Joe Biden excoriated President Donald Trump as America’s “divider-in-chief” in a speech Saturday afternoon in Philadelphia, presenting himself as an antidote to the country’s searing political conflict as he staged the largest rally yet of his presidential campaign.
“If the American people want a president to add to our division, to lead with a clenched fist, closed hand, a hard heart, to demonize your opponents and spew hatred – they don’t need me. They’ve got President Donald Trump,” Biden said, standing on a platform in sun-bathed Eakins Oval. "Folks, I am running to offer our country – Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – a different path.”
Embracing a more moderate tone than many of his Democratic rivals, Biden doubled-down on his pledges to work with Republicans, even while noting that that sentiment has drawn criticism from the left.
“I know how to go toe-to-toe with the GOP, but it doesn’t have to be and it can’t be that way on every issue,” he said.
And two days before Trump comes to Pennsylvania for a rally of his own, Biden sought to counter what might be the president’s strongest reelection argument, the bright economic picture. Biden said it was he and former President Barack Obama who rescued the country from a recession and handed Trump a healthy, growing economy.
“It was given to him, just like he’s inherited everything else in his life,” Biden said. “And just like everything else he’s been given in his life, he’s in the process of squandering that as well.”
Biden’s speech before a crowd of several thousand, with City Hall looming in the distance, capped a three-week opening campaign swing that has seen him expand his lead over the rest of the crowded Democratic field, establishing him as the early front-runner in national polls and in a Pennsylvania survey released this week.
While many of his competitors have spent months introducing themselves or making policy prescriptions, the former vice president, already nearly universally known, has worked to establish himself as the Democrat with the stature to beat Trump, whom he has painted as an existential threat to the country’s character.
Pennsylvania’s Republican chairman, Val DiGiorgio, said that as Biden campaigns, voters, especially those in the Keystone State, will see that the former vice president offers no “meaningful success and no real vision for the future.”
National Republicans pointed to Pennsylvania’s record low unemployment rate as they argued that the president has delivered for the state. Trump’s rally is planned for Monday near Williamsport.
While he has surged in polls, Biden has yet to lay out detailed policy plans, and on Saturday touched only lightly on some of the issues driving Democratic voters. On health care, for example, he offered support for allowing people to buy into Medicare. He called for “a clean energy revolution” to combat climate change, but then immediately pivoted back to electability, arguing no progress is possible if Trump wins a second term.
“The first and most important plan in my climate proposal is beat Trump,” Biden said.
His campaign has said more detailed proposals are coming now that he has completed his initial campaign sprint.
Biden’s speech, the last part of his rollout, focused on a unifying message as he cited Philadelphia’s role in the country’s founding. The Scranton-born Biden will base his campaign in Center City, and has focused much of his early energy on showing he can win back Pennsylvania, which both parties see as one of the most critical swing states.
Americans, Biden said, are “sick” of division and “childish behavior” from their leaders.
“I know how to make government work ... not because I’ve talked or tweeted about it, because I’ve done it," he said.
Event staff said 6,000 people attended, citing an estimate from the security company hired by the Biden campaign.
In the crowd was a wide range of views on Biden and what he offers.
Mackenzie Halter, 26, and Erica DePalma, 25, each wished that Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) had put their energies into supporting younger, female candidates — though each said they would support the former vice president if he wins the primary.
“I don’t want to pick a candidate just because I know they can win a state,” Halter said. DePalma worried that Biden is “coasting, without putting novel ideas into the mix.”
At the same time, Halter said she wanted a nominee willing to stake out middle ground positions that could salve some of the deep divisions in the country.
“Even though I want universal health care, we’re not there yet,” said Halter, who argued that incremental steps are more realistic now.
Rusat Ramgopal, on the other hand, was so firmly behind Biden that after flying home from London to New York Friday night, he took a Greyhound bus to Philadelphia Saturday morning to see the former vice president.
“If the Democrats are going to win, Joe Biden is the person,” Ramgopal said. “People that like politics like Biden, and people who don’t like politics like Biden.”
Ramgopal, an 18-year-old student at the University of London, saw Biden as the candidate who could resurrect an earlier era in politics and “return to what we have lost.”
But Biden’s age cut against him, too. While Cathie Harty, 72, believed Biden could go toe-to-toe with Trump, she added, “I’m a little concerned about his age, because I think it’s time for youth.”
Harty was undecided in the primary. So was Maurice Rouse, 34, who said he would have certainly supported Biden had he run in 2016, but now was intrigued by a number of candidates, including Sanders and Sens. Kamala Harris, of California, and Cory Booker, of New Jersey.
“I like his toughness, his grit,” Rouse said, but he still wanted to hear more from the former vice president.
Democratic allies pointed to early polls to argue that Biden’s more moderate message gives them the best chance to win, especially in key swing states.
“There is a broader hunger across the country in the base of the Democratic Party for someone who can beat Trump by unifying the country and laying out a positive message and vision that they actually have the experience to be able to deliver,” said Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.), a Biden supporter.