Joe Biden, holding the first large-scale rally of his 2020 presidential campaign, Saturday issued a broad call for national unity, denounced President Trump as the “divider in chief” and plunged into a challenging new phase of competition with his Democratic rivals.
A career politician who came to Washington in a less polarized era, Biden promised to work across the partisan aisle — defying skeptics within his own party who worry that Biden’s old-school style is outdated and not confrontational enough to defeat Trump.
“They say Democrats are so angry — that the angrier a candidate can be, the better chance he or she has to win the Democratic nomination,” Biden told the sun-drenched crowd in Philadelphia. “Well, I don’t believe it. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.”
Citing his record of 36 years in the Senate and eight as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden said, “Compromise is not a dirty word…Let’s stop fighting and start fixing.”
The rally, staged in front of the Philadelphia Art Museum with the downtown skyline as a backdrop, drew a crowd of 6,000, according to estimates by event security officials. That is the biggest audience Biden has drawn so far, but did not match the door-busting crowds that attended kick off rallies by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California, which numbered more than 10,000.
For nearly the entirety of Biden’s speech, a protester blew a whistle, but Biden brushed it off with good humor and repeated his promise to not speak ill of his Democratic rivals.
The Philadelphia rally capped a three-week introductory phase of the Biden campaign that began with an announcement video and a series of smaller events in Iowa and other early-voting states.
The roll out has surpassed the expectations of supporters and rivals alike, who were unsure how a 76-year-old white man would be received by a Democratic Party that seemed to be yearning for diversity and a fresh face.
But since his announcement, Biden has sprinted to a big lead in the polls, flexed his fundraising muscle to set a first-day record, and made his inaugural campaign visits in Iowa and other early-voting states with uncharacteristic, gaffe-free discipline. He has kept his focus on Trump, ignored the 22 other Democrats who are his primary rivals, and talked about policy mostly at a high level of generality.
The next phase will be more politically risky, as he will begin rolling out more detailed policies on subjects expected to include climate change and healthcare. And the first debates among Democratic candidates loom at the end of June. Biden will be forced to drop his above-the-fray approach to engage his rivals more directly.
His selection of Philadelphia — also the site of his campaign headquarters — signifies the importance of Pennsylvania in Biden’s strategy and message to Democratic primary voters. Biden was born in Scranton to a blue-collar family and represented the neighboring state of Delaware in the U.S. Senate.
Biden argues he is the best equipped among the 23 Democratic declared candidates to beat Trump and win back the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Trump, who is holding a rally Monday in Pennsylvania, also sees the state as pivotal to his reelection chances and views Biden as a the biggest threat among the Democratic candidates.
The rally drew both enthusiastic Biden supporters and people who were still trying to decide whom to support in 2020. Biden’s challenge will be to draw in people such as Lauren Greenberg, an 18-year-old from the Philadelphia suburbs, who likes Biden for his connection with the Obama administration, but wishes a woman would be nominated and would prefer it if his policies were more progressive.
“I want to see someone who represents me in office,” said Greenberg. “But I will support any Democrat against Trump.”
As he moves into a phase of offering a more specific agenda, Biden will be walking a tightrope between offering policies that are liberal enough to satisfy the party’s base without going so far that it tarnishes his brand as a center-left Democrat who can appeal to swing voters. The challenge he faces became clear recently when reports surfaced that he was preparing a “middle of the road” policy on climate change. He was pummeled with criticism from the left. His campaign insisted the reports were inaccurate. He plans to give a major speech on the issue before the end of May.
In his rally speech, he made clear that his pitch to Democratic primary voters would be not on specific policies but on his ability to beat Trump.
“As long as Donald Trump is in the White House none of these things are going to get done,” he said.
In expressing his optimism about building bridges to Republicans, Biden struck a note that has brought some criticism from progressives who believe he is too trusting of a party that labored to obstruct all the Obama administration tried to do even before Trump came on the scene.
But his message appealed to swing voters such as Mike Ehrgott, an accountant from the Philadelphia suburbs who attended the rally.
“He’s not confrontational. He’s willing to work with people of all parties,” said Ehrgott, a former Republican who switched parties after Trump won the GOP nomination in 2016. “We can’t run this country from the far right or the far left.”