WASHINGTON — After months of near-total confinement, former vice president Joe Biden swapped out the crowded bookshelves of his Wilmington, Del., basement for the stained-glass windows of a nearby Black church last week, as he made the first of a series of public appearances aimed at acknowledging the pain and anger driving protests over the murder of George Floyd.
“Faith sees best in the dark,” Biden said, after quietly listening for an hour to the faith and community leaders in Wilmington share their anguish over Floyd’s death and the challenges they face in improving the lives of Black people.
“It’s been pretty dark,” Biden added. “It’s been real dark.”
That darkness is providing an opportunity for Biden, who launched his campaign more than a year ago citing the disturbing images from Charlottesville, Va., and President Trump’s refusal to clearly repudiate the white supremacist violence there in 2017. Since becoming the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee just as the coronavirus pandemic escalated in early March, the 77-year-old Biden abided by Delaware’s stay-at-home order in a decision that worried some Democrats because it ceded the political spotlight to Trump.
But faced with another moment of moral urgency on racism as the nation reopens, Biden moved to reinsert himself into the public eye by addressing the crisis head-on last week.
Biden convened a digital meeting of mayors to tackle sources of the unrest, gave a speech at Philadelphia City Hall calling for action to address racism, and asked all Americans to feel the weight of the Floyd family’s burden. On Tuesday, Biden is expected to attend Floyd’s funeral in Houston, according to the family’s attorney, though Biden’s campaign would not confirm that plan.
The contrast with Trump was stark. Hours after Biden, on Monday, spoke with Black leaders in Wilmington about racism, Trump emerged from the White House to urge police to “dominate” protesters, as law enforcement used tear gas and batons to forcefully disperse peaceful demonstrators across the street. Trump, under heavy guard, then walked to a nearby church that had been damaged in the protests with an all-white group of aides to take photos with a Bible.
And while Trump had mocked Biden’s basement campaigning for weeks, it was the president who became the target of scorn for briefly retreating to the White House’s bunker as protests raged outside his front door one night.
Those close to Biden believe this crisis has put him in a position of strength after weeks of keeping a low profile, given that he launched his campaign talking about the need to “restore” the soul of the nation and end racism and hate.
“I think if Joe Biden wins the election by a significant amount, four or five points, the winning will probably have its springboard to these last 10 days,” said Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania who supports Biden.
Biden’s polling lead over Trump began widening in recent weeks as the coronavirus took more than 100,000 lives and wreaked havoc on the economy. Biden led by 11 points nationally in a recent Monmouth survey, and Fox News polls showed him ahead of Trump in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Arizona, threatening the electoral path that sent Trump to the White House in 2016.
But the protests have also underscored the chasm between Biden’s incrementalist and pragmatic governing vision and the calls for drastic, wholesale changes to the system embraced by demonstrators, and could heighten tensions between him and younger progressives. Biden has faced pressure to explain his own role, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in passing the 1994 crime bill that contributed to the exploding prison population in the country.
“I think he has a real opportunity in this moment because there’s such a vacuum for leadership in the country,” said LaTosha Brown, the cofounder of Black Votes Matter, who praised Biden for clearly acknowledging racism last week. “I still think we need to hear sweeping reform from him of all the damage that is caused by the crime bill. We just can’t step over it.”
Biden, for whom channeling grief comes naturally due to the tragic losses of two children and his first wife, adopted a slightly bolder tone and offered calls for real change last week alongside his public mourning. He acknowledged “systemic” problems that were more often pointed out by his liberal rivals during the Democratic primaries. He called for a federal ban on police chokeholds, the creation of a federal police oversight board, and told the Philadelphia Tribune that he wanted reforms to the qualified immunity standard that protects police from excessive force lawsuits.
“I can’t breathe,” Biden said in his Philadelphia speech, quoting Floyd’s last words and noting they are similar to those of another Black man, Eric Garner, who was killed by a New York City police officer six years ago. “It’s time to listen to these words. Understand them. And respond to them — with real action.”
Some activists are still skeptical that Biden will meet the moment, as many of the protesters flooding dozens of cities are demanding budget cuts to police departments and a transformation of policing. Biden told a group of donors during the primaries that nothing would “fundamentally change” if he were elected president, and has at times been defensive when pushed on his more moderate stance or legislative history by voters or in interviews. After being pressed on his role in the crime bill, he told a radio host and Black listeners that “you ain’t black” if they vote for Trump over him.
“His attempts to course-correct really don’t go far enough,” said Jennifer Epps Addison, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, which endorsed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the Democratic race. “The criminal justice movement has gone beyond reform. The primary demand right now is to defund the police and radically reimagine public safety in this country based on real transformation.”
Although it’s unlikely that Biden would embrace the potentially politically risky idea of cutting police funding, Epps Addison would like to see him adopt policies such as ending cash bail and legalizing marijuana, both of which disproportionately affect Black people.
A police oversight committee, which Biden pledged to form in his first 100 days, did not impress her.
“We’re almost two decades from the uprisings that occurred after the beating of Rodney King and we are still proposing commissions as solutions to deeply entrenched structural problems that are widely recognized,” Epps Addison said.
Some of the Black leaders who met with Biden on Monday gently pushed him to reckon more openly with his own past support of tough-on-crime policies, which were widely supported by both parties 30 years ago, and how he has evolved on criminal justice.
“They want to know how do you plan to undo the impact of the mass incarceration and the things that have resulted from that particular crime bill,” the Rev. Shanika Perry, the youth pastor of Wilmington’s Bethel AME Church, told Biden. She said it was tough to be a surrogate for him to young people who had “great issues” with that.
“The people in this room, we love you, that’s why I’ve got my Joe pin,” said state Senator Darius Brown of Delaware. “But we’re here not only to love you, but to push you.”
Brown, the Black Votes Matter cofounder, said Biden could set an example for others by explaining his own evolution on criminal justice and embracing more radical solutions.
“If he truly wants to be someone that redeems the soul of America, then what better way than for a white male of a certain generation to be a demonstration of that transformation before our very eyes?” she asked.
Biden publicly reckoned with the idea that the election of Barack Obama did not fix the issues of hate or racism in the country, a nod to the systemic changes necessary to fix the problem. “I thought we had made enormous progress when we elected an African-American president; I thought things had really changed,” he said in a digital discussion with young Black people on Thursday. “I thought you could defeat hate, you could kill hate. But the point is, you can’t. Hate only hides, and if you breathe any oxygen into that hate, it comes alive again.”
In recent weeks, he has also acknowledged the need for a more ambitious policy response across the board as coronavirus upended American society, putting millions out of work and killing more than 100,000 Americans. He has quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and framed the moment as a transitional period when great change is possible.
“The history of this nation teaches us that it’s in some of our darkest moments of despair that we’ve made some of our greatest progress,” Biden said on Tuesday.
Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, a cochairwoman of Biden’s campaign, said that Biden, like many Americans, has been influenced by watching the effects of coronavirus, which magnified inequities in society that he already knew existed.
“It requires bold action and comprehensive action,” she said. “And I think that’s what he is speaking to. This is not a time for tinkering around the edges.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the family members lost by Biden. He lost two children and his first wife.