'Battle for America's soul': Biden comes out swinging at first 2020 event




 

In the inaugural speech of his third campaign for the White House, the former vice-president Joe Biden returned to his native state of Pennsylvania and implored voters to reject Donald Trump's presidency in what he framed as a "battle for America's soul".

"If I'm going to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it's going to happen here. With your help, I think we're going to be able to do that," Biden said on Monday in Pittsburgh.

"We have to choose hope over fear, unity over division and maybe, most importantly, truth over lies."

Biden marked his first public event as a 2020 candidate before a receptive crowd packed inside a ballroom at a local union hall. A line had snaked around the block in the hours preceding his speech, with a hint of nostalgia emanating from "Obama Biden" T-shirts and pins.

Received by chants of "We want Joe", Biden moved swiftly to empathize with the working-class white voters who were once a stronghold of the Democratic party but in 2016 swung in Trump's favor.

"I make no apologies. I am a union man. Period," Biden said in one of his biggest applause lines.

The venue was decidedly intimate for the high-profile candidate, who has entered the primary as the most experienced contender, drawing roughly 600 people both indoors and outside, according to an estimate from the local fire marshal.

Biden formally launched his campaign last week in a video announcement that wasted no time in teeing up the stakes for the general election.

Speaking straight to the camera, Biden delivered a searing moral rebuke of Trump's tenure in the White House while invoking the president's response to the August 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. After a white nationalist drove his car into a group of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring several others, Trump infamously claimed at the time that there were "very fine people on both sides".

"I believe history will look back on four years of this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time," Biden said in the video.

"But if we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation - who we are - and I cannot stand by and watch that happen."

Biden's fellow 2020 Democratic contenders have also warned about the implications of a second Trump term, but few have been as stark or as explicit in framing next year's election as a test of America's trajectory under the current administration.

Biden's message on Monday was more focused on the economic disparities between the wealthiest Americans and those striving on a working wage. He drew from familiar themes, recalling the lessons he learned from his working-class father while growing up in the blue-collar city of Scranton on the other side of the state.

"When I think about work, I think about dignity. I think about my dad," Biden said of his late father, who found work as a used car salesman after struggling to provide for his family during the economic downturn of the 1950s.

His tone vacillated from a soft-spoken frankness while discussing the struggles of everyday Americans, to a thunderous boom as he railed against a system tilted toward a powerful few.

"We need to reward work in this country, not just wealth," Biden said.

"America wasn't built by Wall Street," he added. "This country wasn't built by CEOs and hedge-fund managers. It was built by you."

Beyond the lofty rhetoric, Biden suggested a handful of policy proposals: he called for reversing Trump's tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, enacting the so-called "Buffett Rule" - which would apply a minimum tax rate of 30% on individuals making more than $1m - and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Biden did not, however, endorse Medicare for All, the single-payer healthcare proposal authored by the Vermont senator and 2020 hopeful Bernie Sanders, which enjoys support from several other Democratic contenders. Biden instead said all Americans should be able to buy into a public option plan for Medicare, while adding: "Healthcare is a right, not a privilege."

Biden, who is set to move on to a two-day swing through Iowa, promised to unveil more policy details in the coming weeks.

Unlike other candidates in the race, the already well-established Biden needs no introduction. At the same time, Democrats did not clear the field in anticipation of his candidacy as they did for Clinton four years ago. The former vice-president has topped the majority of early polls, facing his most formidable threat at this stage from Sanders, who maintains a reliable base of support following his unsuccessful bid for the party's nomination in 2016.

Biden cemented his own status as an early frontrunner by posting a $6.3m fundraising haul in the first 24 hours of his campaign, topping the highs set by Sanders and the former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke.

Biden's entry into the race has nonetheless been met with immediate skepticism over his progressive bona fides and lingering questions over his handling of the Anita Hill hearings in 1991. Biden oversaw the all-white, all-male Senate judiciary committee that investigated Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against the then supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Biden has expressed regret over his treatment of Hill and phoned her earlier this month in an effort to make amends. Hill said she found Biden's apology to be inadequate.

Biden addressed the issue once more in an interview on ABC's Good Morning America on Monday morning, stating he had believed Hill's allegations "from the very beginning".

"As the committee chairman, I take responsibility that she did not get treated well. I take responsibility for that," he said.

In Pittsburgh, Biden kept his attention squarely focused on his quest to current occupant of the White House.

"Donald Trump is the only president who's decided not to represent the whole country," Biden said.

"The president has his base. We need a president who works for all Americans."

While some Democrats have cautioned against making the race against Trump purely about electability, haunted by lessons of 2016, the crowd in Pittsburgh had other ideas.

Harold Schaitberger, the president of the firefighters union who introduced Biden onstage, cautioned against nominating a candidate who possessed "high-minded ideals but can't win".

"Let me shoot straight with you, and this may not be popular in parts of the Democratic party," Schaitberger flatly declared. "We can't have a nominee that is too far left. It's just that simple."

Dave Ninehouser, from Ambridge, a union town just north-west of Pittsburgh, said he believed Biden was best positioned to defeat Trump due to his ability to forge personal connections.

"People know Joe Biden - like him or not like him so much, they get him," Ninehouser said. "They get that he's a good man coming from the right place, even if he doesn't always say things perfectly or might make a mistake here and there."

"I think he'll be able to reach into folks and pull back out that personal American connection that we have to our basic core values."


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