Sunday 20 October 2019

Good-natured and favoured by Democrats, it remains to be seen if political stalwart can buck several trends

Connection: Barack Obama and Joe Biden laugh as they order ice cream at the Windmill Ice Cream Shop in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, during the campaign for their 2008 White House run. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP
Connection: Barack Obama and Joe Biden laugh as they order ice cream at the Windmill Ice Cream Shop in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, during the campaign for their 2008 White House run. Photo: Alex Brandon/AP

Comment: Robert Schmuhl

Although the next US presidential election won't occur for a year and a half, Americans are already struggling to keep up with all the campaign high-jinks and histrionics that will continue until November 3, 2020.

Candidates pinball around the country, seeking voters' support and their money. Polls appear with the regularity of the sun rising. Town hall discussions among contenders and citizens crowd broadcast airwaves.

And with Joe Biden expected to announce his candidacy, Democrats have the consistent frontrunner of almost every survey of the party's White House competitors officially in the race. The gregarious Irish American, a national name with strong appeal in several battleground states, becomes the 20th declared Democratic aspirant.

Mr Biden has a solid reputation of government service, good-ole-boy demeanour and smiling friendliness towards all, even opponents. Moreover, as Barack Obama's vice president for eight years, he met party poobahs across the country, earning electoral credit he hopes to redeem during the coming months.

In 2016, Donald Trump collected 77,744 more votes in three key states - Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin - to win the Electoral College and the White House. That trio of states had been won by Democrats for at least two decades before Hillary Clinton's defeat.

Mr Biden, who was born and spent his formative years in the blue-collar city of Scranton, Pennsylvania, enjoys an enduring connection with middle-class working people. That bond, something Ms Clinton lacked, makes Mr Biden attractive to establishment, more moderate Democrats who want the Midwest to be competitive against Mr Trump next year as he pursues a second term.

Mr Biden's time since leaving the vice-presidency in 2017 is his first break from serving in Washington since becoming a senator in 1973. After 36 years in the Senate and eight as Mr Obama's second-in-command, you might think he'd long for a less-scheduled life, possibly blissful retirement. Not Joe Biden.

A vigorous, fit 76-year-old, he'd be approaching 78 at the time of the inauguration in 2021.

At this point, according to polls, senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is a steady second to Mr Biden among the Democratic field. Mr Sanders will be 78 in September. By contrast, Mr Trump turns 73 this June.

Some commentators suggest that, based on their ages, Mr Biden and Mr Sanders should pledge to serve a single four-year term. That's ridiculous. Nobody seeking the presidency wants to be perceived as a lame duck from the first day in the Oval Office.

Mr Biden will be campaigning a third time to be America's chief executive. He launched an effort to win in 1988 and tried again 20 years later. The first venture ended before any votes were cast amid charges of plagiarism and other controversies. In 2008, he received less than 1pc in balloting at the first contest (the Iowa caucus) and dropped out.

Should Mr Biden win, he'd be the first candidate since George HW Bush in 1988 to seek the presidency more than once and triumph. Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Mr Obama and Mr Trump prevailed in their first attempts to occupy the Oval Office.

Another electoral trend that must worry Mr Biden and his advisers is the attraction of US voters in recent years to outsiders - candidates not identified with Washington - to lead the federal government.

Six of the last seven presidents, and the four since 1992, were viewed as independent of the capital, with its often criticised and suspect practices. How strong is this impulse to reject candidates with extensive national experience? Presidential contenders who have lost since 1992 include these well-known DC insiders: Elder Bush, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John Kerry, John McCain and Hillary Clinton.

For Mr Biden, 44 years of Washington involvement could well go against the grain of contemporary political preference that observers recognise in both the Democratic and Republican parties.

One other factor that could play a role in a voter's perception of Mr Biden might be his two terms as vice president. In that role, it's necessary to play second banana in the administration rather than being out front and in command. Can the public change its existing impression and see him differently? The previous three Democratic vice presidents before Mr Biden - Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale and Al Gore - sought the top job, in 1968, 1984 and 2000 respectively. All three lost.

Seeking the US presidency is likened to running a gauntlet, with blows coming from every direction for well over a year.

In Joe Biden's case, he begins his quest leading a large, growling Democratic pack, but somewhat bruised from recent complaints by several women objecting to his hands-on friendliness extending (in their opinion) beyond acceptable bounds.

From today forward, he will need to be more tenacious and less tactile if he wants to make his third try for the White House a crowning charm.

  • Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame and an adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University

Irish Independent

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