you’ve thought about why you’re doing this and that you’ve thought it through.”
Some reporters whisper to one another that they’re sure he’s going to fail—that’s the way this story line is supposed to go, they figure. Opposing campaigns feed that doubt: the wobbly front-runner, the gaffe machine who’ll inevitably destroy himself through an endless series of Twitter-ready moments, who won’t be able to help himself, who’ll show his age, who’ll put his foot in his mouth.
In the meantime, Biden’s campaign pitch is akin to the pivotal scene in Good Will Hunting, when Robin Williams tells Matt Damon over and over that the bad things that have happened to him aren’t his fault. Put another way, he’s like the superheroes in the new Avengers movie, insisting they can go back in time, beat the one-of-a-kind bad guy, and bring back all that he made disappear.
“How did we get here? Why did it happen? What are we going to do about it?” Biden asked the crowd toward the beginning of his speech. He gave an answer toward the end: “The only thing that can tear America apart is America itself.”
Biden is slowly easing himself into the race. His Iowa trip this week will be just four events over two days. Then he’ll do swings through South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Nevada, building up to a big rally in Philadelphia on May 18. He’s hired big-name campaign staff, and his announcement video, with scenes of neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, successfully managed to bait the president. Still, he fumbled through a key part of his launch, refusing to apologize to Anita Hill or to directly take responsibility for his actions during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings. That is, until his third try, in an interview recorded for Good Morning America just before he came out onstage.
Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, one of the first people to endorse Biden last week, told me the former vice president wanted to take his time before launching his third bid for the presidency. “He was very deliberative because he knew that the stakes were high and he’d have to have a good team in place, and he’d have to have a campaign that was befitting the moment—a 2020 presidential campaign, not one from years ago,” Casey said. Yet even as he assured me that Biden could win—and wanted to win—Casey, like others, pushed back on calling Biden a front-runner, as if he were superstitious about saying the word. “Depends on what you mean by that. Sometimes the front-runner this early is purely a function of name ID,” he said.
Other candidates spent most of last year reaching out and getting to know potential staffers, investing early to lock them in and begin the long and almost absurdly microcosmic work that goes into winning the Iowa caucuses and the early primaries. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and, to a lesser extent, Kamala Harris are months into building operations for an extended primary fight that some Democrats think could even lead into a contested convention next summer. Biden doesn’t have that yet, but “he’ll have a good campaign by February of next year,” said Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor and a vocal Biden supporter. “By the time that it matters, he’ll be fine.”
There’s a lot of campaign to go before February, though. And none of Biden’s opponents are going to wait that long to take him on.