On Jan. 12, 2017, a very moving and apparently unexpected tribute from President Barack Obama for Vice President Joe Biden played out live before television cameras, when he awarded his former rival-turned running mate-turned trusted adviser and friend the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Much of the country was still reeling from Trump’s win, and millions would be stunned just eight days later by the bizarre conjuring of “American carnage" in a gloomy, divisive inaugural address.
During those dark days, that genuine moment between two of the most powerful men in the world was a bittersweet reminder of how a certain kind of empathetic humanity was leaving the White House for at least four years (it was hard to imagine Trump ever doing something as selfless for Mike Pence, for instance). In his remarks, Obama laid out many of the attributes and accomplishments that have long endeared the vice president to voters (he enjoyed a 61 percent approval rating at the time) but also may have resonated with African-American voters in particular.
“My family is so proud to call ourselves honorary Bidens,” Obama said. Biden, and perhaps some viewers at home, were moved to tears. After all, this was quite an arc for someone who had once dismissed the first black president as “clean and articulate.” He was now “Uncle Joe”—beloved star of memes but also, a white man from an earlier generation who nevertheless always had Obama’s back.
Now, with Obama’s blessing if not his formal endorsement, Biden has sought the presidency himself for the third time in 30 years, and this time, he’s enjoying a solid and in some cases growing lead over a historically huge field of Democratic contenders. The backbone of his support comes from the most reliable and one of the most coveted Democratic primary voting blocs: African-Americans.
Most of the cable news commentary has approached this fact with the condescending assertion that Biden’s black support is mostly due to name recognition and his proximity to Obama. Some have suggested that older black voters, who are traditionally more moderate, may be attracted to his centrism.
But these hot takes overlook something less tangible and quantifiable: how much the sincere, integrated friendship of Biden and Obama (and their families) was cathartic and inspirational. It was the personification of the post-racial utopia some hoped Obama’s election victories would deliver but never did, and probably never could.
Their platonic bromance provided comfort during the confounding period when Obama’s popularity seemed to grow simultaneously with the rise and improbable election of a man who championed a racist campaign to discredit him.
It helped that Biden never undermined Obama. He cheered him on (“big fucking deal”) or nudged him in the right direction (it took his same sex marriage gaffe to push the president to get on the right side of history faster than he was planning to) but he was deferential in all the right ways to the first black president. It is sometimes overlooked that Biden was chosen as Obama’s VP to provide the young senator with an imprimatur of seasoned foreign policy gravitas (a.k.a. white maleness), but few pundits anticipated how beneficial that relationship would ultimately be for Biden.
Right now, he’s enjoying something of a honeymoon period—with the press and even the current president treating him like the inevitable nominee—even though there hasn’t been a single debate and there won’t be a single vote cast in the primary contest this year.
And there is still plenty of time and reasons for African-Americans to turn on him. If Hillary Clinton’s record became a turnoff for some black voters, try Biden’s on for size: he crafted the draconian 1994 crime bill—which only exacerbated a mass incarceration crisis, voted for the Iraq War, railroaded Anita Hill, opposed busing in the 1970s, has spoken affectionately about arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond—the list goes on and on.
For many African-Americans, his history is discouraging at best, disqualifying at worst.
And then there are the eight years of Obama, which for better or worse, Biden has totally attached himself to. In many ways this Democratic primary process will be a referendum on the Obama years—did they go too far to the left or not far enough?
Sure, Obama enjoys near universal popularity with Democratic voters and African-Americans, but his actual presidency inspires more ambiguous feelings, and Biden may not be the best person to champion it.
Biden is and was far more a creature of the D.C. swamp than Obama ever was, and so far, his 2020 candidacy hasn’t had the same bold, inspirational flavor Obama’s did. One could argue that the theme of his campaign to date has been “Make Republicans Great Again,” romanticizing an era that was superficially more congenial, but arguably only because there was far less daylight between the parties.
The state of the racial divide (as well as fights over everything from reproductive rights to gun control and climate change) has laid bare just how huge the gulf between the left and the right truly is. Meanwhile, after decades of being taken for granted, black voters have become more vocal about asserting their power and are seeking tangible policies that address their specific needs.
There’s a reason why reparations is a legitimate campaign topic this cycle for the first time ever and why “rising tide will lift all boats” rhetoric will likely not fly this time around.
Younger black progressives in particular have shown a willingness to reassess sacred center-left cows like JFK, LBJ, Clinton and now Obama, too. And while the Bidens and the Obamas will always provide a pretty picture together, there will need to be real, substantive policy meat on Biden’s pitch to seal the deal.
These voters will have multiple viable African-American candidates to choose from—Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and potentially Stacey Abrams (whom Biden’s team has already presumptuously floated as a potential VP) —which is more than ever before—and they don’t have the racial baggage he has.
On the other hand, his weaknesses are papered over to some degree by Trump’s excesses. You think Biden’s racially insensitive? Look at Trump. You think he’s inappropriate physically with women? Look at Trump. Sure, the 76-year-old Biden is behind the times, but look at Trump.
And black voters have historically been pragmatic—they recognize the deficit Democrats have with the kind of rural and working class white voters that Biden is directly appealing to, and there is a widespread (if untested) sense that Biden may be the best positioned to win those people back.
Of course, there is a danger that in his efforts to appeal to disaffected white voters, Biden will alienate the black voters whose enthusiasm and support he desperately needs. Bernie Sanders remains a cautionary tale for any Democrat seeking the nomination without strong black support.
And even with near universal black support, Hillary Clinton stands as a cautionary tale for what happens when that allegiance isn’t particularly enthusiastic. Her narrow loss in 2016 can be directly linked to diminished (and suppressed) African-American turnout in a handful of key states.
It’s unclear if Biden has learned the lessons of Clinton’s unexpected defeat. He has branded himself an “Obama Democrat,” but Hillary Clinton ran as close to the 44th president as she could but still couldn't get over the Electoral College finish line. There’s the stubborn reality that neither of these people and in fact none of the current candidates running actually is Barack Obama.
So the burden is now on Biden (and the 24 other candidates competing for the chance to defeat Trump next November) to listen to black voters, to learn from black voters and hopefully deliver for them if they ever get the chance. If Biden or any Democrat manages to make good on what they pledge to their African-American supporters, it could solidify the party’s strength for a new generation. And that really would be a “big fucking deal.”