Some presidential campaigns take time to hit their stride while others hit the ground running. But Joe Biden appears to be hobbling even before he reaches the starting blocks.
The past week has delivered a barrage of damaging news reports that might persuade the former vice president, long agonising over whether to make a third bid for the White House, to keep procrastinating a little while longer.
Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman, wrote an essay for the Cut in which she recalled a 2014 encounter in which Biden touched her shoulders, leaned in to smell her hair and kissed the back of her head. In a subsequent interview on CNN, Flores said such behavior should be “disqualifying” for a presidential candidate.
On Monday, a second woman came forward. Amy Lappos, a Democratic aide, told the Associated Press (AP) that she was at a fundraiser in Hartford, Connecticut, in 2009 when Biden “wrapped both his hands around my face and pulled me in. I thought, ‘Oh, God, he’s going to kiss me.’ Instead, he rubbed noses with me.” She described him as “absolutely disrespectful of my personal boundaries”.
This setback followed a backlash last week after the Axios website reported that some of Biden’s advisers were considering linking his campaign announcement with a promise to select Stacey Abrams, a rising star who unsuccessfully ran for Georgia governor last year, as his running mate. Critics found this patronising towards an African American woman who might run for president herself. Abrams responded: “You don’t run for second place.”
Meanwhile, Biden made his latest attempt to express regret for how the Senate judiciary committee, which he chaired at the time, handled Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against supreme court nominee Clarence Thomas. At the Biden Courage Awards in New York, he said: “To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get her the kind of hearing she deserved.” Some found the comments inadequate and called on Biden to apologise to Hill directly.
And conservative media refocused attention on past reports about his son Hunter Biden’s links to a Ukrainian oligarch and natural gas company in 2014. It has all been a brutal reminder that this 76-year-old white male centrist, though performing strongly in early polls, can take nothing for granted in a party where the energy is with women, minorities and young progressives. The 2020 election will not be fought in his comfort zone.
Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, said: “Twenty to forty-year-olds don’t know any of his history; they only know him as Barack Obama’s vice-president. So when they hear these things, it is completely out of context. That’s the challenge for Biden. He’s explaining himself to an electorate that doesn’t really know him.
“When he says he’s willing to consider Stacey Abrams as VP, women of colour and women in general are offended because they don’t assume she has to be number two. It’s a generational obstacle for Biden because the good stuff he’s done is unknown and the bad stuff he’s done is on video.”
Schiller added: “To young people, Joe Biden is an old white guy who now, it appears, views women as less than equal and feels able to treat them inappropriately. It’s a sign of the times. He is running up against two generations of Democratic activists who regard him as a relic of the past.”
Perpetually hands-on and whispering-in-ears, Biden describes himself as a “tactile politician”. Video of him touching women has previously been dubbed “the audacity of grope” by Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. A moment of reckoning was inevitable in the era of the MeToo era movement. But few predicted it would come before Biden’s even launched his candidacy.
Coby Owens, chief executive of Youth Caucus of America, said: “He’s always been very touchy feely. Every person has a different perspective on where the line is and what he did might have crossed it. We should respect Lucy Flores’s experiences. It’s something he needs to come out and address and apologise for if he made her uncomfortable.”
Owens, a civil rights activist, is based in Biden’s home state of Delaware. “I don’t think this will turn people off in Delaware but, nationally, people are looking towards other candidates,” he said. “In my inner circle, I know people have started talking about Beto O’Rourke or even John Hickenlooper.”
Biden has been forced into damage control mode. After Flores spoke out, he responded that he has never intentionally behaved inappropriately during his many years in public life. “If it is suggested I did so, I will listen respectfully,” he said. “We have arrived at an important time when women feel they can and should relate their experiences, and men should pay attention. And I will.”
There was a chorus of support including Susan Rice, a former national security adviser, Meghan McCain, daughter of the late senator John McCain, and Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, who told the AP: “I don’t think that this disqualifies him from running for president, not at all.”
Indeed, despite the rocky build-up, it would be premature to write Biden off. He has name recognition, that long association with Obama, vast foreign policy experience, numerous friends in the Democratic establishment and a perceived appeal to blue collar workers who deserted the party for Donald Trump in key Midwest states in 2016.
Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “This is a marathon, not a sprint, and there’s a lot of time. If Biden is able to lock down 20 to 25% of the electorate, it’s going to be very hard for any other candidates to catch him as the field is so widely spread.”
An example of the ex-vice president’s likely support base came at a recent firefighters’ convention where he was greeted by chants of, “Run Joe, run!” Speaking to the Guardian early last week, Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said: “He has the voice – a voice that connects to the working class… and that the current president was able to steal away from the Democratic party.”
Additional reporting by Lauren Gambino.