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.
Joe Biden: ‘We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation’
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.