Standing before a gathering of Democrats in his home state of Delaware last month, Joe Biden struck a defiant tone in the face of questions over his liberal credentials.
“I’m told I get criticized by the ‘new left’,” Biden told the crowd. “I have the most progressive record of anybody running.”
The moment drew instant headlines for what appeared to be a slip of the tongue: Biden, who had yet to enter the 2020 presidential race at the time, all but confirmed his third bid for America’s highest office.
But lost in the frenzy of speculation over Biden’s plans was his dismissal of the Democratic party’s leftward turn – which he plans to challenge amid a packed field.
But as most contenders swing left on key policies, Biden has billed himself as a proud “Obama-Biden Democrat” – in a sign he has no intention of distancing himself from his two terms in the White House.
Biden will instead position himself as a pragmatic progressive, armed with decades of public service of which consensus-building has been a hallmark.
“I think there’s a sense that under Trump, the country has lost a tremendous amount of ground,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who served as a chief economist to Biden from 2009 to 2011.
“Say what you will about the Obama-Biden years, but this was a highly functional, thoughtful administration. And I think part of the case for Biden is that there is a significant chunk of the electorate that has fond memories of that level of functionality.”
Other Democrats in the race are calling for far more than a return to normal.
Say what you will about the Obama-Biden years, but this was a highly functional, thoughtful administrationJared Bernstein
Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the clear frontrunner so far, has built his campaign around advancing the political revolution that just fell short in earning him the Democratic nomination four years ago.
Biden and Sanders have held the top two slots in the overwhelming majority of early polls. They are also almost certain to go head-to-head in seeking to regain the support of working-class voters who swung away from Democrats in 2016 and helped propel Trump to the White House.
Biden’s appeal is rooted in his own working-class background and reputation as a reliable legislator who was often dispatched by Obama to cut deals with recalcitrant Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Sanders, by contrast, has once again pitched his candidacy in upending the establishment while pushing for sweeping reforms that include the single-payer healthcare proposal Medicare for All and breaking up big banks.
“Bernie is a guy who’s overtly attempting to lead a revolution in American politics that is percolating support from the grassroots to change many of the fundamental policies in the country,” said Tad Devine, who worked as the chief strategist for Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign.
“Biden is going to stand up and say: ‘I can heal the wounds of this country, I can bring people together again, and I understand how this country can work again.’”
Devine, who is not a part of Sanders’ 2020 campaign, said he did not expect the two men to spend their time sparring with one another when the ultimate goal was to remove Trump from the White House.
He said: “There’s been a lot of shadowboxing and positioning, but it’s different when you’re actually running.”
Even so, Biden has voiced frustration with the “progressive” label.
Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images
“The definition of ‘progressive’ now seems to be changing,” he said earlier this month. “That is, ‘Are you a socialist? Well, that’s a real progressive.’”
Biden has said he was never labeled a “moderate” in the past and touted the Obama administration’s record on advancing LGBTQ rights, negotiating the Paris climate accord and passing the landmark Affordable Care Act.
Bernstein said: “Every Democrat up there is pointing in the same direction: universal coverage, some form of job subsidy or guarantee, better access to college and childcare. I don’t think there’s going to be much disagreement on the goals. I think the different agendas will be how fast you can get there and with what level of disruption.”
Biden’s path to the nomination will not, however, be without its obstacles.
Four women came forward in recent weeks to allege that their physical encounters with Biden made them uncomfortable. None of the women accused Biden of sexual assault or harassment, but they said he had violated their personal space by getting too close to them.
Biden confronted the allegations in a video, and vowed to be “much more mindful” of his interactions with women.
“Social norms have begun to change,” he said.
The controversy did not appear to have a significant effect on Biden’s standing in the polls, where he has fallen slightly in some surveys but remains firmly in the top tier of candidates.
Several of his fellow 2020 contenders said Biden should answer for his behavior, but they stopped short of suggesting his conduct was disqualifying.
Questions, nonetheless, linger over whether Biden is best positioned to represent an increasingly diverse and liberal Democratic electorate.
His domestic and foreign policy record has come under renewed scrutiny: a series of articles have reexamined Biden’s positions, from civil rights and gun laws to the Iraq war and abortion.
“Joe Biden is the Hillary Clinton of 2020,” one headline read.
Biden has also had to grapple with his legacy as the Senate judiciary committee chairman who investigated allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, one of the supreme court’s conservative justices, during Thomas’s confirmation process in the early 1990s.
The interrogation of Clarences’ accuser, Anita Hill, by an all-white, all-male panel later became a symbol of a lack of diversity in the US Congress. Biden has since lamented his role in the way Hill was treated, saying: “She faced a committee that didn’t fully understand what the hell this was all about. To this day, I regret I couldn’t give her the kind of hearing she deserved.”
But even as Biden’s political baggage remains a focus in some progressive circles, he continues to top the 2020 field – nationally and in key battleground states.
A survey published on Wednesday found that he leads Trump by eight percentage points in a hypothetical matchup. Biden’s edge over Trump was particularly large among women (17 points), millennials (22 points) and independents (10 points), according to the poll.
Biden has repeatedly shown over the past two years that he is not afraid to hold back in his criticism of Trump, stating earlier this month that the president “opposes every day the core values of our nation”.
“If he’s going to have fire, I think he’s going to aim it in Trump’s direction,” Devine said of Biden.
“The one thing that unites Democrats more than anything else is the desire to beat Trump.”