Joe Biden says he has "the most progressive record" of any Democrat running, or mulling a run, in 2020. But many progressive activists disagree.
As the former vice president inches closer to a third White House run, several moments in his long career loom as immediate political liabilities. From his vote for the Iraq war to his key role in passing a bill that made it harder for debt-ridden Americans to declare bankruptcy, Biden would have to reconcile his past with a party that's moved to the left.
Biden leads many early polls, but his handling of those issues will determine whether that support fades in a primary fight. He is aware of his critics, using a speech last week before friendly Delaware Democrats to declare himself a progressive while also describing some of his detractors as "the new left" and defending his record. But several progressive activists are urging him to do more to address doubts about his progressive credentials by owning up to past missteps and developing a forward-looking agenda that recognizes the Democratic base's center of gravity has shifted.
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"For him to actually own the label of progressive, he needs to acknowledge and reconcile that prior harm — not just in words, but by putting forth a policy agenda that's really rooted in challenging white supremacy and economic exploitation," said Jennifer Epps-Addison, co-executive director of the activist group Center for Popular Democracy.
As for Biden deeming his record progressive, she warned that "simply labeling yourself something doesn't make it true."
Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the activist group Indivisible, described Biden's progressive self-definition as "a confusing comment" given the number of other prominent liberals in the Democratic primary.
"He's going to need to reconcile his record on policy with where he is now and what kind of policies he's proposing as a presidential contender," Greenberg said, adding that "if he's trying to understand what animates the new left. I'd recommend that he talk to grassroots leaders on the ground."
A Biden spokesman declined to comment.
The 76-year-old Democrat has expressed some regrets for past actions. He was contrite in January about supporting a 1994 crime bill whose stiffer sentences fell disproportionately on minority offenders, telling an audience that the bill's harsher punishment was "a big mistake" that has "trapped an entire generation." He has called his vote to support the Iraq War "a mistake."
And Biden is known for pushing the rest of his party leftward on some key issues. He backed same-sex marriage in 2012 before Barack Obama did, effectively nudging the then-president into his corner on what was a politically volatile issue. He was also a lead architect of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 and later used his perch as Obama's vice president to advocate for sexual assault victims, particularly on college campuses.
Sen. Chris Coons, who holds the Delaware seat Biden occupied and is a close ally, said he read Biden's "most progressive" comment as a way of championing the Obama administration's accomplishments on health care, climate change and other fronts.
"On the core issues progressives claim to care about most, Joe Biden actually has a record of leadership," Coons said in an interview. "Anybody can give a great speech on a college campus, but actually getting things done. That's something worth talking about and running on."
But progressives say he'll have more atoning to do, should he enter the 2020 race.
Karine Jean-Pierre, a senior adviser at MoveOn.org who worked with Biden during her time in Obama's administration, predicted "there are things he's going to have to answer to."
"Sometimes you're so popular, and then you jump into an election, and then you become less popular," she said. "He could avoid that by just going head-on and dealing with it from the get-go."
Even as Biden leads most early polls of the sprawling Democratic field, those surveys can't gauge how much of his advantage stems from voters' favorable views of his role as Obama's vice president — and whether that wellspring of goodwill would fade if Biden enters the presidential race to criticism from liberals.
Activists looking to push the party toward a progressive agenda aren't prepared to give Biden a pass based on Obama-era successes.
"You can only go so long on the coattails of a former president, no matter how well-liked a former president is," said Charles Chamberlain, chair of the progressive group Democracy for America.
Biden's advisers have talked for weeks about the prospect of assuaging concerns regarding his age and ideology by tapping a younger running mate early in the primary, before the Democratic nomination is secured. Those discussions, which have not coalesced into any firm decision, at one point focused on former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas and have shifted to former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who met with Biden in Washington last week.
Allying with Abrams could bear fruit in bolstering Biden's relationships with progressives, but she's also being heavily courted by Democratic elders to challenge Republican Sen. David Perdue of Georgia in 2020 and has yet to rule out a presidential bid herself.
"There is an important dynamic to having your name considered as part of the national conversation because someone like me is not often on that list," Abrams, a 45-year-old African-American woman, said last week at a conference in Washington.
Even if Biden adds younger, more left-leaning energy to his prospective ticket, some activists won't be deterred from scrutinizing elements of his past. In addition to his votes on bankruptcy, the crime bill and the Iraq War, Biden is likely to face further questions about his treatment of Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his recently resurfaced 1970s remarks against the use of busing to diversify schools in his home state.
"I don't think his choice of running mate will matter that much," said Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid, whose group worked to elect Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and other rising young liberal candidates in 2018. "Biden can't trick progressives who are at the center of energy in the Democratic Party right now into rebranding himself into someone he's not."