Joe Biden uses his campaign kickoff to argue Americans want unity

Democratic presidential frontrunner Joe Biden officially kicked off his 2020 campaign with a Saturday rally in Pennsylvania, birthplace of both himself and the Declaration of Independence, and home to his campaign headquarters.

The former vice president used the speech to push his “unity” theme, hitting directly back at those who criticize his desire to reach across the aisle, as well as highlighting his links to Barack Obama.

Many have argued that Biden’s desire to return to consensus politics is naive, including Lee Drutman here at Vox, who explained why Biden’s “epiphany” theory — that Republicans will have an epiphany about the power of bipartisanship once Trump is gone and start working with Democrats again — is misguided. As Drutman argued:

The problem with Biden’s theory is that Republicans’ hostility to Democrats did not begin with Donald Trump (see, the Obama administration).

Today, as in 2012, the partisan hostility is highly transferable. It is based neither in opposition to one president nor loyalty to another. It is based in the underlying zero-sum electoral logic that defines the American two-party system and the winner-take-all elections that make the two-party system possible.

Others on the left oppose the idea of consensus politics on ideological grounds, arguing that there is no “middle ground” when it comes to existential threats like climate change.

At his kickoff, Biden appeared to speak directly to his critics. “Some say Democrats don’t want to hear about unity. That they are angry, and the angrier you are, the better,” he said. “That’s what they are saying you have to do to win the Democratic nomination. Well, I don’t believe it. I believe Democrats want to unify this nation.”

He went on to contrast his consensus-based style of politics with Trump’s leadership style, labelling the president the “divider-in-chief,” and also — implicitly — lumped his Democratic opponents in with Trump.

“If the American people want a president to add to our division, to lead with a clenched fist, closed hand and a hard heart, to demonize the opponents and spew hatred — they don’t need me. They already have a president who does just that. I am running to offer our country — Democrats, Republicans and independents — a different path.”

In highlighting his years of experience in Congress and in the White House, Biden said, “I know how to make government work. Not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, but because I’ve done it.” Pivoting again to his consensus theme, he continued, “Our principles must never be compromised, but comprise itself is not a dirty word.”

The former vice president also pressed his links to Obama, something he has done since the early days of his campaign. At the rally, Biden said he “watched up [Obama] close,” claiming — somewhat absurdly considering his audience — that people don’t talk often enough about how great the 44th president is.

Biden attempted to specifically address his critics on climate change, with some supporters concerned he has underestimated its electoral importance. Reports that Biden is working on a climate change plan that tries to find a “middle ground” on the issue were met with disdain from Democrats for whom the climate has become a central issue, like New York’s Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other presidential hopefuls, like Bernie Sanders, who said bluntly, “There is no ‘middle ground’ when it comes to climate policy.”

“There’s not much time left, we need a green climate energy revolution and we need it now,” Biden said Saturday with some attempt at passion, before focusing back in on his unity pitch. “Let’s stop fighting and start fixing, because we can only do it together.”

The former vice president failed, however, to unveil any concrete “fixing” policies — his campaign has promised that detailed policies are forthcoming.